Do you remember that old joke about conservatives being liberals who'd been mugged by reality? Well, it was funny largely because it was true. Conservatives fancy themselves as hard-nosed realists. Unlike fluffy-headed liberals, who spend their days dreaming of a perfect world, conservatives are suspicious of utopian schemes. They know quite well that life is hard, and they disdain few things more than whiners and complainers. That's why more than a handful of conservative critics -- from Michael Medved to Rush Limbaugh -- have condemned what they call America's destructive culture of victimhood.
But if conservatives hate victimhood so much, why then does the Republican Party encourage its base to feel so aggrieved, especially at the hands of those snotty "elites"? Whether it's complaining about lipstick on a pig or bashing Washington insiders, the media and those oh-so-condescending Hollywood celebrities, Republicans have turned their own kind of victimhood into a political art form.
In fairness, Republicans didn't invent victim politics, nor do they have the franchise on it. But the form they engage in is particularly troublesome, not least because so many conservatives seem not to even realize they're up to their eyebrows in a game they claim to despise.
When Americans go on the attack against elites, historically we think of economic populism, the kind of class warfare pushed by the left wing. This is about money, inequality and an agenda to redistribute wealth. Liberal activists rail against robber barons and corporate fat cats. Conservative populism leverages social rather than economic cleavages. The agenda is mobilizing resentful masses that get a vicarious go at thumbing their noses at anyone they feel looks down on them. The enemies list is made up of professors, public intellectuals and entertainers, not captains of industry. And without any real redress in mind, conservative populism is all about emotion and personal grievance, not righting any particular social or economic wrong. You'd think the rise of conservative media, eight years of a conservative administration and a conservative-leaning Supreme Court would have undermined the GOP's victim strategy -- they are in power, which is one way to define "elite."
Indeed, in 2003, conservative writer Brian C. Anderson argued that with technology's help, the conservative media have broken what he called "the left's near monopoly over institutions of opinion and information." Cable TV, the Internet and the emergence of conservative book publishing, he wrote in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, "have injected conservative ideas right into the heart of the debate. Though commentators have noted each of these changes separately, they haven't sufficiently grasped how, taken together, they add up to a revolution: No longer can the left keep conservative views out of the mainstream. ... Everything has changed."
But everything hasn't changed. Conservatives still behave like a battered minority. Romesh Ponnuru was a voice in the conservative wilderness Wednesday when he argued in a National Review blog that the GOP's response to Barack Obama's lipstick-on-a-pig comment is making Republicans look like "whiny grievance-mongers."
That's too bad, because it undermines the conservative critique of the politics of victimization, which is not a bad one. When they aren't practicing victimhood, conservatives argue that it weakens moral accountability and therefore personal responsibility. To identify yourself as a perpetual victim, they would say, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy that can undermine an individual's or a group's ability to improve their lot over time.
Of course, in this critique, those playing the victim card are always liberals or their fellow travelers. Just this June, Dennis Prager wrote that the "entire liberal-left [worldview] is predicated on portraying every group in America except white, male, heterosexual Christians as oppressed. Women are oppressed by men. Blacks and Hispanics are oppressed by whites. Gays are oppressed by straights. Non-Christians are oppressed by Christians."
He must have been surprised when, at the GOP convention, his own champions, Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani, flagrantly predicated their positions on the same kind of oppression, this time of Sam's Club, Main Street Republicans by those nasty "elites."
But who really cares about fairness and consistent thinking when politics are in play? Like the minority activist groups that conservatives abhor, the Republicans know very well that crying out against a foe is one sure way to rally the troops. And it works particularly well when your side is in political or ideological disarray. If you can't inspire your base with a coherent vision of the future, then you might as well unify it with the promise to stand up against the boogeyman.
In the end, conservatives are right, we have become a nation of victims, but surely it's getting more difficult for them to blame it all on the liberals.