While most politicians portray themselves as actors on a grand stage, others try harder to convince us that they are no better than we are, of middling station and modest self-regard. Republicans, always conscious of their party's white-shoe past and continued advocacy for the most fortunate, work particularly hard to communicate their folksy ordinariness. Some do it more convincingly than others, but all know it's a key ingredient of political success.
Like anything, though, the act can be taken too far. Which brings us to the brightest star in the GOP firmament, former Alaska governor and current public relations colossus Sarah Palin. More than anyone else in politics, Palin is tethered firmly to the ground by her constant accumulation of petty grievances. In this habit, you can see the quality her fans love most about her -- she's just like them! Ask her who she is, and she'll tell you whom she's mad at.
As Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi recently noted, "Complaining about the assholes we interact with on a daily basis is the #1 eternal pastime of the human race," and Palin seems obsessed with this topic. She can't stop talking about those she feels have done her wrong, whether it's cynical campaign aides, derisive bloggers, or that nogoodnik kid who knocked up her daughter. As Levi Johnston told CBS News, "It's almost funny, that she's like, 46 years old, and she's battling a 19-year-old, and I'm winning."
But it isn't just the people in her life. From the moment she was plucked from her windswept obscurity and thrust onto every television screen in the nation, Palin has spent her time needling those she doesn't much care for -- city dwellers, those with an insufficient affection for firearms, liberals in general, and of course, the media. As she continues her whirlwind book tour -- feted on Oprah, interviewed on one Fox program after another, given the Barbara Walters soft-focus treatment -- Palin makes sure to complain about the media at every stop.
But as we all know, if you spend too much time perseverating on what a jerk that guy at the office is or how much you can't stand your next-door neighbor, you end up losing part of yourself to the obsession. This is a particular danger in politics, where we all define ourselves at least in part by our enemies. All politics is tribal, and it's important to know what, and whom, you're against. But take it too far, and what you stand for begins to shrink toward nothingness.
This is a bipartisan occupational hazard. I'll admit that I spent eight years, and hundreds of thousands of printed words, decrying the myriad misdeeds of the Bush administration (few things are more inspiring to an opinion writer than being really pissed off). There are entire organizations in Washington devoted to explaining why their political opponents are doing awful things. This is often a valuable endeavor -- if no one is talking about what's going wrong, things are unlikely to get better. But when the complaints take on a Chicken Little feel, they can become awfully tiresome. I get a daily e-mail missive from the Heritage Foundation -- recent topics have included "The Impending Obama Borrow and Spend Disaster," "The Cap and Trade Threat to Our National Security," "Big Labor Is Bankrupting Our Country," and "The Obama Czar State Is About to Kill the Economy." This is from the right's premier think tank, where the GOP's "ideas" are supposed to come from.
There's nothing new about defining yourself by your enemies in politics -- not just by the leaders of the opposing party but by the kind of person who might support it. Ronald Reagan, for instance, ascended to the governorship of California in 1966 largely on his enthusiastically displayed contempt for Berkeley hippies. He liked to say, "For those of you who don't know what a hippie is, he's a fellow who has hair like Tarzan, who walks like Jane, and who smells like Cheetah." But by the time he ran successfully for the White House, Reagan leavened his still-vigorous scorn for various groups of Americans with a more positive vision of the country he wanted to create.
Amid all the cries of "socialism!" and "fascism!", Republicans could be losing the chance to reimagine the country -- some conception of what they want to do and who they are, other than "not what Obama is doing" and "not those rotten liberals." Part of it is the nature of being in the minority: If there is an administration working every day to execute policies you think are wrongheaded, ineffective, or completely disastrous, those policies will occupy much of the attention you pay to politics.
But when all you are is mad and resentful, your worldview becomes as pinched as Sarah Palin's. She might consider taking a cue from our current president, who has been the target of a collection of bigotry, unhinged conspiracy theories, and pure hatred that few presidents could match. Though Obama might take issue with the substance of some complaints, he never sounds like he's whining, and he doesn't define himself through those he can't stand.
There's a lesson there, one that Republicans would be wise to heed. Complaining about your dastardly persecutors can win you the nods of those who already love you and hate your enemies. But it can only get you so far, and one place it almost certainly can't get you is to the White House.