Over the last eight years, many conservatives, particularly the radio and television hosts who enjoy such loud and lucrative megaphones, have been forced to navigate some difficult rhetorical waters. When your side controls the White House, the Congress (as it did until two years ago), the judiciary, and the business world, how do you argue that you're part of an oppressed group being held down by The Man? It isn't easy, but they did it nonetheless. The "elite" they bellowed at day after day is not those who actually hold power. It's obscure college professors, Hollywood actors, the city council of a town you don't live in, and nonprofit organizations who advocate for things like poor people or the environment or civil liberties. That's the source of your problems, they would say, and that's who you should be mad at.
So the coming transfer of power must make them feel light as air. Now when they begin their daily pity party, they'll actually be able to complain about the people in charge.
And complain they will -- oh, will they ever. There was a time when conservatives saw themselves as the masters of the universe, remaking the world as they would have it. But by now, claims of victimization have woven themselves so tightly into their identity that they barely know how to engage the political world without claiming to be oppressed.
Take this head-scratcher: In the last couple of weeks, conservatives have become positively obsessed with a supposed Democratic plot to reinstitute the Fairness Doctrine in order to silence right-wing talk radio (eliminated in 1987, the doctrine mandated ideological balance on radio and television).
The conservative magazine Human Events, for instance, sent out a solicitation last week from conservative radio talker Michael Reagan, with the following soft-sell message: "The radical liberals will do everything in their power to SHUT US DOWN, along with every other conservative voice in America. And they're already telling the world exactly how they're going to do it:THE "FAIRNESS DOCTRINE." We MUST take action to STOP them NOW, before they are able to mobilize support for this insidious attempt to SILENCE CONSERVATIVES!" Rest assured, the underlining, bolding, and all caps are in the original. The e-mail also featured a picture of Rush Limbaugh with a Soviet flag photoshopped over his mouth, with the caption, "Stalin Style Socialist Doctrine to Silence Rush Limbaugh and Conservatives."
So brave, this Limbaugh and his lieutenants. Warning of the impending crackdown from the brutal hand of the state makes you seem like a daring rebel, broadcasting your missives from an encampment deep in the forest while the terrified populace huddles around their forbidden radios to hear your message of truth. Si, Subcomandante Rush, don't give up your fight for freedom and justice! Across the land, lonely villagers sing folk songs of your courage!
The only problem is that the plot is completely imaginary -- Barack Obama has gone on record opposing a reinstatement of the doctrine, and the congressional leadership has zero interest in the idea. As Matthew Yglesias wrote last week, "Political movements mischaracterize the other side's general goals all the time. But I've never heard of anything like the current conservative mania for blocking a particular legislative provision that nobody is trying to enact."
Meanwhile, gun stores can't keep enough arms on the shelves, as desperate Second Amendment heroes build their stockpiles in anticipation of the disarming of America. They are egged on by the likes of G. Gordon Liddy, who despite being a convicted felon and unrepentant terrorist (among his unconsummated plots were the murder of columnist Jack Anderson and the firebombing of the Brookings Institution) is blessed with a nationally syndicated radio show. Liddy, who during the Clinton years told his listeners, "If the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms comes to disarm you, and they are bearing arms, resist them with arms. Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests," Today, he advises his faithful flock to break whatever laws on gun registration that might apply to them. "The first thing you do is, no matter what law they pass, do not -- repeat, not -- ever register any of your firearms," Liddy recently said. "Because that's where they get the list of where to go first to confiscate. So, you don't ever register a firearm, anywhere." Be vigilant, bunker-dwellers, and make sure you have an ample supply of canned goods and ammunition.
It's no coincidence that the uptick in bitching and moaning comes as Republicans have become isolated ideologically, demographically, and geographically. The last factor -- that the GOP is now largely a Southern party -- gives the complaints endless fuel. As the center of gravity within the Republican Party has moved south, it has embraced that variant of Southern culture built on nurturing your sense of grievance and perseverating on your defeats. This is an old story -- even before the Civil War, Southerners couldn't talk enough about how those elitist Northerners were looking down their noses at the South. And is there a group of people anywhere in the world so obsessed with glorifying and celebrating a war they lost? A century and a half ago, my people were suffering through the Czar's pogroms, but I don't spend my weekends re-enacting them. Not that it's just conservative Southerners who have a hefty chip stapled to their shoulders. Grievance and complaint has become the lingua franca of the right all over the country. Politicians' desire to nurture these feelings gives us such spectacles as the one we saw on the penultimate night of the Republican convention, where the cross-dressing, opera-loving New Yorker Rudy Giuliani berated Barack Obama for being "cosmopolitan," while the multimillionaire, Harvard-trained industrial scion Mitt Romney bawled about the snootiness of the "Eastern elite." By the time Sarah Palin (now the de facto leader of the party's resentment wing) took the stage, the assembled crowd was mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore.
This kabuki of complaint is built on a running series of imaginary slights. Democrats said that being the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, isn't really an adequate preparation for the presidency? They're attacking small towns, and the people who live in them! Democrats want to get out of Iraq? They're attacking our troops! Democrats point out that the immortal Joe the Plumber would actually fare better under Barack Obama's tax plan than John McCain's? They're attacking guys with blue collars everywhere!
Not that progressives haven't spent the better part of the last eight years complaining. But most of those complaints have been about things the Bush administration actually did, not some imagined offense to progressives' honor. When the left has complained about what "they" are doing, the word has usually referred to the Bush administration. When the right uses it, it refers to a more amorphous group, defined not by their actions but by their attitude. It's the brie-eaters, the bureaucrats, the secularists, the immigrants, and pretty much anyone that you think might be looking down on you. Now the right will actually have a government to rail against, but I'm guessing the nefarious group keeping them down will remain pretty expansive.
And we haven't even started the annual braying about the "war on Christmas."