Paul Waldman is a senior fellow with Media Matters for America and a senior contributor to The Gadflyer.
Many progressives watched in puzzlement at the end of last year as religious conservatives declared that a war was being waged across America, a campaign of untold savagery whose sole victim was a holiday celebrated by approximately four out of every five Americans. Forced to endure the horror of department store signs reading “Happy Holidays,” conservatives beat their breasts and gnashed their teeth over the War on Christmas.
No doubt we’ll be hearing about that war again, round about Thanksgiving. But in the interim we have the Judicial War On Faith, a conflagration written from the same script: Liberals drunk on their overwhelming power smash mighty fists down on the tender heads of righteous yet weak conservatives, who absorb blow after debilitating blow until they can stand no more, and rise up to restore all that is right and good with America.
This was the message we heard on “Justice Sunday,” the all-star gathering of the radical religious right Sunday night in Louisville. Like-minded Americans were told that nothing is more important than confirming the 10 Bush nominees that Democrats have held up in the Senate. Indeed, as Focus on the Family’s James Dobson told viewers, “The future of democracy...depends on the outcome of this issue.”
One might have thought there were more pressing concerns in America today: persistent poverty, 45 million Americans without health insurance, environmental degradation—not to mention problems overseas like the genocide in Darfur. But those issues lack something essential: They don’t let conservatives whine about their victimization.
At Justice Sunday, speaker after speaker told of the terrible injustice being perpetrated by Senate Democrats, invoking slavery and the civil rights movement again and again. The arrival of an African-American minister on stage was greeted with a standing ovation, as though he offered a living testament to the suffering of today’s evangelicals.
To hear them tell it, conservatives are always the underdog, besieged and kept down by those with the real power. The act of hanging an American flag on their porch could bring a Molotov cocktail thrown through their front window by roving gangs of thought police; a cross worn on a necklace sure to bring arrest; the ordering of a Budweiser greeted with withering contempt from the microbrew cognoscenti. The triumph of liberal totalitarianism, with the abolishment of the family and religion and free speech that all honest people hold dear, is forever around the next corner, at the bottom of a slippery slope down which we find ourselves eternally tumbling. Like end-timers assuring us that though they were wrong last year and the year before, this New Year’s Eve will surely bring Armageddon—they are slowed not a bit by being proved wrong again and again—the coming American Sodom always a result of next year’s wedge issue.
Look at some of the titles offered by Regnery, the right’s premier publishing house: Invasion Within: Overcoming the Elitists' Attack on Moral Values and the American Way; Epidemic: How Teen Sex is Killing Our Kids; Mugged by the State: Outrageous Government Assaults on Ordinary People and Their Property; Outrage: How Gay Activists and Liberal Judges Are Trashing Democracy to Redefine Marriage; Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War Against Christianity; Power Grab: How the National Education Association is Betraying Our Children; Reckless Disregard: How Liberal Democrats Undercut Our Military, Endanger Our Soldiers, and Jeopardize Our Security .
The message of each is the same: Sinister, powerful liberals are attacking you, your children and everything you believe in. While good Americans lie slumbering in their complacency, the mighty liberals continue their assault, and if we don’t wake up soon it’ll be too late, as our nation tumbles into a moral abyss and the streets run red with the blood of innocents. The end is near.
As anyone who has listened to right-wing radio or tuned in to Fox News knows, the angry cry of the victim is the lexicon of the conservative media. As the novelist David Foster Wallace recently wrote in the Atlantic Monthly , “It is, of course, much less difficult to arouse genuine anger, indignation and outrage in people than it is real joy, satisfaction, fellow feeling, etc. The latter are fragile and complex, and what excites them varies a great deal from person to person, whereas anger et al. are more primal, universal, and easy to stimulate.”
When conservative talk radio exploded in popularity in the early 1990s, Rush Limbaugh and others like him were pounding on the gates of power; at the time, Democrats controlled the White House, both houses of Congress and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. Now the situation is reversed, but as any broadcaster worth his salt knows, paeans to the glory of the nation’s elected officials make for dull radio and television. Triumphalism gets old pretty quickly, but the feeling of being oppressed is a scab that can be picked again and again, ready to bleed afresh every time. Given the relative power of conservatives and liberals today, this takes no small measure of creativity. But they have shown that one can have the president’s ear and still be at the mercy of unseen forces, forever on the simultaneous verge of total victory and utter annihilation.
In 1964, reknowned historian Richard Hofstadter wrote of the “paranoid style in American politics:” “The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed.” Ironically, it is now those who nestle in power’s grateful embrace, whose outrageous demands are accorded the greatest deference, who watch our nation’s leaders kneel before them in supplication —it is they who become more convinced with each passing week of their unending oppression.
Soon enough, the conflict over the filibuster and judicial nominations will come to its conclusion. But win or lose, those so angry about the “judicial war on faith” will quickly discover another war being waged against them, another reason to proclaim that—all evidence to the contrary—they are the real victims.