It appears that the victimization instinct is hereditary. When Bristol Palin used her recent national television presence to verbally flip the bird to all her mother's "attackers," she was not only playing the skilled student of her mother's teaching, she was advancing a strategy that has undermined our ability as a society to have serious discussions about truly daunting and complicated national challenges.
Both before and certainly since the midterm elections, Democrats have been wringing their hands over our apparent inability to get "our message" right. I have firsthand experience with the problem. In the spring of 2009, Nancy Pelosi asked me to coordinate our message on health care reform. I was flattered, but after a short time I realized that she was assigning me to mission impossible. Naïve about the futility I was about to find, I dutifully tried to put out some simple guidelines about themes we House Democrats should employ as we developed what at that point was an unformed proposal.
I said we should talk about the need for reform and the cost of doing nothing, and then the benefits of reform for the people who already had coverage. I figured everyone in our caucus could use those themes, because they did not commit anyone to any specific plan.
Needless to say, virtually no one delivered the message. Many members were already freaked out by the public reaction to other major legislative initiatives we had pursued. And since we were internally divided over concepts like the "public option" that dominated media discussion, the "message" got away from us early on, never to be recaptured.
I know I am burying the lead, but I experienced an epiphany after only a few months, and it relates to the Palins. As I subsequently told a meeting of our caucus, the problem was not our message; the problem was that no one believed us. In short, it doesn't matter what your message is if people won't listen to (don't believe) you.
The American people don't believe politicians. They don't believe business leaders, or Hollywood celebrities, or athletes or other supposed role models. And they certainly don't believe the news media. We have a dangerous dearth of credibility in the United States these days, and when no one has the confidence of a majority of Americans, there is fertile ground for con artists and demagogues.
Sarah Palin understands this. Every time she refers to the "lamestream media" -- which is virtually every time she speaks publicly -- she is engaged in the only tactic that gives her credibility with any audience: she lowers the bar for her ideas (or more accurately, for her rhetoric). Rush Limbaugh understands it as well. If you destroy the credibility of those people or institutions that could undermine your own, you create an opportunity for your voice, however irresponsible or misleading it may be, to gain traction.
And not incidentally, in today's American society, even a small plurality audience can be a ticket to fame and fortune.
The "lamestream media" strategy would be laughable if it weren't so effective. Just what media are Sarah Palin and others talking about? Is she talking about NBC, ABC and CBS, but not FOX? All are owned by large corporations whose interests are not aligned with Palin's political opponents. Is she talking about the New York Times and the Washington Post, or even the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by her FOX News boss? Of course it doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that people who are attracted to Palin and Limbaugh understand that any media disagreeing with them are lame.
When your voice contradicts reality and truth, the only way to create space for it is to discredit reality and truth. Palin, Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and others have made an art form of convincing far too many Americans to suspend their disbelief, and they have severely damaged the ability of our country to have serious discussions about serious challenges.
And now, arguably the most serious challenge facing our country is figuring out how to have those discussions.