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Grievance is no substitute for ideas

Independents, the key to winning elections and broad support, are turned off by the noise

Ronald Reagan is sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger during his 1981 inauguration. Reagan's optimism in politics is largely absent in the current environment of grievance and anger, David Winston writes.
Ronald Reagan is sworn in by Chief Justice Warren Burger during his 1981 inauguration. Reagan's optimism in politics is largely absent in the current environment of grievance and anger, David Winston writes. (CQ Roll Call file photo)

About a year ago, an impartial friend well-versed in the art of politics asked me a tough question, “What has happened to the Republican Party?” he said. “You used to be the party of optimism. Now, you seem to be the party of grievance.”

Having spent decades opposing the Democratic Party’s strategy mired in grievance politics, I realized he had a point. These days, the country Ronald Reagan dubbed the “shining city on a hill” is found on harsher ground, and both parties and the media have contributed to the sadly cynical place in which politics is conducted today.

A year ago in this column, I wrote that “anger is the drug of choice in politics” as “voters are constantly fed a diet of unhealthy content from a variety of sources.”

Twelve months later, the anger remains, but grievance, which has been a key element in Democratic Party strategy for decades, now seems to be eroding the optimism that had characterized Reagan’s Republican Party since his presidency.  

Grievance politics is poisoning the political arena at a scale and with such dire results that party leaders — Democrats and Republicans — need to reflect on the ultimate price the country and their parties may pay if they continue down this path.

Polls tell us that the bases of both parties think the past two presidential elections were won by candidates from the opposing party who did not win fairly. But relitigating the 2020 election is a waste of time. So was relitigating the 2016 election during most of the Trump presidency. Other than base voters, people want to focus on the future, and it is those people, especially independents, who will decide this year’s elections and the presidential elections to come. 

Grievance is no substitute for ideas and solutions. Nor will grievance, anchored in revenge and loyalty tests, produce candidates who can connect with voters and put together winning majority coalitions. Qualifications, vision and winnability going forward should matter more than elections now in the rearview mirror.

On April 19, 1966, Reagan was running for governor of California and gave a speech to a crowd at the University of Southern California called “The Creative Society.” He told the audience, “I realize that modern political dialogue concerns itself largely with false image-making, rather than with legitimate debate over differing viewpoints; and no candidate can hope to engage in a political contest without experiencing the deliberate distortions of his positions and his beliefs. But I sometimes wonder if we haven’t reached one of those moments in time when the stakes are much too high for this kind of middle-aged juvenile delinquency.”

Last month, a Democratic communications consultant talked about how to improve political communications in a radio interview. She advocated for a three-step process. Start with values, she argued; then create villains; and, finally, focus on vision. 

Therein lies the problem with political consultants on both sides today. Values and vision are fine.  But the reliance of consultants on villains to drive home a winning message is how we got here — to a Washington divided into partisan and intraparty camps casting those who disagree with one’s point of view as villains. It’s the natural extension of uncivil campaign discourse. 

And the media are just as guilty for the lack of civility in politics today. Their business model seems based on whether they can create someone or something who people will love to hate. Or at a minimum, place blame in what has become the constant grievance game.  

Both parties are doing the same. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III and Kyrsten Sinema are taking incoming from the left, while GOP Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger just got hit with a censure from the Republican National Committee. 

Frankly, I think Cheney and Kinzinger’s decision to join the committee was problematic and has only led to recriminations and bitterness. But even more important, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to unilaterally veto some Republican members from serving on the House January 6 select committee sets a terrible precedent, compounded by the participation of the two Republicans chosen not by their leadership but by Pelosi herself.  

If Republicans take the House, would they be justified in determining the makeup of House committees for Democrats going forward? I suspect Pelosi and the Democratic caucus would rise up in indignation at that turn of events. Blind use of power is never good for democracy, the democracy her select committee ironically was constituted to protect. Pelosi has made a terrible decision that isn’t good for either the country or comity in the House. 

The RNC may have the ability to express its unhappiness with Cheney and Kinzinger, but what does the party really gain with its censure resolution other than to express anger and appease past grievances, real or imagined? Calling the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol “legitimate political discourse” is clearly at odds with what Americans saw that day.   

Republicans have plenty of positive ideas and policies to take to the voters over the next 10 months, but that positive message was completely overwhelmed by stories on GOP infighting. So, I have to ask, did the censure bring more people into the party or turn off independents tired of the bickering?

There has been a lot written over the past couple of weeks about whether the Republican Party is going to move forward toward the next election or spend its time relitigating the past election. Some will argue that holding up Reagan as a model for today is, in fact, returning to the past.   

But Reagan wasn’t an angry president driven by grievance and hate. He was a man with a big vision, excited by the future and always hopeful.  

He closed his USC speech saying, “Those who talk of complex problems, requiring more government planning and more control, in reality are taking us back in time to the acceptance of rule of the many by the few. Time to look to the future. We’ve had enough talk — disruptive talk — in America of left and right, dividing us down the center. There is really no such choice facing us. The only choice we have is up or down — up, to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down, to the deadly dullness of totalitarianism.”

Optimism never goes out of style. 

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