[ This is a post I’ve had around for a while, but after watching the candidates at 9th GOP debate, I thought it would be a good time to dust it off.]
“They are crazy!” We say that all the time. But what exactly does it mean to be literally crazy, and vote? OK, I don’t mean certifiably insane, or even legally insane, but I do mean pathological. I do mean crazy in the sense of abnormal, in the sense of sick, disturbed and irrational, even as those crazy people are able to function in society without an attendant Nurse Ratched. For as we know, there is a sliding-scale of crazy going from, say, garden variety neurotics all the way to homicidal maniacs. I am talking about those who lie somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I’m talking about the Right. And to go a notch or two beyond the Right on the scale of crazy, I’ll include the Religious Right.
That’s who I’m talking about when I say,“They.” I pains me to use that word; to accept that concept of “The Other.” It goes against the grain of Liberalism. But I can’t deny it any longer; they are as alien to me as anything H. R. Giger could design. And although they comprise about 24% of the voters, that is way too many for the health of the nation. Day after day, I hear about those voters—you know the ones. We hear about the followers of Herman Cain, of Bachmann, of Perry—Hell, about ANY of those Right-wing candidates—and we are all really just stunned that these extremists are taken seriously, let alone adored, by a good percentage of Americans. Calling people brainwashed, racist or stupid feels good (and is all true) but doesn’t really explain the heart of their irrational fear and hatred. It doesn’t explain their fervor to cut off their noses to spite their faces. We who are sane find them incomprehensible.
I have tried to understand their thinking and to do that I have read a little in the psychological literature.
A lot academics and psychologists have offered explanations of the irrationality of Right-Wing, Teabagger behavior; behavior like Medicare recipients at town halls screaming about the evils of President Barack Obama’s plan to Nazi eugenics, or their loyalty towards the very corporate entities which have impoverished them.
George Lakoff theorizes that conservatives interpret reality through metaphors and meta-narratives modeled after authoritarian family structures. Others argue that they interpret facts according to emotional investments in conclusions they already hold, bypassing cortical centers of reason altogether.
These and other analyses are powerful and helpful. But they aren’t satisfying to me because they aren’t specific enough to account for both the passionate urgency and self-destructiveness of the right-wing rejection of programs that will obviously benefit them, for one thing. Or for their Islamophobia, their refusal of facts, their belief that they are the 1%, to name just a few pathologies.
Just because we all have unconscious minds that irrationally interpret and react to the world, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be held accountable for the damage we do in the process. It simply means that when people routinely act against their own best interest, I need to try to understand their motivation. (Progressives aren’t immune to unconscious self-sabotage either; they display such irrationality all the time when they launch quixotic campaigns against the “enemy” that don’t stand a chance of winning, or when they demand purity of all Democrats.) And I’m not talking about the behavior of cynical politicians or corporate titans who have a vested interest in the status quo or those who are shilling for them. I’m talking about ordinary folks who are determined to act against their best interest.
Here’s one theory about the psychology of angry conservatives:
Government is taking over our lives, robbing us of freedom, and even threatening our survival. Why they blame the victim, the unemployed, the poor.
Using symbols like Nazi Germany and socialism/communism, they describe a government that looks like a tyrannical parent who wants to control us. It’s not simply an authoritarian parent, but one who wants to suffocate and rob us. Lakoff has argued that we need to redefine this metaphor into one of a family based on care, and he’s right.
Still, it remains a puzzle how people who dearly depend on government maintain a view of it as a force that wants to colonize and exploit them. The process by which this thinking occurs is complicated and takes a bit of explaining. Psychoanalyst Michael Bader does a good job of articulating this process. He says that one answer to this puzzle lies in the psychological perils of helplessness and dependence, defenses against which lead to anti-government paranoia:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my clinical practice, it’s that people hate feeling helpless and dependent. And yet, we’re all born this way and only gradually relinquish this position over the course of our lives — until, that is, we become elderly or ill and have to re-experience it intensely once again.
Interestingly, if feeling helpless and dependent is threatening, then so, too, is feeling innocent. Why innocent? Because if we’re helpless, we can’t really be responsible for what we feel and do. In this sense we’re innocent. Over and over again in my work, I see people struggle against the feeling that they’re helpless, dependent, and, yes, innocent.
Try talking to someone sometime who was smacked around a lot growing up. Ask them whether they were helpless, dependent and innocent back then. Odds are they’ll equivocate, perhaps noting that they weren’t the easiest kid or extending forgiveness to the abusive parent on the grounds that he or she might have been under enormous stress at the time, or had been beaten by his or her own parents.
These caveats might be true, but they are also ways to mitigate innocence. ..One of the reasons we don’t like seeing ourselves this way is that we all naturally tend to take responsibility for our lot in life. We want to feel that we choose our lives, that we have some inalienable and existential freedom to determine our present and future, that we are actors and agents.
The problem is this: There are many ways that our freedom and control were severely constrained as children and continue to be as adults.
As children, we were dependent on our caretakers for psychic and physical survival. They determined how we saw and experienced reality and morality. We weren’t actors free to choose another family. Further, we encounter institutions today that similarly restrict our freedom, laws that prohibit our choices, and cultural rewards and punishments over which we have no control.
If you’re born poor, you can succeed, but not as easily as someone born wealthy. If you’re a person of color you can do well, but not as easily as someone white. While perhaps obvious, these facts nevertheless are tiny instances of the multiple ways that we don’t exercise free choice and autonomy but are both powerfully dependent and, therefore, ultimately innocent of blame in many areas of our lives.
What do we do then? What did we do as children when faced with this same contradiction? What do we do today? If we regularly encounter conditions over which we’re powerless and which put us into states of dependence, but such feelings are intolerable, what solutions do our minds generate? This is the stuff of psychotherapy, and, I believe, an important conflict underlying certain political attitudes and behavior.
One of the main things we do is blame ourselves. If our overinvestment in being free agents leads us to refuse to face feelings of helplessness, then we have no choice but to make our suffering our own fault. If we always have choices, then we’re also always responsible for their outcomes, and if these outcomes are negative, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. That’s what children do. They feel responsible and guilty for their own pain and suffering because the alternative is too threatening. Because if they are not responsible, then who is? It’s scary to blame parents, whom we love and on whom we depend for everything.
It is said that children would “rather be sinners in heaven than saints in hell,” that they would rather exonerate their caregivers and feel guilty than hold their caregivers accountable and feel innocent.
Adults blame themselves, too. We’re a culture in which, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, anyone supposedly can go from rags to riches. We’re a meritocracy in which one rises or falls according to one’s ability and value. Our private tendencies to irrationally blame ourselves are sanctioned and reinforced all the time in the outside world. Despite the obvious barriers and constraints on social mobility, we still secretly blame ourselves for our lot in life.
At this point in the story, however, we don’t yet have much of an explanation for anti-government hostility and paranoia. […]We need to take one more step, and that is to recognize that these feelings of self-blame, of guilt, are also very painful to feel. No one likes to hate him or herself, to feel the shame connected to feeling that “you have only yourself to blame” for your frustrations and pain.
But self-blame and guilt are the automatic and natural byproducts of our intolerance of helplessness and our belief in freedom and choice. So, what do we do with these toxic feelings of self-recrimination that are continually stirred up?
Most of my patients tend to project them. In other words, to blame others. “It’s not my fault, it’s yours or hers or his.” While only a transient solution, it’s a compelling one. It momentarily restores some sense of innocence. I’m an innocent victim. I had no choice. I’m back on the moral high ground.
Blame is a powerful antidote to guilt, albeit a temporary one. Because it’s not a real solution, the innocence it creates is not based on an accurate view of ourselves. These feelings of guilt, these irrational feelings of responsibility and self-blame, don’t go away. They’re still there. They have to be projected over and over.
Government is a good target for these projections. For the Right, it’s the perfect target. It’s big and powerful. It’s anonymous. It interacts with our lives everywhere, all the time. What other institution does this? What other force is there in our lives that is so ubiquitous, so full of laws, rules, restrictions, restraints, obligations, demands, all backed by force?
The logic goes: “I’d be happy (translated: not self-blaming and/or hating) if government would just stop getting in my way, stop trying to hold me down and hold me back with its regulations and taxes! If government would just get out of my life, I could be free, autonomous, and successful.” In this way, the conservative’s claims of innocence and victimization seek to counteract private feeling of guilt and responsibility.
The pain that our objective helplessness creates both personally and socially, the pain that we channel first into guilt and then blame, is the pain of not being taken care of, of not being protected, of not being recognized and supported. We don’t really think of it this way because to do so would highlight the feelings of dependency and helplessness, feelings that are intolerable.
However, for conservatives, such an awareness appears in a vicarious form, in the form of the envy that they especially feel toward people who they imagine are being properly cared for. The internal conversation might go something like, “We’re sacrificing and enduring deprivation, and those people over there are getting away with something, getting a free pass. We’re responsible for our own lot in life, but they seem content to get handouts.”
Like the Reagan Democrats who fantasized about the black welfare queen rewarded for being lazy, the modern conservative has other images provided for a similar purpose. The “illegal immigrant” will get the benefits that hard-working conservative Americans deserve to reap from their sacrifice and the taxes they pay.
This is another version of the vitriolic attacks on welfare of all kinds, including that contained in health care reform, attacks stemming from the fantasy that I’m not getting my own needs met so that someone “over there” can get theirs met.
Finally, we come to the psychology behind beliefs in “death panels.” In my work, the sheer irrationality of the claims suggests that something psychically powerful and conflictual is at work. Since it’s so bizarre, let’s treat it like a fantasy.
The fantasy behind these claims is that the handicapped, the elderly and the demented, will be killed, and we have to stand up on their behalf and stop this terrible threat. Now, why would someone believe this? Part of the answer is sure that they’re told it’s true and everywhere they look, right-wing media is repeating it. But it’s not simple ignorance. The lie hits a nerve, it evokes a passion that overwhelms reason.
What do the handicapped, elderly and demented have in common? Simply put, they’re innocent and helpless. Besides children, are there any other groups who more automatically trigger our sympathies than these, who are more deserving of our care and protection? And like children, they are very innocent.
Who wouldn’t want to “man the barricades” for such folks? Who wouldn’t be outraged by even the hint of an anonymous bureaucrat denying them help? These groups are symbols of innocent dependency of a sort that is pure, entitled to help and deserving of care.
Everything that we’re not.
Everything, in this case, that conservatives can’t feel about themselves. Conservatives respond so passionately to the specter of government-ordered euthanasia because they are vicariously defending their own right to feel innocent, to be dependent, to get some care and protection, a right that unfortunately they’re too ashamed to consciously embrace.
Unable to accept their own legitimate dependency needs, they project them onto others, locating them — in a sense, the vulnerable and innocent parts of themselves — in others who are indisputably dependent and to whose defense they can safely come.
I recently treated a guy who was virulently anti-government. He frequently complained that everyone got a handout but that he had to work all the time to make ends meet. His background was harsh, both emotionally and economically. His father was a tyrant and his mother was, in his mind, a doormat who didn’t protect him.
He learned to endure harsh conditions in which he got little recognition and developed a strong work ethic that enabled him to overcome a lot of obstacles. He didn’t ask anyone for anything. He likened himself to a camel in the desert adapted to going long distances without water. He internalized the lack of empathy in his childhood home, and therefore had difficulty extending empathy to others, including his own children. What was striking was the way that his view of all the people “on the government dole” replicated the harsh way that his father had seemed to view him (a good-for-nothing, lazy, etc.).
His antagonism toward any kind of affirmative action or welfare stemmed from the bitter conviction that people “didn’t deserve to get something for nothing,” a conviction that had actually harmed him a great deal growing up but which he had made into a way of life. As he gradually became aware of his own unrequited needs for help, protection, comfort and care, his hostile scapegoating decreased.
He didn’t become less conservative. He became less vitriolic about it. It was a case in which the passion diminished but the formal political position remained, again reminding me that therapy can help explain and moderate passion, not politics.
We all have a longing to be cared for, a longing that unfortunately comes to feel inherently in conflict with autonomy and freedom. The conflicts that we all have about being deserving of such care thus get distorted and appear as anti-government paranoia.
Our own internal sense of being undeserving of care becomes, then, a rejection of the need for care, which becomes an external distrust of the care that is actually being offered. Government-as-caretaker becomes a threat rather than a gratification. If you see government as providing help, you are forced to accept that you need help, and that position is what ultimately is intolerable. Try telling a town-haller some time that he or she is on the government dole via Medicare and see how far you get!
This dynamic process in which need becomes fear becomes anger is well known to clinicians who treat paranoid patients. The threat feels external to these patients, but the source of it is really internal, a fear of their own dependency needs being manipulated and used as a means to control them.
The only way that they can feel safe and innocent is if they locate the problem outside themselves in some larger malevolent power and then aggressively defend themselves against that power. If they join with others in the process, all the better, since such imaginary communities provide a further sense of safety and connection.
In the end, though, the paranoid system has to be continually replenished with new enemies, new threats, and, therefore, new dangers to battle. For the hard-core right, egged on by their media and political patrons, the government provides an endless source of new enemies.
The answer to this type of dynamic in which feelings of helplessness, dependency, and innocence are so dangerous isn’t through reason. In my experience, there are two options.
The first is to give up on attempts to reach them, an approach that I think is perfectly appropriate for many of the hard-line paranoid anti-government types. I am generally a therapeutic optimist, except in cases where there is significant paranoia. Since everything I do or say is seen through a paranoid filter, there is little chance for me to reach the person.
Politically, we shouldn’t try. We should outvote them, outfight them and defeat them.
The other option, appropriate with other less-rigid and brittle members of this psychic class is take a longer view. In these cases, while defeating them politically, we have to also disprove or disconfirm their experience in practice, to provide over time experiences in which they can feel some control but also get helped.
As Bader describes, this is the cause of the constant cognitive dissonance experienced by Right-wingers: 1) respect for authority, but paranoia about the authority of government and 2) the need to feel independent and in control but seeing themselves as victims.
If the above psychological analysis doesn’t help explain their pathology, another theory, as reported by researchers for the American Psychological Association, deals with the Underlying Motivations of the Right:
Culling through 50 years of research literature about the psychology of conservatism, the researchers report that at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality, and that some of the common psychological factors linked to political conservatism include:
Fear and aggression
Dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity
Need for cognitive closure
The avoidance of uncertainty, for example, as well as the striving for certainty, are particularly tied to one key dimension of conservative thought – the resistance to change or hanging onto the status quo, the researchers said.
The terror management feature of the Right was seen after 9/11, when many people began to ostracize and even commit violence against outsiders. Obsessions with fear and threat, likewise, can be linked to a second key dimension of conservatism – an endorsement of inequality. One example is their refusal towards extending the rights and liberties to minorities such as gays and lesbians.
While most people resist change, the researchers say, liberals appear to have a higher tolerance for change than conservatives do. The researchers said that conservative ideologies, like virtually all belief systems, develop in part because they satisfy some psychological needs. The Right’s intolerance of ambiguity can lead them to cling to the familiar, to arrive at premature conclusions, and to impose simplistic cliches and stereotypes. These researchers pointed to the news that the Bush administration ignored intelligence information that discounted reports of Iraq buying nuclear material from Africa. It showed how the conservative intolerance for ambiguity and/or their need for closure wound up getting us into a war in Iraq.
“For a variety of psychological reasons, then, right-wing populism may have more consistent appeal than left-wing populism, especially in times of potential crisis and instability,” he said. Conservatives don’t feel the need to jump through complex, intellectual hoops in order to understand or justify some of their positions, he said. “They are more comfortable seeing and stating things in black and white in ways that would make liberals squirm,” Glaser said. He pointed as an example to a 2001 trip to Italy, where President George W. Bush was asked to explain himself. The Republican president told assembled world leaders, “I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right.” And in 2002, Bush told a British reporter, “Look, my job isn’t to nuance.”
Then there is the “fear- based” theory of their craziness. In brief, the Party of Crazy is pushing for economic and social policies based on their fears: fears of massive transformation and fears about how those transformations will impact lives largely defined by self-interest, power and money. Some fear-generated policies are consciously created, others unconsciously. That is, some reflect a yearning for restoration of a way of life that no longer works in today’s changing society and globalized world. Other policy positions reflect conscious manipulation of those fears; but all of them are behind the positions the Tea Party/GOP is demanding and determined to enact.
The ideology and policies of the Right are considered reactionary because they are a retreat away from creating positive, resilient responses to large-scale upheaval and change, and toward objectives that fail to address the sources of problems they aim to fix. Worse, their view of the impact that their policies would have upon society doesn’t correspond with factual reality.
What They Fear
We’re living through major shifts and transformations in the U.S. and our globalized world — social and psychological evolution with no end in sight. It’s tough to deal with. Many of these shifts reflect positive transformation. But they can be frightening too, especially when people feel that their vested interests, beliefs and entire way of life are threatened.
Fears Become Policy
Irrational Policy: Virtually all economists have debunked the claim that continued tax cuts for the rich will help the economy, yet that continues to be proclaimed as gospel. Similarly discredited is the argument that stripping away the economic base of middle- and working-class people and those in need will boost the economy and create new jobs. As Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne put it, these polices are “built on heaping sacrifice onto the poor,” and “bestowing benefits on the rich … asking for give-backs from the least advantaged and least powerful in our society [while] delivering yet more benefits to the wealthiest people in our society … [and that] ought to force middle-of-the-roaders to take sides.”
Anti-Science Is A Virtue: Denial of climate change is an essential ideology for the Right. Despite the fact that virtually all climate scientists confirm the reality and facts of climate change and the looming crisis it creates, the Tea Party/GOP has staffed the House Energy Committee with vocal deniers of climate change facts. Another branch of the same tree: reactionaries express skepticism or outright rejection of evolution. As is the case with all fear-driven positions, some actually believe the falsehoods; others have manipulative objectives, such as maintaining their vested interest in the oil industry’s money, or solidifying their credentials with their voting constituency.
Glorifying Ignorance: Disdain for factual knowledge is evident among those who say, in essence, that ignorance is good because it shows you’re “one of the people” who know better than those “educated elites.” One example: Rep. Michele Bachmann’s claim that the founding fathers weren’t slaveowners at all, but that they in fact ended slavery. The position here seems to be that it’s desirable to know little if anything about facts or historical events that have shaped our nation.
American Exceptionalism: The Right believes this as theological dogma. Contrary observations are attacked as “un-American.”
Government Is The Enemy And The Myth Of Independence: Government is viewed as the embodiment of forces that are dangerous taking over weaker entities, and therefore must be opposed or defended against. Driving this ideology is the fear of losing control over one’s life when confronting the reality of the interdependence and interconnection that characterizes today’s world. For some, those fears lead to the belief that you can live without help from anyone or anything — the “survivalist” mentality. But as Virginia Postrel has written in The Wall Street Journal, that results in nothing other than “a perverse fantasy … [of a] disconnected libertarian living in individualistic isolation. It’s both comforting and thrillingly seductive to imagine that you’re completely independent.”
Conspiracy Theories Redefined As Truths: The most prominent one is the “birther” movement, recently embraced by nearly 80 percent of Republican voters. This is a fear-based reaction to the election of a black President, and one who bears a foreign-sounding name to boot. In in fact, the election of President Obama is the sum of all fears– fears of all the change and transformation in our society. Believing that he’s an “outsider,” not a citizen, secretly a Muslim, provides emotional comfort to those who are most frightened, and a political opportunity to those who are most manipulative. And, of course, the old-cushioned pathology we call racism.
Frightened people are vulnerable to conscious manipulation by those who can see reality but want to retain the fruits of their self-interest — regardless of the cost to others. That’s happening today, via the Tea Party/GOP’s reactionary policies. It’s similar to what happened during the civil rights movement and legislation of the 1960s, when many tried to hold on to or restore racial prejudice and discrimination as part of their crumbling way of life.
When people are emotionally overwhelmed with feelings that their world, values and identity are turned upside down or destroyed, they may embrace beliefs that are extreme, rigid and serve the psychological purpose of denying the frightening, chaotic world they are experiencing. Unconsciously driven people may hold even more tightly to their positions when reality whacks them upside the head, much as adherents to doomsday beliefs become even stronger in their convictions when the world fails to end as predicted. Such people become increasingly vulnerable to dysfunction because the world around them continues to evolve in ways that frightened them into embracing false beliefs to begin with. They want to feel safe and protected against a changing world, but their solutions don’t work.
Others who embrace reactionary policies are consciously hypocritical. They knowingly spout lies or invalid analyses because they’re hell-bent on protecting their self-interest, money and power, regardless of the impact that that has on the larger society. That is, behind the delusional and socially destructive policies are the values of self-interest — primarily, the preservation of power and money, with no real regard for the impact those self-serving policies have upon the larger society or others’ needs. In the more extreme cases, it’s pure greed, which is a psychological pathology.
Of course, anxiety in the face of change is normal, and doesn’t nessarily reflect pathology. And it can be a source of guidance toward creating real, workable solutions to the new situations, as E. J. Dionne has pointed out, describing the need for “a coalition between moderates and progressives on behalf of sane, decent government.” Such voices are largely silenced by the extremists’ advocacy of policies that “would transform our government from a very modestly compassionate instrument into a machine dedicated to expanding existing privileges while doing as little as possible for the marginalized and the aspiring.”
Right-wing Authoritarianism and Party Lock-step
There is another school of thought called right wing authoritarianism and it correlates strongly with political conservatism. While attempts have been made to investigate “left wing authoritatianism”–high adherence to left wing party lines and aggression to those who do not endorse left wing values–these attempts have fallen flat, suggesting that perhaps such a thing does not exist. When one measures submission to authority using different scales, it is still found to correlate with right wing ideology; it is likely, therefore, that authoritarianism and being right wing go hand in hand. The right seems to vote as a block and follow the Party line much more than the Left. Yet we have these types on our side of the spectrum too—we call them Firebaggers and any deviation from their rigid ideology of Leftist purism is cause for condemnations and rejection. These authoritarian personalities are not only defined by Party as much as by psychology.
Some critics have suggested that RWA is not an immutable personality trait, but, rather, a response to an external “threat”, and that some people have a disposition to manifest RWA beliefs when they perceive they are threatened. This threat can come in the form of economic crises or 9/11, for example. As RWAs make the best followers for a right wing authoritarian regime, a somewhat frightening implication arises: by ramping up the threat level, a larger number of followers who are willing to accept undemocratic ideas appear. On the other hand, by reducing the threat level, RWA can be decreased.
Still another theory addressing the pathology of the Right is one termed the “Pathology of the Will.”
The label of “willfulness” is not often applied to adult behavior but as it turns out, it is a central trait of the political Right. The term willfulness implies more than “stubbornness” or “strong-willed,” although the willful would probably prefer to think of their willfulness that way because appear to be more positive traits. “Willfulness” however is more selfish and defiant.
Signs of the Pathology:
Government as Pure Infringement on Individual Will – The Right is intently focused on the possibility that government might impose regulations that infringe upon their will –to dispose of property in a certain way or that they must pay taxes e.g. They have built their ideology around the notion that their individual wishes, in particular as regards property or personal wishes “sanctioned” by social conservatives, should meet no impediment from society at large, as represented by government. Therefore, they deny the unavoidable compromises of people having to live in society with other people with conflicting wishes and agendas, as well as the shared, common tasks of a complex society. The Right uses the American ideal of the Wild West, the rugged individualist, and take it to an extreme: any suggestion or hint that one’s will could be infringed upon or imposed upon becomes a cause for outcry and insurrectionary fervor. However, the Right’s outrage at any perceived infringements upon their will by government are hypocritical when other people want freedom to live their lives in ways they disapprove (freedom from religion, union membership, contraception, abortion, homosexuality).
No Operative Definition of “Greed” — Greed is a sub-species of will/desire oriented toward the acquisition of and consumption of material goods without an upper limit. The Right resists putting a limit on acquisitive interest and distorts the theory of Adam Smith among others to fit their individual fantasies.
Winning at All Costs/Sense of Entitlement to Hold Power – Again, in accord with habitual lying, the notion that one can and should bend the rules of “fair play” to one’s own advantage is almost a dictionary definition of “willfulness”. The tactical brilliance of the Right can be accounted for by leading right-wing tacticians’ (Frank Luntz, Karl Rove, etc.) willingness to flout rules. Again there is a belief that one’s own interests trump those of society as a whole or alternatively that there is an identity between one’s own interests and those of society as a whole.
Denial of Scientific Authority– Denial of scientific authority and scientific fact, a close relative of habitual lying, stems directly from excessive willfulness or willful ignorance. Many on the Right deny facts regarding climate change, depletion of fossil fuels, as well as the theory of evolution. To accept unpleasant scientific facts like these means that one is accepting a limit to one’s will: one cannot “will away” these uncomfortable “inconvenient” facts. Thus the Right hopes to willfully structure science according to its own convenience and worldview.
Disbelief in Social Cooperation – Fundamental to the political program of the Right is a dog-eat-dog view of social interactions, in particular transactions involving economics. They project their own excessive willfulness onto others in daily transactions. If everybody is assumed to be as willful as the Right, competition will always be fierce and the dominant principle of social interaction.
Willful Defiance of Harmonizing/Beatific Morality – Most on the Right declare themselves to be Christians, a religion with strong elements of harmonizing, beatific morality. Yet self-professed rightist Christians deny any part of the canon they find inconvenient. The mocking of good intentions of the left, for instance, a staple of right-wing radio talk shows, has the character of a willful defiance, similar to what one might find in some school-age children or adolescents.
Identification with the Wealthiest – One of the functions of wealth, in particular great wealth, is that one has the experience of seeing one’s will realized more than the average person. Thus great wealth enables one to achieve, at least in terms of the fantasy of many, a private “paradise” designed according to one’s own will.
Worship of Displays of Will in Leaders – Most political constituencies are looking for strong leaders but particularly on the contemporary Right, the ideal leader must be a caricature of willful strength: A bully. Strength of will as a trait is more important than cleverness or intelligence for the Right; stubbornly ignoring reality and knowledge is a positive sign for many Right wing voters. The adoration directed at Chris Christie, despite indications that his social views were to the left of many in the Republican base, was in part a worship of his willful disregard for the appearance of being considerate or “nice”. Hermann Cain, despite indications that he would lose in a Presidential election, has been given a wide berth from the Right in part because of his displays of willfulness with regard to his handling by the media
Paranoia and Paranoid Personality– Another diagnosis within which willfulness plays a critical role is Paranoid Personality Disorder as well as the variety of more disturbed mental states within which paranoia is a central experience. Suspiciousness and an ongoing sense of personal slight, an expansive sense of personal rights continually under attack, and victimhood characterize PPD. Willful behavior and contrariness can be a central characteristic of paranoid people, who seek to oppose others as a means of gaining control.
Paranoia is one of the mental and cultural “home-bases” of the Right, though on the radical Left there can also be paranoid tendencies. The Right’s evocation of a continual marginalization and victimization by what it believes to be an all-powerful Left establishment and by government is consistent with the general paranoid tendency within the Right. Government is anyway an object of paranoid worry and fantasy in the general population.
Projection of one’s own hostility onto others is one theory of paranoia. The Right’s tendency towards projection, or at least imputing its own failings onto its opponents preemptively has actually been a powerful weapon, calling for instance, its opponents “fascists”, when the actions and ideology of the Right are generally closer to Fascism than its opponents. Portraying President Obama as Hitler has been a stable of the far Right over the last two years.
There is still a mystery associated with this abundance of willfulness: how does the Right maintain cohesion in its own ranks? Those who are at the extremes of willfulness would be unable to cooperate with others: it would be like “herding cats”. How is the Right able to hang together?
The political psychologist Bob Altemeyer offers a solution to this problem resulting from decades of empirical study of the psychological construct of Authoritarianism in college students, their parents, and groups of politicians. Authoritarians, it is theorized, are typically obedient followers prone to irrationalism and a herd mentality who have considerable repressed aggression that is vented typically marginalized groups in society. This typical portrait of authoritarianism doesn’t account for many of the willful elements highlighted in the analysis above. By contrast, the excessive willfulness theory seems to contradict the particular the obedient and rigidly conventional aspects of the typical authoritarian personality. Contrary to the idea that the Right is a homogenous group, they are actually divided into two groups: authoritarian followers and leaders. Authoritarian followers are conventional, obedient, narrow-minded, and often religious fundamentalists and score high on a psychological construct he calls Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA).
Finally, I don’t know exactly where Obama Derangement Syndrome fits in any of these pathologies but it is a real phenomenon. A 2010 Harris poll that reveals some shocking things about how Republican voters view President Obama.
- 67% believe Obama is a socialist.
- 57% believe Obama is a Muslim.
- 38% believe Obama is “doing many of the things that Hitler did.”
- 24% believe Obama “may be the Antichrist.”
“It demonstrates the cost of the campaign of fear and hate that has been pumped up in the service of hyper-partisanship over the past 15 months. We are playing with dynamite by demonizing our president and dividing the United States in the process. What might be good for ratings is bad for the country.”
None of this analysis is very new; the first studies of this kind I read were in Max Blementhal’s great book, “Republican Gomorrah”, in which he built upon the work of psychologist Erich Fromm, who asserted that “the fear of freedom propels anxiety-ridden people into authoritarian settings”. In Republican Gomorrah, Blementhal says that in his view a “culture of personal crisis” has defined the American “radical right”. Blumenthal’s conclusion is that “those who wrap themselves in the flag fear freedom the most” because of their own personal demons and insecurities, making them “pathologically supportive of an authoritarian state” that can provide them with the “emotional security of being a cog in a white Christian hierarchical machine.”
I call these people on the Right crazy because they actually are, and therefore there is really no way to reason with them, or to feel badly that we have somehow failed to reach them. They need therapy—years of it– not conversation. This is no comfort to me, to realize how sick a large segment of our society is. In fact it is cause for alarm. It would be a sad enough state of affairs if these irrational people were disengaged from public life and merely lived lives of quiet desperation. But they are often fiercely active, and they vote. They use political activism to “act out” their pathologies and that makes them not only aggravating, it makes them, in fact, a threat to democracy. We tell ourselves that “it can’t happen here,” that 21st Century America is not Wiemar Germany. No, it isn’t; the specifics of the era are not the same as those we face today. But I don’t believe that Germans in the 1930’s were essentially different sorts of people than we are today– not ontologically. The Germans of that period were some of the most sophisticated and cultured people in the West. Hardly anyone could have foreseen how quickly they would descend into fascism. And it didn’t even require overwhelming support by the German populace—many, many of them abhorred Nazism. However, if we experience a few more years of economic hardship and the perception by many that America is in decline, crazy 21st Century Americans are capable of God-knows-what.
Even though the Pew Center shows (if one can believe their results) that the truly pathological segment of voters is relatively small, we have seen in 2010 how they were able to win most elections and turn the House into Bedlam. And even if that election was as aberrant as the Right-wing brain, the recent polls still show that the President is only given an approval rating in the 40’s. That right there is insanity. Additionally, he is tied with Romney in head-to-head polls: proof enough of pathology. Frankly, even if the Democrats and the President had approvals in the 50’s, as long as the TeaPublicans had approvals in the 30’s, that still means that way too many citizens of the U.S. are unhinged
I could provide many more links to various studies and articles explaining why and in which ways the Right—and particularly the Religious Right –is crazy, but we knew it instinctively. These types of personality disorders have always been part of humanity and manifest themselves in every culture. The thing is, at this moment in time in this country the crazy people have found a huge megaphone via Right-wing media and worse, a powerful enabler (indeed, powerful incitement) from corporate interests. By joining the Right’s need for authoritarianism, greed, selfishness, rigidity, and their impulse to punish with the goals of enslavement by corporate overlords, we find a marriage made in Hell.
There is no question that there are corporate forces pushing an agenda that would strip away union bargaining rights, voter rights, decimate the social safety nets programs, lower wages and eliminate the minimum wage, ignore climate change, castrate the EPA, repeal any regulations that prevent Wall Street from providing consumer protections, repeal any checks at all on corporate malfeasance in any industry, and do away with the Department of Education, among other Federal agencies. And in addition to all that, corporatists are perfectly willing to push a Religious Right social agenda (that corporations care nothing about) in order to get pathological voters to cheer for their plans to turn the United States into a Chinese-style sweat shop. But as much as I detest that agenda, from the perspective of amoral corporations, it makes sense. It is short-sighted and destructive, but it is not crazy. What IS pathological is that there are enough people is this unhealthy country who would gleefully vote to enslave themselves.
The only force we have to sever the relationship between the pathological and the plutocrats is our vigilance; keeping the press honest and balanced, paying attention to our local school boards, working to overturn Citizens United and working towards taking money out of politics, and most of all voting for the best candidates we can find and then working our asses off to help elect them. We cannot waste time, however, on trying to reason with that eternal group of crazies.