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The Psychology of the Right-Wing's Anti-Government 'Death-Panel' Delusions

Calling people brainwashed, racist or stupid feels good but doesn't really explain the heart of their irrational fear and hatred of government.

A lot of heavyweight thinkers have offered explanations of the irrationality of modern political behavior -- you know, behavior like Medicare recipients at town halls screaming about the evils of government-run health care, or otherwise-reasonable people likening President Barack Obama's plan to Nazi eugenics.

George Lakoff theorizes that conservatives interpret reality through metaphors and meta-narratives modeled after authoritarian family structures.

Drew Westen argues 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 a program that will obviously benefit them.

In both my consulting room and my writing and teaching about organizational and political change, my focus is on understanding the often unconscious causes of irrational and self-destructive thinking and behavior.

However, whenever I ascribe such motivations to political attitudes, I often encounter two types of negative responses: First, the people I'm "studying" -- in this case, the Right -- feel demeaned (much like campus radicals did in the 1960s and 1970s who were told they were simply working out their "issues" with authority). And second: People on my side of the political aisle tell me that I'm using psychological mumbo-jumbo to unnecessarily complicate something quite simple. In this case, the simple truth turns out to be some throwaway line like "They're just racist idiots," or "They've been manipulated by the radical right."

While I personally share the anger at the right of my progressive detractors, I would point this out to them: Just because we all have unconscious minds that irrationally interpret and react to the world, it doesn't mean that we aren't motivated by other feelings and attitudes as well, or 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, it's worth understanding all levels of their motivation. Progressives, by the way, aren't immune to unconscious self-sabotage; they display such irrationality all the time when, for example, they launch quixotic campaigns against the "enemy" that don't stand a chance of winning.

But in the case of health care reform and the anti-government rage we see in town halls and "tea party" events, the irrationality seems to me more prominent on the right.

I'm not talking about the behavior of people who have a vested interest in the status quo or are shilling for them. I'm talking about ordinary folks who are currently acting against their best interest.

Of course, they don't think that this is what they're doing. When people do or say irrational things, they always think they're being reasonable. I'm arguing that it's patently against their best rational interests to fight against health reform, to vilify government when it helps and protects them every day, and do so in ways that insure that the folks who are screwing them continue to be able to do so.

For example, at a recent tea party demonstration in Sacramento, Calif., a participant, Walter Branson, was interviewed. Branson said that he had worked for many years in the lumber industry but hadn't worked at all this year. His unemployment benefits were about to run out and, he added, "winter is coming."

He further reported that a lumber company executive had just spoken at the rally and claimed that business was down because of environmental regulations. Now, I don't know Branson but his anti-government zeal interests me because he clearly benefits from what he hates. Among the myriad ways he depends on government is his unemployment insurance, a government program, and one that has recently been extended by that same government as part of Obama's stimulus package.