News & Politics

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.

And it's widely accepted that the timber industry is depressed primarily because of a slow down in new-home construction, international competition, and rapidly vanishing old-growth trees -- none of which were caused by government. Protecting the spotted owl was only the icing on the cake.

Arguing that Branson is brainwashed, racist or stupid feels good but doesn't really explain the heart of his irrational fear and hatred of government.

So, I'd like to offer another theory, another narrative about the psychology of angry conservatives. It's a narrative that hopefully will deepen our understanding, and, therefore, our ability to politically respond.

The current language of the right in this debate is all about the perils of government taking over our lives, robbing us of freedom, and even threatening our survival (or that of our aging parents).

After wending its way through our minds and picking up steam from hot-button symbols like Nazi Germany and communism, the picture of government that emerges looks increasingly 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 an inimical force that wants to colonize and exploit them.

I think that one answer to this puzzle lies in the psychological perils of helplessness and dependence, defenses against which lead to anti-government paranoia. The process by which this occurs is complicated and takes a bit of explaining.

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. They are intended to make us less sympathetic characters because most of us have a very hard time viewing our lives with much compassion for the helpless, dependent and innocent person we once were and, to some extent, still are.

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.

That's one reason why offering psychological analyses of bad behavior is often scorned. We (psychologists, that is) are seen as letting people off the hook, subtly endorsing bad behavior on the grounds of bad childhoods, even getting serial killers acquitted on insanity pleas. Psychological explanations seem to invariably challenge dearly held beliefs in individual freedom, autonomy and choice, even though there is nothing invariable about this whatsoever.

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. What we have are people threatened by feelings of helplessness, dependency and innocence who are, as a result, inclined to blame themselves for their own suffering.

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.

It's almost as if you have to take care of them in spite of themselves, in ways that allow them the maximum amount of freedom and the maximum autonomy to say "No."

Only then will you stand a chance of them hearing your arguments.

Michael Bader is a psychologist and psychoanalyst in San Francisco. He is the author of Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies, and Male Sexuality: Why Women Don't Understand It -- and Men Don't Either. He has written extensively about psychology and politics.