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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.

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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.