Why We Need to Have Empathy for Tea Party Lunatics

The Right Wing

These Tea Party folks seem to most liberals -- well, to most of us who live in the "reality community," or, as I like to call it, "reality" --- like crazy fuckers.

As a recent New York Timesarticle reports, this hodgepodge of people and groups spout frankly paranoid beliefs as received wisdom, e.g. the Federal Reserve is our enemy and should be abolished; citizens should stock up on ammo, gold; and survival food in anticipation of an impending Civil War; states should "nullify" federal laws and even secede; medical records are being shipped to federal bureaucrats; the army is seeking "Internment/Resettlement" specialists; and Obama is trying to create crises in order to destroy the economy, convert Interpol into his personal police force and create a New World Order.

Conspiracy theories involving shadowy elites like the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations have resurfaced. Self-defense and armed resistance are frequently called for. Racist stereotypes, innuendo and hostility run rampant. The Constitution is its sacred text and Glenn Beck its most beloved prophet. They don't usually wear aluminum hats but perhaps they should.

I hate these folks but I also understand them. And, well, uh, I also empathize with them. They share the same psychology as the paranoid patients I treat every day. The only difference is that the paranoid beliefs of the Tea Party movement are political while those in my consulting room are of a more personal nature. The causes and dynamics, however, are the same. And so just as I have empathy for my patients, I have come to have empathy for the Tea Partiers, even as I despise their influence and work hard to defeat their ideology. It's crucial that the Left does likewise because if we don't understand the ways that decent, god-fearing, and victimized people can come to espouse such a dangerous ideology, we won't be able to fight them effectively.

I treat people who are paranoid all the time. Sometimes they're only mildly paranoid. For example, someone I treat can't tolerate blame of any kind, can't take any responsibility for failures, and can't really be optimistic about the potential goodness in others. It's always someone else's fault. Other times, they're more severely paranoid. A patient I saw spun tale after tale of slights, interpreted innocuous events as malignant, saw conspiracies everywhere, and always imputed malevolence to others' motives. The most extreme cases can be found in the delusions of schizophrenics.

There isn't one cause of paranoia. Tomes have been written about it. Individual variations and exceptions abound. A few generalizations, however, can be made. Paranoid people are trying their best to make sense of and mitigate feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Their beliefs are attempts to solve a profound problem, albeit in ways that distort reality.

People can't tolerate feeling helpless and self-hating for very long. It's too painful, too demoralizing and too frightening. They have to find an antidote. They have to make sense of it all in a way that restores their sense of meaning, their feeling of agency, their self-esteem, and their belief in the possibility of redemption. They have to. They have no choice. That's just the way the mind works.

The paranoid strategy is to generate a narrative that finally "explains it all." A narrative -- a set of beliefs about the way the world is and is supposed to be -- helps make sense of chaos. It reduces guilt and self-blame by projecting it onto someone else. And it restores a sense of agency by offering up an enemy to fight. Finally, it offers hope that if "they" -- the enemy, the conspirators -- can be avoided or destroyed, the paranoid person's core feelings of helplessness and devaluation will go away.

Take an extreme case. Someone I saw years ago had a paranoid delusion that orbiting satellites were trying to control his mind. He went to great lengths to insulate his apartment so as to repel these psychic assaults. When I got to know him better, I discovered he developed this delusion as a way to make sense of an ongoing but terrifying experience, the genesis of which lay in his childhood: that he wasn't a separate person and didn't have the right to his own thoughts. This terrifying feeling of helpless vulnerability was rendered comprehensible to him by his delusion about orbiting satellites. In a paradoxical way, his delusion reduced his terror even as it generated its own fears and dangers.

Another patient I saw had a daughter who was mentally retarded. When the daughter's disability was discovered, he felt so helpless and guilty (normal feelings that were exaggerated by experiences from his own childhood) that he slowly developed the belief that the daughter had been the unwitting victim of sexual abuse by relatives, that this abuse had led to various cognitive arrests, and that treatment for the abuse could and would restore her to normalcy. In this way, he negated his guilt, and momentarily overcame his helplessness through a heroic search for a therapeutic "cure."

While extreme cases, these vignettes illustrate the core truth about paranoia; namely, that it is an attempt to lessen unbearable feelings of self-blame and powerlessness. In this special sense, psychotherapists understand paranoid beliefs as attempts at adaptation and self-healing, even as these beliefs compromise the ability to test reality and invariably create suffering of their own.

Paranoid beliefs about President Obama and the government promulgated by the ultra-right have a similar genesis and meaning. In the Times story about the Tea Party movement, the writer describes how most Tea Party activists are not loyal Republicans. "They are frequently political neophytes," he writes, "who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame."

They began listening to Glenn Beck, reading the Federalist Papers, books by Ayn Rand and George Orwell, and started visiting radical right-wing Web sites.

The Times writer then makes a crucial observation: "Many describe emerging from their research as if reborn to a new reality." In other words, like my patients, the Tea Party folks find in their paranoid views about politics a narrative that "explains it all," that reduces their sense of helpless confusion, and that channels their feelings of victimization into one of self-righteous militancy. They go from passive victim to active agent, from guilty to innocent, but all at the price of distorting reality into one full of malevolent conspiracies.

The payoff is that they are no longer confused. They are reborn and now, thankfully, have the "answer." And that answer is that big forces are hurting and enslaving them. While these forces include the banks and large corporations, the main culprit is, of course, the government. People don't have a direct and immediate experience of Goldman Sachs; they do, however, experience government every day, not only on television news shows, but via laws, taxes, public services (or the lack thereof), law enforcement, etc.

Lots of people feel guilty and helpless, of course, and most don't become paranoid. Some become simply depressed or resigned, others turn to strategies of distraction or addictive self-medication. Others might face their feelings more directly, tolerate them, and find alternative solutions, e.g. turn to friends, therapists or various communities of support. Still others may find relief for painful feelings by projecting all meaning and agency onto God. And some simply fight back against "reality," despite long odds. The psychological reasons one person turns to paranoia and another seeks a healthier solution are not generally known. It is also obvious that left-wing conspiracy theorists share much of the same pathology as those on the right wing of the spectrum.

For new Tea Party members, however, the drift toward paranoia is facilitated by the right-wing media machine that offers several ready-made narratives perfectly designed to help its consumers clear up their confusion, understand their helplessness, absolve them of any blame and offer a way out. The conspiratorial alliance of business and government, a growing tyranny intended to disenfranchise, disarm and exploit ordinary citizens, secret pacts to overthrow the Constitution, etc. all currently led by an un-American, godless, colored, elitist, contemptuous foreigner: Barack Hussein Obama. A grim and frightening picture of the world to be sure. Psychologically speaking, however, it offers relief from helplessness and a sense that things are falling apart. It offers a sense of cohesion and identity based on certainty, a commonality of interests, innocence, and even martyrdom. While the world of the Tea Partiers is filled with danger, it is a danger mitigated by moral certainty, clarity of purpose and a definable external enemy.

The "problem," then, is not the paranoid storyline, but the anxiety, helplessness and pain that generate it. That pain is not irrational or crazy. It's real. We all feel it. Most of us do feel helpless in relation to the most important aspects of our lives, from the nature of our work to its security, from our politicians who are on the corporate dole to those perpetuating gridlock through their narrow ideology, from the quality of our health care to its availability, and from the isolation and loneliness of everyday social life. The pain of self-blaming is also ubiquitous in the cultural assumption that our lot in life is determined primarily by individual ability, not by getting help from others. Confusion, anxiety, disconnectedness and a sense that "things are falling apart" are not crazy feelings. They are accurate and valid responses to a highly alienated and often abusive social world.

The "problem" is that Tea Party activists move from legitimate feelings and normal longings to paranoid political positions that are dangerous and cruel. But because these positions serve an important psychological function, because they resolve an emotional dilemma, they can't be changed by rational argument. I have never been able to help a paranoid patient even a little bit by arguing with his or her view of reality. Not one bit. The only way I have been able to make any headway is using our relationship to provide real experiences that have a shot at providing an alternative and more satisfying "solution" to their underlying fears. Only then can I begin to offer a counter-narrative, one that acknowledges their pain and innocence, but enables them to more accurately identify its sources and, therefore, its antidote.

Perhaps the progressive movement shouldn't waste its time dealing with the Tea Party movement except as a spur to get our own house -- and movement -- in order. A legitimate argument can be made that these people are, simply, the enemy and that our challenge is to build progressive majorities immune to their sabotage and interference.

But I would argue that to the extent we want to reach people who are drawn to Tea Party, patriot, libertarian, and other right-wing movements but are not yet hard-line ideologues, or prevent others from becoming so, we have to begin with empathy. We have to get inside their heads, figure out how their choices are reasonable from their point of view. It would help if we found ways to get into relationship with them, to demonstrate a genuine curiosity not about their paranoid theories but about the underlying pain and fear that is the source of them.

In this way, perhaps we can figure out how to speak to that pain and fear in ways that are both authentic and comforting. Perhaps we can figure out what experiences they might need to have in order to feel safe enough to at least listen to another narrative: ours.

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