The Paranoid Pivot in Political “Thought”

Doug Mataconis analyzes how paranoid Tea Party movement members are now battling efforts to build bike lanes and put smart meters on appliances. Why? Because such policies are part of an elaborate United Nations plot known by the ominous sounding name of “Agenda 21”.

Political paranoia is common in some segments of the U.S. population and is even more prevalent in other parts of the world (e.g., many of the Arab countries in which I have worked). As a psychologist, I have long been fascinated by the mental gymnastics it requires to maintain a conspiracy theory about UN Agenda 21, black helicopters, the Masons etc.

Half the time, the believer rails at the fecklessness, immorality and incompetence of the enemy (e.g., “the guvmint has trouble getting a letter across town!”). Yet then comes the psychological pivot: The putatively blundering force is somehow operating the most brilliant system of political control in the history of the world with hardly anyone being able to detect it.

The evident contradiction between the idiocy and genius of the enemy never troubles the political paranoid. And pointing it out typically evokes not a change of mind but sputtering rage. That’s why William F. Buckley’s approach to this type of political animal in the John Birch Society’s heyday was the correct one: Instead of trying to persuade them to change, try to persuade them to leave.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

26 thoughts on “The Paranoid Pivot in Political “Thought””

  1. This pivot is evident in mainstream conservative thought as well, in which the government is the most blundering, bloated, inefficent bureaucracy filled with waste, etc, every time it tries to do something good domestically, while the military is the most effective instrument for achieving anything in the outside our borders (defeating foreign regimes, building nascent democracies, fighting terror networks, etc.).

  2. Yep, my thoughts exactly upon reading that…that is: when did the UN stop being a bunch of feckless buffoons and become a well-oiled global-domination machine?

    On a more serious note, I think it’s important to understand that many paranoid right-wing fantasies have a grain of truth in them that helps to make them plausible, and we can undermine some of the nonsense by addressing that grain. So, for example: it would be bad for the US to give up its national sovereignty and hand it over to the UN–true! Of course that’s nothing like a real danger, but that’s one thing such folks worry about. It seems to me that if we addressed this worry honestly, we could drain off at least some of their support. Why not reason with them and honestly point out that only the fringiest, leftiest liberals have any desire to give up sovereignty? That’s just not on, and it’s never going to be on. What the average liberal thinks is that we should be good citizens of the world, and that means sometimes coming to agreements with other nations, rather like nations always have. But I think I now exactly one liberal who wants us to give up our sovereignty, and about fifty who don’t.

    Take also their exaggerated concern with illegal immigration, sometimes said to be driven by their aversion to tax money being spent on freeloaders. Well…the grain of truth: tax money spent on freeloaders is bad. Bad, bad, bad. But if we acknowledge that, we can then move the discussion to empirical questions about whether or not illegal immigrants are actually freeloading, whether they’re an appreciable burden on the system, and whether reasonable resources are being expended on the problem. And I think the answers to those questions are more like liberals think they are than like conservatives think they are.

    I think the problem in both cases is that liberals aren’t explicit enough about affirming the core of right principle in the concerns. They tend to be more interested in, e.g., ridiculing the Tea Party as racists. No doubt there’s a racial/racist component in TP thinking…but by focusing exclusively on that, and ignoring the core of truth in their position, we miss something important, and fail to reach out to the more rational elements of the group.

    1. “It seems to me that if we addressed this worry honestly, we could drain off at least some of their support. Why not reason with them and honestly point out that only the fringiest, leftiest liberals have any desire to give up sovereignty? ”

      Because they don’t care about the facts.

  3. CB’s pivot is more irrational than Keith’s pivot.

    Keith’s political paranoid believes that their enemy is brilliant at the black arts of politics, but has a destructive agenda. There is nothing irrational about this apparent disjoint. The dumber ones say that the enemy is eeevil. That is admittedly irrational, but the smarter ones that their enemy is blinkered by an unrealistic ideology, which does not preclude tactical skill, and indeed may encourage the kind of ruthlessness needed to exercise this skill well. There is plenty of historical precedent for this: the Russian Revolution is the usual example.

    Indeed, many posters at this site believe that exactly this is true for the Republican Party today. Are they all paranoids?

    CB’s pivot is better because it truly defies anybody’s notion of reality.

    1. I’ll take credit for believing that the GOP has (what I deem to be) evil intent. The GOP agenda is to dismantle the government so as to empower corporations (“The Job Creators” note the term “Creators” in there) to take over all those things We the People have traditionally done just fine. There is no denial of this by the GOP. It has been their stated goal for most of the last century.
      Do I think this is a conspiracy? You betcha, big time!
      If they really are out to get us it ain’t paranoia.

  4. “As a psychologist, I have long been fascinated by the mental gymnastics it requires to maintain a conspiracy theory about UN Agenda 21, black helicopters, the Masons etc.”

    These are the same impressive mental gymnastics entailed by any neurotic defense mechanism (and we all have some). From the outside they often seem pathetically obvious (the helicopters are “black” — who’d have figured?) but from the inside they serve to maintain some kind of emotional equilibrium.

  5. Political opinions do change though. If I were homosexual or African-American I might be less impressed at the speed of change, but from my perspective it’s happening fast, and not just through generational replacement.

    Figuring out what triggers political paranoia and how that paranoia recedes or comes back, would be a worthwhile exercise.

  6. Devotion to a fundamentalism envelops one’s perspective, enclosing it many times in an unpenetrable vessel we can call bigotry. As the bigot finds like-minded others, organized bigotry can be projected upon the whole! W.F. Buckley understood this dynamic, and was very effective in keeping the bigots at bay.

    The focal irony of such like-minded-folks-as-the-members-of-Tea-Party is that they embrace a world view that puts them in the seat of victimhood, but if their ideas of what ought to be would indeed prevail, the rest of us would surely be victims of their impenetrable bigotry, as they lay policies of the bigot, upon us!

  7. I think the GOP/Tea Party hate bicyclists because of two reasons:

    1) The Teas tend to be fat, lazy people who have long given up the use of their legs. Seeing someone on a bicycle irks their conscience.

    2) Tea Party political hubris has always been that they’ve paid their way thru life, no one gave them anything. Blah. Blah. Yet a moment’s reflection (which bicyclists provide) shows them that their tailpipes have always been a “free ride” on the atmosphere. They’ve never paid for the pleasure of polluting. Ever. It puts the lie to all their moral bluster. It is all BS. Lies from the second the rubber hits the road. And that irks their conscience too.

    So this crap about the UN 21 is a just made up baloney to cover up the Tea party’s physical and moral shortcomings.
    They realize bicyclists are superior people. They realize they are inferior. And they make up crazy crap to save fat face…

    1. Actually this reminds me of a famous if somewhat sad joke that’s very relevant to the larger point of Keith’s post. I’m not completely sure of the provenance but Freud among others may have told it.

      An old Jewish man is walking down the street in Germany and is accosted by a bunch of Nazis who start start attacking the Jews as the cause of all their problems. He joins in: “Yes, all of Germany’s problems are caused by the bicycle riders and the Jews!” “The bicycle riders?” they ask in confusion. “Why the bicycle riders?” The old man responds, “Why the Jews?”

    2. No, it is cultural. Tea Party logic: People who like bicycling are hippies. Hippies are bad people. Therefore bicycling and bike lanes are bad.

      Remember when the Tea Party was trying to convince people that they weren’t cultural conservatives but super fiscal responsible folks interested in economic issues? And now the Tea Party GOP passes a record number of anti-abortion legislation and zero reforms to Fannie and Freddie tells you everything you need to know about the Tea Party. Just another rebranding.

      1. Hippies, coastal elites, intellectuals, atheists – it’s one gestalt. Their cultural hostilities derive from ressentiment.

        1. Oh bicyclists, I think it’s a bunch of things, not necessarily all at once. There’s envying the athlete, envying the person who can to some degree escape traffic, resenting the more-educated, guilt about polluting, hating the hippie who’s reminding them that they’re polluting. Finally, and I think this is one of the biggest, there’s the willingness to pick on someone who’s vulnerable and different. When you’re inside a metal cage, with a few hundred horsepower at your command, it’s easy to get physically mad at the guy inside a cotton T-shirt. Drivers may get irritated with the garbage truck (temporarily) blocking the street, but they don’t try and smash into it, or spit on it, because you know, it could fight back. And of course, I’m happy to pick on cyclists, because I know I’ll never get on a bike again.

    3. Well, I don’t want to press my hypothesis above too hard, but my observations of my own family and the folks I know back home is that they just kinda don’t understand all that (let’s admit it) upper-middle-class lefty stuff. Bicycles, for example? Frivolous and just weird from the perspective of somebody who basically just thinks about getting to work, doing his job, and getting home. Honestly, bicycling to work is viewed rather like you or I would view it if someone took extra time to do mime or interpretive dance or something on the way to work every day; we’d be like “WTF, don’t you have, like, *work* to do?” In my experience, more working-class people tend to have a fairly narrow, practical focus, and not irrationally so. Many of the folks I grew up around lived through the depression, or their parents did, and all of them lived through much more lean times than almost any of the academic liberals I know. For fairly good reasons, they are more narrowly focused on survival and practical accomplishment. Have a raised consciousness or whatever it is that I have is a luxury–a luxury I have because my dad worked hard at a job he hated his whole life. We are soldiers so our children can be farmers, and their children can be artists and all that.

      Look, I think that it would be a lot better if we could get these folks to see that their narrow focus is skewed, and that this focus prevents them from seeing, e.g., that we’re killing the planet. But pretending that they think what they think because they are “fat, lazy people,” or that they’re selfish or stupid or whatever is just not true. And if you don’t care about that, then care that it’s not politically effective to make a large segment of the population think that liberals disdain them. I’m not defending the rich and greedy who have more than they know what to do with and still want more. But the average working Joe who made it to a comfortable life through hard work, and now disdains liberals…well, many of them are just misinformed, or not thinking clearly about things…but many of them had their intellectual orientations set by harder lives than most of us have had.

      1. Look, I think that it would be a lot better if we could get these folks to see that their narrow focus is skewed, and that this focus prevents them from seeing, e.g., that we’re killing the planet. ……but many of them had their intellectual orientations set by harder lives than most of us have had.

        I grew up this way too. It is one thing to be focused on practicality, hearing the reasons why we need bike lanes, allowing civic discourse and democratic processes to decide the issue on public property, and another thing altogether to bully, disrupt, shout, etc.

  8. I’m not quite sure that “bunch of clumsy idiots” and “well-oiled global domination machine” are that irreconcilable. Think of the British Army of the 1800’s (or the US Army today.)

    More seriously, it seems that a lot of conspiracy theories are driven by observable facts. “No matter who we vote for, X keeps getting worse” will drive a lot of conspiracy theories–whether X is “the difficulty of building a new shopping house” or “the relative power of Egypt and the United States”.

  9. In the end, it’s a bunch of people who see that (a) they’re not the only people any more, that former non-people are now counting, and (b) that the elites are f*cking them and f*cking them hard.

    Since they can’t protest against the actual elites, they dream up fake elites.

  10. That we will fulfill the Newtster’s dream and fund PBS to make a movie of His Life. The role of Gingrich will not be played by Brad Pitt, as Newt fantasized, but perhaps Will Farrell might be available.

  11. “Political paranoia is common in some segments of the U.S. population”

    To be fair, CONTAGION paranoia is just as common in different segments of the US population:
    cell phones (or cell phone towers) cause cancer;
    gluten is poison;
    vaccines cause autism;
    etc etc etc

    And you see exactly the same sorts of incoherent contradictions among these people — eg the guy complaining that his local substation is the epi-center of a cancer cluster happily smokes multiple joints every day and claims (because it is “natural”) that this will never cause any ill-effects.

    You simply cannot understand humanity unless you are willing to admit that vast numbers of humans have substantially defective minds.

  12. Another good paranoid conspiracy theory is that a Vice-President of the United States could set up his own executive office, staff it with 45 people whose names, job titles, and salaries were kept secret for 8 years, keep all his office’s e-mail on non-government servers that were wiped every month, and on the way out the door shred all the paper documents. Clearly impossible in real life.


  13. The Tea Party Person may have gone a bit too far (dissing the bike lanes) being so frustrated with so many inappropriate government activities, but what about the 90% of valid points that were made?

    The main point was that Smart Meters (1)violated privacy, (2) caused serious personal and public health problems, (3) raised utility bills for most customers and (4) are a national security risk creating 10 million access points to the grid hanging outside on people’s homes.

    Must-See 4-minute youtube video on Smart meters

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