ONTD Political

Psychological Profile of the Average Teabagger

9:56 pm - 03/02/2010
Why We Need to Have Empathy for Tea Party

AlterNet / By Michael Bader

If we don't understand how decent, god-fearing, victimized people can come to espouse such dangerous ideologies, we won't be able to fight them effectively.

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 Times article 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.

I'm not one hundred percent sure how much I agree with all of this article; however I do believe that the majority of the Tea Party is made of confused and hurting people who have been victimized and militarized by the overwhelming radicalization of the American far right. What are your thoughts on the matter, ontd_p?

Source (sorry for forgetting it upon first submission): http://www.alternet.org/news/145848/why_we_need_to_have_empathy_for_tea_party_lunatics_?page=1
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chasingtides 3rd-Mar-2010 04:12 am (UTC)
I agree that they're confused and victimized and radicalised by the far right. I also think they're dangerous.
jettakd 3rd-Mar-2010 04:14 am (UTC)
We're agreed on the dangerous part, definitely.
mhael What are my thoughts?3rd-Mar-2010 04:14 am (UTC)
I'll let Airplane! Guy answer that:

In other words: fuck `em. I hope they all die of massive coronaries from the high blood pressure induced by their frothing paranoia, and the country will be smarter and the world a better place.

Can you tell that I hate these people?
hallwayjulie Re: What are my thoughts?3rd-Mar-2010 05:25 am (UTC)
They bought their tickets...they knew what they were getting into!
subversive_kiwi 3rd-Mar-2010 04:15 am (UTC)
This only makes me hate Glenn Beck more, (if possible.) I think he knows full well that he is only victimizing people who are in the emotional state to be groping for any sort of answer.
ytterbius 3rd-Mar-2010 05:17 am (UTC)
He's an ignorant boozer. I suspect that he has very little awareness of the world around him or the effect of his presence within it.
schexyschteve 3rd-Mar-2010 04:16 am (UTC)
No, I will not feel any empathy for them. These are the SAME people who told liberals or anyone who disagreed with them to GTFO if they didn't like it. Guess what? SHOE'S ON THE OTHER FOOT NOW. Don't like it? LEAVE.

Oh wait, the only places that would have you and your ideals is somewhere like Saudi Arabia.
missmurchison 3rd-Mar-2010 02:37 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I'm inclined to think the same way. I watched those people wallow in their own self-approval for years, and now their house of cards has fallen down they want to blame people who've been pointing out the problems all along,
cookie_nut 3rd-Mar-2010 04:17 am (UTC)
Oh, I understand them. Doesn't stop me from thinking they're batshit and need to go away. :/
lidane 3rd-Mar-2010 04:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, this.
chasingtides 3rd-Mar-2010 04:20 am (UTC)
I have both psychological problems and non-mainstream beliefs. They're not necessarily related, although the former does sometimes ostracise me from the mainstream.
bluetooth16 3rd-Mar-2010 04:18 am (UTC)
Even I have to agree with this article!
girlthatyoufear 3rd-Mar-2010 04:19 am (UTC)
I don't really see it so much as paranoia, but more so a volatile reaction to their privilege being questioned. They're afraid because all they've known is changing around them. They are so used to everything going according to their plans, they don't quite know how to process anything else. So, their thoughts are irrational, but not paranoid. Either way, nothing excuses their behavior.
papilio_luna 3rd-Mar-2010 04:36 am (UTC)
antiotter 3rd-Mar-2010 04:20 am (UTC)
"Internment/Resettlement Specialist" = Prison Guard, aka Corrections Specialist. The Army changed the name of the career field to get the stench of Abu Ghraib (which I'm sure these assholes thought looked like a fun frat party) off of it.
cesaretech 3rd-Mar-2010 04:22 am (UTC)
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.

Somehow, I doubt that. Five bucks bet that the majority of them could not even name the the three-man Publius.

I don't think the Whiskey Rebels are crazy; misguided, misled, and being used as a tool, yes. These people, however, are willingly falling into mob rule, and are too dangerous to tolerate if they continue to spread as much radicalism as they have been.

Edited at 2010-03-03 04:23 am (UTC)
jettakd 3rd-Mar-2010 04:25 am (UTC)
The Federalist Papers as editted by Glenn Beck most likely.
thewhowhatwhats 3rd-Mar-2010 04:25 am (UTC)
I'm sure there's probably a Twilight Zone episode that would apply to this.
jettakd 3rd-Mar-2010 04:28 am (UTC)
There's a Twilight Zone episode for everything, I've found.
suzermagoozer 3rd-Mar-2010 04:31 am (UTC)
it just occurred to me that this guy i used to date is probably in the tea party now.

these people CANNOT and WILL NOT engage in actual debate. they believe there is only ONE logic...and they are the only ones to reach the highest level of logic...and they are only trying to shame us into seeing the light.

it's exhausting being with someone who thinks this way.
schexyschteve 3rd-Mar-2010 04:38 am (UTC)
It sounds like my dad, minus the right wing beliefs.
perfectisafault 3rd-Mar-2010 04:50 am (UTC)
books by Ayn Rand and George Orwell
FFS, Orwell fought with the POUM in Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War. He was a democratic socialist, you teaparty dolts. Stick with Rand, plz.
jettakd 3rd-Mar-2010 04:53 am (UTC)
Yeah I always o_O when they mention Orwell. Complete misinterpretation of 1984 for $500, Alex.
ytterbius 3rd-Mar-2010 05:20 am (UTC)
"I do believe that the majority of the Tea Party is made of confused and hurting people who have been victimized and militarized by the overwhelming radicalization of the American far right. What are your thoughts on the matter, ontd_p?"

Safely Agree.

akisawana 3rd-Mar-2010 05:23 am (UTC)
I know a guy who is a paranoid schizophrenic, and yes, conversations with him have to take into account his version of reality or he gets really upset but- BUT!
He would never hurt anyone for disagreeing with him, or call for them being hurt. Or even for them to lose their job. He will patiently answer each and every question, offer loads of (crazy) advice, and if you really upset him, he'll leave the room crying.

Please do not make life harder for crazy people than it already is (can you imagine how hard your life would be if you thought your e-mails and phone calls were being monitored, with the information sold to the highest bidder?) by lumping the Tea Party in with them. I'd feel safer with ten thousand paranoid schizophrenics than ten teabaggers.
ex_drakyn 3rd-Mar-2010 05:41 am (UTC)

Thank you for this comment!!!
ladyaries 3rd-Mar-2010 05:33 am (UTC)
Nope, no excuse for bigots.
donalbain_ 3rd-Mar-2010 05:37 am (UTC)
While this might explain some senile, paranoid Glenn Beck stans, it really doesn't explain all the college-educated doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who consider themselves Tea Baggers. They aren't crazy. They're just surprised and reacting to their extremely sheltered privileged middle-class white world view being challenged all of a sudden.
mswyrr 3rd-Mar-2010 09:03 am (UTC)
Yes. I have a lot more pity for the poor/working class people who get suckered into this bullshit because, at the end of an exhausting day trying to survive, they turn on Fox News and don't have the skills to realize they're being lied to.
pragmatic_chimp 3rd-Mar-2010 06:24 am (UTC)
Yeah, this is basically all correct.

I've seen this happen personally, with a really good friend of mine. I don't know what to do about it, because he's really been worrying me. I don't even know how to address it.

the_gabih 3rd-Mar-2010 10:55 am (UTC)
We were discussing something similar to this in English Lit the other day- the creation of the 'Other' to define yourself. Being British, most of my class had never heard of the Tea Partiers until now, but we all eventually agreed that they were real life 'Other'-creators gone to the extreme, and that terrified us.

But having said that, I really hate far-right icons now. They know what they're doing to vulnerable people, and they're quite happy to keep right on doing it so long as it makes them a profit. Grr...
ceilidh_ann 3rd-Mar-2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of these people have no idea what they're doing; they just see some guy on TV who sounds like he's saying the right things to them so they pull all their money together to protest and buy all the books and shit he's selling. If this was the 1930s, Glenn Beck would be Father Coughlin (or Brother Justin. ;D)
evewithanapple 4th-Mar-2010 12:29 am (UTC)
or Brother Justin. ;D

He'd be fucking his sister?
mercaque 3rd-Mar-2010 01:54 pm (UTC)
Some part of me understands that empathy may be an effective strategy. I'm soon to lose my job and I completely understand how that messes with your concept of yourself and the world.

But a whole huge part of me says, so these teabaggers are feeling helpless and out of control... well, how the FUCK do they think people of color, gays, women, disabled people and religious minorities (and all the intersections thereof) have felt in this country since it was founded?!! I mean the unemployment rate for black Americans is almost double what it is for white Americans. I have a guy at my workplace who talks about how terrified he is that this country is doomed to socialism. Well, he has a job important enough that he gets his own office, and I'm getting laid off. So boo fucking hoo.

In short, I'm sympathetic to anybody suffering in this economy, but I am NOT sympathetic to anybody who defaults to bigotry and violence to deal with it. A lot of us are feeling just as frightened and worthless as the teabaggers, but we're not being racist jerkholes about it. These squeaky wheels don't deserve a fucking DROP of grease.

vipervixen33 3rd-Mar-2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree.
erunamiryene 3rd-Mar-2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
I can understand them, but I will NEVER EVER IN A MILLION YEARS empathize with them.

I might could if I thought they actually wanted solutions, or if they'd been out yelling about all this when someone who was white was in office, or if those legislators espousing them now (I'M FUCKING LOOKING AT YOU JIM BUNNING) had actually stuck with those principles THE ENTIRE TIME they'd been in office. They don't want to accept any sort of responsibility for how their government is run. They don't want to educate themselves on ANY DAMN TOPIC. They don't want anyone but them to get anything from the government. They don't want solutions. They want enemies and people to rail against. If life isn't black and white, they don't know what to do, and that's just a fucking sorry way for a human being to be. (And I sure didn't see all these older folks out protesting Bush's Medicare expansion, even though ... wait for it ... how the fuck were we supposed to pay for it? And hey, why isn't Medicare socialism anyway? Yeah, nice and convenient, those "principles" they have.)

Yes, some things in life are shitty; that's how things are sometimes! But jesus criminy, the solution is not xenophobia, screaming, and fucking up our government system even more than it already is. The solution is not GIMMIE GIMMIE GIMMIE GTFO IT'S MINE. The solution is not "purity tests" for your party. The solution is not NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO *WAAAAAAAAAAAAAH*.

If you can't handle the "anxiety, helplessness, and pain" by any other means than throwing fucking temper tantrums and acting like those fuckstains, grow the fuck up.

And stop calling yourselves "patriots".

Edited at 2010-03-03 02:42 pm (UTC)
vipervixen33 3rd-Mar-2010 02:50 pm (UTC)
*applause* Man, I couldn't have said it better. o_o
gmth 3rd-Mar-2010 02:39 pm (UTC)
This is sort of like Obama's insistence that everything be done in a bipartisan way. In theory, that sounds great. As a practical matter, you can't empathize or compromise with people who will do everything they can to shut the country down entirely. Let them empathize with ME. Then we'll talk.
homasse 3rd-Mar-2010 04:11 pm (UTC)
The Teabaggers (and what seems like the recent upswing in racism, anti-abortion pushes, and reactions against gay marriage) all seem, to me, to have the same root--the country is going through a monumental societal shift, and people are reacting against the shift. "Minorities" will soon make up a majority of the country. PoC and white women are achieving more and gaining more prominent positions in society, and a lot of these teabagger types are seeing themselves losing out and the privilege life they took for granted seeming like it's fading away, and they're scared and angry because, for them, change is bad, and a fair number of them are terrified that one day, they will be treated just like minorities have been. They're afraid that once minorties are in charge (which is why I think Obama's election set all this off), the they will find themselves treated the exact way minorities were treated by white men in power, and so they're rebelling to protect themselves and their way of life.

True equality for everyone, for a lot of the teabaggers and homophobes and misogynists coming out of the wood work is going to hurt them, and they're fighting it tooth and nail, even if they don't realize that's what they're fighting--they say they want to "protect America," but it's really "protect ourselves."

I think the next five years in the US are going to be majorly important (and volatile) ones as we go through these growing pains.

Edited at 2010-03-03 04:13 pm (UTC)
luomo 3rd-Mar-2010 04:21 pm (UTC)
honestly i think a large part of the tea bagger movement is a novel sense of political egagement and excitement. many of these people have never been politically active in their lives.

the bush years saw huge amounts of activism and strained emotions from the left, and for legitimate reasons. now that obama's in office and our system of privilege for white, straight, middle class men is being questioned, many see it as their time to protest. what's really happening on the right isn't a "revolution," it's reactionism.
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