Why are there so many "crazies" coming out of the woodwork to attack public officials with their views that defy reality? And why are they so angrily insistent on those views?
As a psychologist I believe the answers to these two questions have profound significance for our nation's mental health and will determine whether America will have the mental capacity to confront the increasingly complex challenges that confront us.
Of course we know these people are lied to by increasingly effective and ruthless Republican strategists operating in patriotic sounding front organizations. They are indoctrinated 24 hours a day by Fox News and proselytized to by the Religious Right.
But that still takes our "why" question only so far. What is it about the mind that makes so many people accept a reality that is so much at odds with the reality that we hold? There is nothing subjective about the reality issues in play here. Obama was born in Hawaii and there are no death squads in Obama's plan. So what gives?
In a recent book, I tried to answer these "why" questions from a psychologist's perspective. Here is the most succinct way I have been able to articulate it.
We take our sense of what is real and what is not real for granted. We shouldn't. We each actually form our own unique "reality sense" with our mind that assimilates an infinitely complex bombardment of stimuli from outside us and from within. It is no simple task, and the most miraculous part of the human mind is that it is able to create a coherent reality at all.
The problem is that in times of extreme uncertainty the mind has a hard time creating this reality sense. The mind becomes confused. This can be caused by external events in our world, such as rapid change or inner psychological states -- for example, when we are experiencing strong emotions like paranoia, envy, or challenges to our sexual identity.
In this state of confusion, the mind does not do very well at all. When it feels sufficiently uncertain about what is real and what is not real, it panics. Ultimately the mind will fragment if it is not able to create a cohesive reality sense with a reassuring sense of what is real and what is not real. The breakdown in this ability to form a coherent reality sense is the primary difference between sanity and madness. Thus, it is not too surprising that for many people it is more important to have some reality sense than it is to have a correct reality sense. Of course, people differ greatly in their ability to tolerate ambiguity and in their ability to create a reality sense in times of stress. But for someone in an acute state of uncertainty, it is any port in a storm when it comes to reality formation.
And this is where things go awry. Current right-wing politics is an art form that is designed to re-define reality for a class of people who are increasingly unable to establish their own sense of reality. Instead, they succumb and become increasingly dependent on someone else to tell them what is real and what is not real. In their regressed psychological state, under certain conditions, many people will accept as real whatever they are told by an authoritative sounding figure be it Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly.
And the more people lean on these people to provide that function, the more dependent they become on them, and the less able they are to think for themselves. As this process continues people will accept ever more outrageous ideas. Death squads in health care? Obama secretly born in Kenya? Okay.
The value people like Limbaugh and O'Reilly have for these people is that without them people simply cannot make sense of their world. They are in a state of confusion unless and until someone offers them a reality that "explains" things enough that they at least feel they understand what is going on in the world. Only then is their panic and anxiety abated.
The "reality" sense they are handed has to be simple enough that they can readily understand it. The devil was one of the earliest bogeymen for a reason. We create a "devil box" and everything that needs explanation comes from the devil box.
So if you paint a Hitler-like mustache on a picture of Obama and toss in the word "socialist" things begin to make sense and come into a focus no matter how distorted that "focus" is. Again, it is better to have a reality sense that is wrong than to have no reality sense at all. In the latter case one enters a state of complete fragmentation or madness.
The portrayal of someone, in this case Obama, as the devil incarnate serves multiple functions. It organizes a person's world by explaining so much so simply, and it also offers an explanation of why the person has been feeling so apprehensive. They were not afraid of their own psychological fragmentation. Instead, the danger is external in the form of Obama. Better the enemy be outside of oneself than inside oneself.
And, of course, if Obama is a foreigner from Kenya their fear is much more understandable and helpful in arranging our inner world. The "birthers'" insistence on their reality, even in the face of Obama's birth verification from Hawaii and the copy of the newspaper announcement of his birth, reflects the deep psychological need these people have to maintain the view of reality that was handed to them. Once their reality is established people are reluctant to retrace the steps of uncertainty that has led them to their illogical position. To do so they have to traverse their route back through the uncertainty they were trying to escape in the first place.
And make no mistake about it, the conservative element in America has a very good understanding of how this process works inside the mind, the critical sense of timing it requires, and how one must deliver the powerful messages in repetitive depth charges to the human mind.
The democrats are still lagging very far behind in this regard and still think the public is engaged in a substantive discussion of the issues. They ignore the reality of the human mind time and time again.
There are two critical elements to this form of "reality" politics. One is timing. The other is certainty. To exploit this vulnerability in the mind, the time to strike is at the very first moment of uncertainty that people feel, before they have formed any reality of their own and before they become attached to anyone else's view of reality. This is why the swift-boating was so effective. John Kerry was "unfit to lead" before he even introduced himself to the American public.
With the current health care debate, a black man is offering a government designed health care plan that is largely undefined. Health care is too complicated and confusing for most people anyway, and Obama is a "foreigner." Latent paranoid fears and uncertainty are not hard to understand. In such a state, many people are receptive to anyone who presents him or herself with a strong angry argument that organizes their world and gives some extrinsic explanation for the anxiety they are feeling. Anger is a tremendous organizer. Angry people may not think clearly, but they are very certain of themselves. This is what we are seeing in the town hall meetings.
So what should progressives do? Do we have to be like the far right and beat them at their own game? No, not at all. But we do have to hoist them on their own petard. We have to expose the manipulations and the manipulators with a torrential counterattack that is focused on the manipulations, not a message that emphasizes some irrelevant "positive" message such as how important health reform is.
Instead, we need to harness the rage that is ubiquitous in this country because of all the uncertainty and the confusion. That is the energy that is driving health care and most political life in America at the present time. We need to harness it for constructive purposes, exposing the puppeteers and the corporate interests that are behind them. Health care is ultimately a populist issue, but we are not igniting the populist rage that drives all populism. Until progressives learn this lesson they will lose.
Those Pollyannas who thought that with Obama's election progressives had won were very naïve. If we learn nothing else from the birthers and the deathers, if we learn that we must work with the deeper strata of the human mind, it will be an invaluable lesson.
Bryant Welch is a clinical psychologist and attorney. He is the author of State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind (St. Martin's Press, 2008).