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The Psychology of Neo-McCarthyism

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When an elder politician like "Mr. Republican" Bob Dole says "I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says closed for repairs... " you know we've entered Bizarro World. Especially when he added, in that same FOX interview, that neither Reagan, Nixon nor himself could "make it in today's GOP."

It's even worse than that: A group of influential Republicans are creating a new norm of juvenile, schoolyard-name-calling behavior. And as they churn out innuendos about Democrats consorting with the enemy, such déjà vu tactics would make Joe McCarthy jump for joy. There are political motives for this odd, self-destructive path. But there's another source worth considering as well: The mental and emotional drivers that may underlie the resurgence of McCarthyism at this particular point in our culture. It amounts to a kind of arrested development, borne of a crumbling identity of manhood for some, one that has always linked class status, power to control and dominate, and self-interest with a righteous sense of high moral stature.

I'll explain below, but first take a look at some recent examples of the slurs and innuendos:

  • After attacking Chuck Hagel's character during his Senate confirmation, Rep. Daniel Issa went on to call Obama's press secretary a "paid liar." And discussing the IRS scandal, he implied -- in a typical McCarthy innuendo, that it's "a problem that was coordinated in all likelihood right out of Washington headquarters -- and we're getting to proving it." (My italics, to illustrate the deliberate suggestion of associations). Despite these insinuations of high-level corruption, the originator was revealed to be a conservative Republican who sought greater clarification of the criteria for granting tax-exempt status.
  • Also during the Hagel confirmation, Sen. Ted Cruz implied that Hagel might have gotten money from North Korea or other enemies, with no evidence. "He basically came out and made the accusation... and he just laid out there all of this accusatory verbiage without a shred of evidence," said Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill. And recently, Cruz was quoted in a New Yorker article that President Obama "... would have made a perfect president... " at Harvard Law School,"... where there were twelve Communists who believed in overthrowing the government."
  • Then there's Rep. Steve Stockman (a birther, please note) who's blithely referred to "... Obama's intent to focus on the citizens as the criminal and the terrorists are not to be investigated." And that Obama is "... now targeting American citizens over the terrorists."
  • And there's some Republicans' endless fascination with rape, replete with fantasies and claims about pregnancy that don't match with reality. They sound like pornography censors who say they have to watch a lot of in order to validate condemning it.
In his Washington Post column, Eugene Robinson pointed out:

This is no way for a 2-year-old to act, much less the self-proclaimed "world's greatest deliberative body." And speaking of juvenile behavior... Rep. Darrell Issa of California and his GOP colleagues in the House are embarrassing themselves by straining to turn Obama administration missteps into Watergate-style scandals.

Similarly, Dana Milbank highlights that"... House Republicans have shelved a serious legislative agenda this year in favor of 24/7 investigations" including three on the IRS scandal, and that "... five committees are reportedly investigating the administration's handling of September's attack on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, Libya."

Given that this resurgence of McCarthyism and GOP opposition to constructive legislative action are self-destructive, as Joshua Green has written in Business Week, it's useful to consider some psychological roots.

Manhood -- And the World as Some Men Know It -- Under Siege

Anyone might experience a loss of mooring regarding their identity, purpose and place in the world, when that world evolves rapidly in significant and threatening directions. For some men in positions of power, they may experience fears and a sense of loss about what they've always assumed that "manhood" and a stable life consists of. And that typically includes traditional power and material measures of prestige and success.

The founder of the Center for WorkLife Law and law professor Joan Williams recently wrote that, for upper-middle class men, work devotion marries a sense of "moral purity with elite status;" being a "real man." She cites sociologist Michèle Lamont's observation that ambition and a strong work ethic can be "doubly sacred... as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity."

That "sacredness" -- identity, really, and the vested interests that maintain it -- can feel like it's all crumbling beneath your feet when faced with large-scale social change and transformation. And there are plenty of those. Consider these:

  • Rapidly increasing transparency and worldwide interconnection via social media.

These aren't isolated, unrelated trends, but interconnected streams that describe ongoing social and psychological shifts of values, attitudes and behavior; and their corresponding challenges. For some it may feel like the "end of the world as we know it," as in the old REM song: that one's stable world is under siege. That's more pronounced when one has absorbed, profited from or otherwise bought into an ideology about manhood identity that includes holding and using personal power for material ends, including elite status and social recognition.

At the same time, some will have become beholden to people and institutions that have provided those conventional measures of success and self-worth as a man. Politicians caught within that vortex may cling to their lifelines -- the corporate and other suppliers of money and therefore the votes to keep them in office.

For some, it feels inconceivable that society would be anything other than stable and supportive of who they are and their secure place in the world; and that they would be the perpetual beneficiaries of that stability.

Denial is often a first-line defense, a psychological shutdown when threatened by new realities and their implied loss regarding a person's identity. Denial is largely unconscious, and is fueled by fear and helplessness, and also by ideology and beliefs that freeze in the face of a perceived crumbling of one's values and identity in the face of disturbing change.

Of course, some people who see their vested interests and identity in danger of crumbling will engage in highly conscious, hypocritical behavior. For example, by knowingly spouting lies and citing non-existent "evidence" of them. Such people are determined to protect their self-interest, money and power regardless of the impact that that has on the larger society. That is, their aim is preservation of their power and money, with no real regard for the impact their self-serving or destructive positions have upon the larger society.

Whether they're driven by denial or highly conscious intent, those who feel threatened by the risks and new adjustments to their sense of identity that lie ahead may turn emotions of loss, anger and fear outward -- into aggressive, accusatory attacks, oppositional behavior and destructive, desperate tactics. McCarthy-style innuendos, threats and unsubstantiated charges fit right in.

But reality eventually triumphs, and has to be dealt with. As that happens, many would agree with the Russian multimillionaire and entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov's comments, that this is

...the picture of this world that we created, with the minds we have today, with our set of values, with our egotism, our selfishness, our aggression. Most of the world is suffering. What we're doing here does not look like the behavior of grown-ups. We're killing the planet and killing ourselves.

It's time for the closet center-right Republicans to heed Bob Dole's call: Close the GOP for repairs, reclaim adulthood and re-emerge as an adversarial party, but one that's ready to compromise for the sake of the country's pressing needs.

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. and writes the blog Progressive Impact.You may contact him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org. To learn more about him, click here.