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The Psychology Behind the Right's Fear of the Future

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In the aftermath of the interim budget agreement, it's clear that a new reactionary ideology has taken root in Tea Party/GOP policies. Psychological drivers are always present in political or personal ideologies and policies. I think it's useful to expose and understand those within the positions of this new incarnation of the Republican Party, in order to counter them with constructive, positive alternatives.

In brief, the Tea Party/GOP is pushing for economic and social policies based on fears: fears of massive transformation, turmoil and chaos underway in our society, and fears about how those transformations will impact lives largely defined by self-interest, power and money. Some fear-generated policies are consciously created, others unconsciously. That is, some reflect a yearning for restoration of a way of life that no longer works in today's changing society and globalized world. Other policy positions reflect conscious manipulation of those fears; but all drive the positions the Tea Party/GOP is demanding and determined to enact.

I call their ideology and policies "reactionary" because they are a retreat away from creating positive, resilient responses to large-scale upheaval and change, and toward objectives that fail to address the sources of problems they aim to fix. Worse, their view of the impact that their policies would have upon society doesn't correspond with factual reality, as a broad range of commentators, both conservative and liberal, have pointed out.

What The New Reactionaries Fear

We're living through major shifts and transformations in the U.S. and our globalized world -- chaotic social and psychological evolution with no end in sight. It's tough to deal with. Many of these shifts reflect positive transformation, in my view. But they can be frightening and emotionally disruptive, as well, especially when people feel that their vested interests, beliefs and entire way of life are threatened. Major examples include:

  • A rising orientation toward serving the common good in business and personal behavior.
  • Turning away from self-interest and materialism as the prime objectives of life.
  • An increasingly diverse society, where current minorities are headed toward the majority within the current decade.
  • Growing business recognition of the need for sustainable practices.
  • Growing outcry against the steady redistribution of wealth to the very rich.
  • A younger generation's orientation toward collaboration and equality, and toward serving a larger purpose than just oneself, both in personal life and in the workplace.
  • Steadily increasing acceptance of diverse sexual orientations in public and private life.
  • The rise of an internationalist perspective, reflected in diverse ways, such as the writings of Fareed Zakaria or Thomas Friedman; greater public interest in news coverage by Al-Jazeera; and in the impact of rising numbers of U.S. students who study abroad.

As these changes in American society infiltrate personal actions, business decisions and public policies, they can generate positive, creative human development. But they can also generate confusion, fear and denial -- often both. And that mix triggers reactionary beliefs and behavior. Here are a few examples.

Fears Become Policy

Irrational Policy Advocacy: Virtually all economists have debunked the claim that continued tax cuts for the rich will help the economy, yet that continues to be proclaimed as gospel. Similarly discredited is the argument that stripping away the economic base of middle- and working-class people and those in need will boost the economy and create new jobs. As Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne put it, these polices are "built on heaping sacrifice onto the poor," and "bestowing benefits on the rich ... asking for give-backs from the least advantaged and least powerful in our society [while] delivering yet more benefits to the wealthiest people in our society ... [and that] ought to force middle-of-the-roaders to take sides."

Anti-Science Is A Virtue: Denial of climate change is now essential ideology for the new reactionaries. Despite the fact that virtually all climate scientists confirm the reality and facts of climate change and the looming crisis it creates, the Tea Party/GOP has staffed the House Energy Committee with vocal deniers of climate change facts. Another branch of the same tree: Many new reactionaries express skepticism or outright rejection of evolution. As is the case with all fear-driven positions, some actually believe the falsehoods; others have manipulative objectives, such as maintaining their vested interest in the oil industry's money, or solidifying their credentials with their voting constituency.

Glorifying Ignorance: Disdain for factual knowledge is evident among those who say, in essence, that ignorance is good because it shows you're "one of the people" who know better than those "educated elites." One example: Rep. Michele Bachmann's claim that the founding fathers weren't slaveowners at all, but that they in fact ended slavery. The position here seems to be that it's desirable to know little if anything about facts or historical events that have shaped our nation.

American Exceptionalism: The reactionary position maintains this belief as theological dogma. Contrary observations are attacked as "un-American." Yet a broader perspective is that the U.S. is the major power, but one of several others rapidly emerging in strength and influence within today's globalized business, political and social culture. Moreover, a broad internationalist perspective helps understand how the U.S. is viewed by other players in the world.

Government Is The Enemy And The Mythology Of Independence: Government is viewed as the embodiment of forces that are dangerous taking over weaker entities, and therefore must be opposed or defended against. Driving this ideology is the fear of losing control over one's life when confronting the reality of the interdependence and interconnection that characterizes today's world. For some, those fears lead to the belief that you can live without help from anyone or anything -- the "survivalist" mentality. But as Virginia Postrel has written in The Wall Street Journal, that results in nothing other than "a perverse fantasy ... [of a] disconnected libertarian living in individualistic isolation. It's both comforting and thrillingly seductive to imagine that you're completely independent."

Conspiracy Theories Redefined As Truths: The most prominent one is the "birther" movement, now embraced by nearly 80 percent of Republican voters. It's increasingly evident that this is a fear-based reaction to the election of a black President, and one who bears a foreign-sounding name to boot. In many respects, the election of President Obama symbolizes the whole shebang -- fears of all the change, transformation and turmoil in our society. Believing that he's an "outsider," not a citizen, or that he's secretly a Muslim, provides emotional comfort to those who are most frightened, and a political opportunity to those who are most manipulative.

The Psychology Behind The Politics

When people become scared, or when their view of who they are feels turned upside down, they may respond positively, with resilience. Or they may unconsciously retreat into illusions of safety through beliefs and behavior that promise restoration of what feels lost or endangered. Moreover, frightened people are vulnerable to conscious manipulation by those who can see reality but want to retain the fruits of their self-interest -- regardless of the cost to others. That's happening today, via the Tea Party/GOP's reactionary policies. It's similar to what happened during the civil rights movement and legislation of the 1960s, when many tried to hold on to or restore racial prejudice and discrimination as part of their crumbling way of life.

When people are emotionally overwhelmed with feelings that their world, values and identity are turned upside down or destroyed, they may embrace beliefs that are extreme, rigid and serve the psychological purpose of denying the frightening, chaotic world they are experiencing. Unconsciously driven people may hold even more tightly to their positions when reality whacks them upside the head, much as adherents to doomsday beliefs become even stronger in their convictions when the world fails to end as predicted. Such people become increasingly vulnerable to dysfunction because the world around them continues to change and evolve in ways that frightened them into embracing false beliefs to begin with. They want to feel safe and protected against a changing world, but their solutions don't work.

Others who embrace the new reactionary policies are consciously hypocritical. They knowingly spout lies or invalid analyses because they're hell-bent on protecting their self-interest, money and power, regardless of the impact that that has on the larger society. That is, behind the delusional and socially destructive policies are the values of self-interest -- primarily, the preservation of power and money, with no real regard for the impact those self-serving policies have upon the larger society or others' needs. In the more extreme cases, it's pure greed, which is a psychological pathology.

Of course, anxiety in the face of change is normal. And it can be a source of guidance toward creating real, workable solutions to the new situations, as E. J. Dionne has pointed out in The Washington Post, describing the need for "a coalition between moderates and progressives on behalf of sane, decent government." Such voices are largely silenced by the extremists' advocacy of policies that "would transform our government from a very modestly compassionate instrument into a machine dedicated to expanding existing privileges while doing as little as possible for the marginalized and the aspiring."

Change and upheaval are especially frightening when you don't have a positive vision or an alternative that feels desirable or safe. A good leader helps articulate such a vision as a pathway through the storm. A manipulative leader offers false ideology to preserve or restore what's being lost or crumbling. Whatever the position du jour, the new reactionaries will adopt it, because they don't want to let anything threaten their hold on their power and position -- no matter who gets thrown under the bus along the way.

One hopeful sign, though, is the awakening of the mainstream public to the destructiveness of the Tea Party/GOP policies. Recent polls show declining support for them. Ultimately, the new reactionaries lack faith in the capacity of American public to be resilient, proactive and positive in the face of transformation and global interconnection. I think the evolution underway will prove them wrong.

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Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., a business psychologist and psychotherapist, is Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. You may email him at dlabier@CenterProgressive.org.