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August 29th, 2010
Mr. Rich reminds us that the far right is bank rolled by the wealthy, recalls that FDR and JFK confronted extremist challenges to their policies, and laments Obama's apparent passivity in the face of an onslaught of right wing cant.
But unlike the days of FDR and JFK the extreme right has now become a legitimate part of the American political scene. When JFK confronted the John Birch Society he tuned in to deep American anxieties about far right thinking. Those anxieties do not appear to be around.
Instead non-extremist members of the electorate seem curiously detached from what should be anxiety provoking.
There are many ways to look at the current situation but if we think of the issue as, in part, a social-psychological one, then we could begin to analyze why moderates are not confronting extremists. But is this true, that moderates are silent? Is it true that Obama has failed to confront the right?
I don't think so. He has been criticized for doing so on daily television talk shows or in his own TV broadcasts. He has been criticized for not rising above right wing cant.
What does one do, however, if the real world is subjected to a semi-dramatic rendering, turning it into a daily soap opera? Fox News or MSNBC are unconcealed reality TV "shows" that regularly invite politicians of all stripes into almost ironic self degeneration. Serious issues are made into amusing topics with John Stewart and others--real legit comics--competing with the regular pundits for the presentation of serious thought.
How do we understand this curious remove from real confrontation into an altered consciousness, one that portrays conflict but in another world: in the amusing realm of reality TV? We may understand this as a form of dissociation, a typical action of an individual or a group that is inside a truamatizing situation that renders the self or the group helpless. As the American right has become more extreme, as it has become seemingly more mainstream, moderate citizens have felt increasingly helpless in the face of this mass psychology. That is not so surprising. Obama has certainly tried to confront the right but he has simply become part of the "show". That is, if he says anything he cannot remove himself from showtime, from the collective defense against dealing with the reality of our world.
Although there is a long standing paranoid tradition in American politics, and although paranoids and the paranoid processes do paralyze non psychotic people, one solution to the problem is to create a discourse that examines the psychology of trauma. That would mean looking at the far right not as simply a group of loonies, but of understanding why so many people would develop such extreme views about being, for example, "over regulated by government." Why is this such an attractive idea? Why does the far right gain such currency with the fiction that we are the victims of a left wing conspiracy that aims to take away our freedom and turn us into something like the walking dead?
Paranoids project. The very claims they make about Obama or the so-called left are the parts of their own personalities that are active. The fear of over-regulation is dominant because the more disinhibited the right becomes, the less responsible or self-regulating it becomes, the more it projects the need for regulation into others. In this case the left.
But why the loss of self regulation? Why give in to rather nutty ideas? If a large part of the American population feel helpless and live close to the poverty line--and we know millions of Americans live such lives--then one is less in charge of one's own fate. The members of the Tea Party I know are middle income to lower income individuals who are genuinely anxious about surviving and as their anxiety increases they become less and less able to control their own anxieties, they become more angry, they become more paranoid. The fear of being over regulated is an unconscious wish for such regulation to arrive. The hatred of those who are imagined to be "socialists" is unconscious hate directed at the part of the self's loss of self-regulation and unconscious hunger for mass regulation and provision.
At any moment in time, people who feel helpless will join up with the paranoid process in American politics and indeed prove a challenge to anyone who would want to restore people to saner processes of thought. To do so is not impossible. But it does ask of the moderate electorate what we might think of as a psychological mindedness that sees in the extremist an ordinary person who needs a different type of engagement than vilification. To help ourselves through the dilemmas posed by psychotic processes operating on a national scale, we are going to have to become more willing to look into human psychology to develop a different form of political engagement than "showtime."