Arnold Kling  

Paranoia About Paranoia

Karacter: From the Cutt... Bipartisanship or Irreconcilab...

Michael Gerson writes,

But there are others, new to political engagement, who have found paranoia and anger intoxicating. They watch Glenn Beck rail against the omnipresent threat of Saul Alinsky, read Ayn Rand's elevation of egotism and contempt for the weak, listen to Ron Paul attacking the Federal Reserve cabal, and suddenly their resentments become ordered into a theory. Such theories, in politics, can act like a drug, causing addiction, euphoria and psychedelic departures from reality.

Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter, is a regular columnist in the Washington Post, where his column serves as a reminder of how hostile the Bush people were to libertarian ideas.

I would be the last person to impute rationality to mass political movements. Nonetheless, I am fed up with the psychoanalysis of the tea party movement. When people say that they do not like big deficits and government activism, why not take them at their word? Why say that what they really believe are wild conspiracy theories?

It would not surprise me to learn that many tea partiers believe strange things. But it would not surprise me to learn that many people of all political stripes believe strange things. If you are willing to filter out the strange beliefs of ordinary Democrats and Repubilcans in order to provide a narrative of a coherent ideology, then you should do the same with the tea partiers.

I think that a lot of pundits would be comfortable describing the 2008 election as the a rational, focused statement in favor of the progressive agenda, rather than an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances. Yet those same pundits would feel comfortable describing the tea party movement and the election of Scott Brown as an emotional outburst of frustration with economic circumstances, rather than a rational, focused statement in opposition to the progressive agenda.

The underlying hypothesis of the pundits is that The Elite Know What they Are Doing. Ergo, when the voters support the elite, the voters are being rational. When the voters oppose the elite, they are suffering from some emotional disorder, such as unfocused anger or paranoia.

I doubt that voters are rational. However, for me, that is not the main problem. For me, the main problem is that the elites think they know more than they really do.

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COMMENTS (21 to date)
shecky writes:

When people say that they do not like big deficits and government activism, why not take them at their word?

C'mon, Kling. Since when does professing belief in small government translate into practicing small government? Tea party folks are overwhelmingly the same folks who have supported big government conservatism when the GOP was in power, all while flocking to conservative stars who advocate anything but small government. It's time to face the fact that the tea party movement, regardless of it's intentions or origins, is not the libertarian revolution some folks insist it is.

Chris writes:

Their fatal conceit.

Jeff writes:

I'm as opposed to the progressive agenda as anyone, but it's hard not to impute emotional imbalance and paranoia to the tea party movement given a)the extremist nature of their rhetoric and b)the lack of any such rhetoric or energy from these folks when George W. Bush was running (then) historically large deficits and implementing NCLB and Medicare Part D.

In light of the fact that the tea partiers' stated principals were pretty clearly MIA during the 2000-2008 period, why should anyone regard them as anything other than an irrational, paranoid, incoherent mob? What have they done to warrant being taken seriously?

Richard A. writes:

Michael Gerson writes,
"The Federal Reserve, by the way, just helped to prevent a depression by increasing the money supply. It deserves a little thanks."

Gee, I wonder if Scott Sumner would agree with the above statement.

Anselm writes:

If you take them at their word on small government and fiscal responsibility, why not also take them at their word on literacy tests (and related racial/anti-immigration theories), Indonesian Obama (aka birtherism), IRS abolition, gun confiscation paranoia, etc. After all, these are issues in which solid groups of TPers are heavily invested.

Pundits sell narratives (the best ones sometime approaching coherence). "Small government" is a broad principle prone to a wide variety of activist positions, and, therefore, media narratives as to the movement's intentions. Those pundits who observe the TP movement's specific paranoid views, are not falsifying their narrative.

By the same token, your suggestion that the TP movement is merely "a rational, focused statement in opposition to the progressive agenda" happens to be your preferred narrative. It too reflects your particular blinkered, indulgent approach. There is a lot about the TP movement that is no way rational or focused, and IMO, Michael Gerson addresses the uneasy fellowship between the TP's different components pretty fairly.

Andy writes:

There is a lot of circumstantial evidence that many in the tea party movement are new to political activism. They were previously part of the great mass of Americans who were focused on their individual lives and didn't give politics much concern, preferring to let the elites run things. Assuming that's basically true, I think the populist reaction represented by the tea party movement is the direct result of the elite's failure to competently govern. And really, who can blame them? The elites in both parties are running this country into the ground. The elites need to realize that the surest way to make populist anger go away is not to belittle it or call it paranoid, but to get their collective sh*t together and fix the major systemic problems facing this country. Otherwise, the paranoid, angry plebeian mob will fix it their way.

Les Cargill writes:

"Why say that what they really believe are wild conspiracy theories? "

Because when the Tea Party Convention (or whatever it was called ) started out on the CSPAN broadcast, they immediately led with a Birther rant, justified by Biblical reference.

This is most likely an unfortunate side effect of simple apocolyptic-ism within the American fringe - fed no doubt by our periodic Panics - but it's still like listening to crazy Uncle Arthur talkin' bout that time them aliens took him to their ship - which looked a lot like Bubba's shop building on the inside...

As they said in "Blazing Saddles" - "What did you expect? 'Welcome, sonny?' 'Make yourself at home.' 'Marry my daughter.' You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know - morons."

A very careful observer will note a personal touch on the very astute Mel Brooks' part there - he's calling himself an elitist by saying this, and you're having fun with it. I think it's relatively profound. Or something. He *can't* be intelligent about it - *shrug*, he says.

And every elitist dog of us *should* - *should* look up a really talented Free Will Baptist preacher and take a good lesson on a subject they hold close to the heart like Predestination before ignoring them entirely. The arguments are subtle and nuanced - that's why they were eligible to be schismatic issues.

Obviously I'm of two minds about this myself.
And I think maybe so was the great John Huston, whose "Wise Blood" lives in these spaces.

Colin K writes:

I think the issue is that most of the media happily overlooks equal levels of crank-hood in the progressive faction. In my experience living in the Boston/Cambridge area, it is quite easy to find progressives who believe:

- That drug companies suppress cures for diabetes because insulin is more profitable

- That the Bush administration was staged to provide a pretext for war with Iraq, so W could avenge Bush pere's honor (you'd think he could at least have found 19 Iraqis to fly the planes, non?)

- That Big Agriculture is in league with Big Pharma and makes "poisonous" food like high-fructose corn syrup in order to produce more customers for Merck & co.

- That the CIA created crack cocaine and ensured its supply as a way to neutralize the ghettos' potential to become an enlightened political force

- That Diebold stole the 2000 election for Bush

- That the media is dominated by corporate right-wing interests

- That US foreign policy is determined entirely by the Jews

That's to name just a few. Of these, only the 9/11 "truthers" get any coverage to speak of, and my sense is that most reporters are willing to overlook that so long as the rest of their opinions are correct and they don't get too public about it.

David C writes:

The difference is leadership. There are many crazy people within the major parties, but they do not provide the voice and direction of the movement.

When I think of liberals, I think of Barack Obama, Jon Stewart, and Paul Krugman.

When I think of conservatives, I think of John McCain, Bill O'Reilly, and George Will.

When I think of libertarians, I think of Ron Paul, CATO, Reason, and the HBO channel.

When I think of tea partiers, I think of Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh.

The statements of those individuals most closely defines the core of each movement. If I had to pick which of those groups I would most want running the country, the easiest part would be placing the tea partiers at the bottom of my list.

Dave writes:

I find it inetersting that so many people are so interested in the motivations and personal beliefs of the "tea partiers." I don't disagree with a lot of what others have said; I particularly agree with the observation that many of these people were mute during the Bush neocon years (NOTE A neocon to me is not a traditional republican. Neocons, to me, are as bad as the socialists and progressives - but thats another story)
That all being said, I would love to see pundits examine other groups, the so called progressives, the media elites, hollywood, whatever, and apply the SAME standards to them. It seems that these groups (libs, the media etc) get a free ride and are not examined critically, but, the Tea Partiers etc are examined under a microscope - with every flaw accentuated. If only every group was looked at this closely.

Badger writes:

Why people tend to always forget that Republicans got shot by independents in large part because they abandoned fiscal restraint?

Colin K writes:

+5 for Badger

What were Republican voters supposed to do in 2002-2008, vote for Nancy Pelosi & co.?

Heck, the Democrats *did* promise an end to earmarks and "the most ethical Congress ever," won largely on the basis of visceral disgust at the GOP's antics, and once they got in, they picked right up where DeLay and Abramoff left off.

The suspicion which feeds the Tea Party movement is, I think, that the GOP's present interest in fiscal restraint and good government is no more sincere. Like Coke and Pepsi, the GOP and Democrats are primarily marketing organizations that compete over who can more effectively attach themselves to the zeitgeist, than who makes better soda.

What is interesting to me is that we've gone from one party controlling the House for 40 years, to the other party for 12, and back to the other for perhaps only 4. There is a longstanding assumption that voters will almost always overlook their hatred of Congress as a whole for their district's lovable rascal.

When anti-incumbent waves come once in your voting lifetime, this makes sense. If they can happen in only 4 years, then it would suggest that local elections are becoming more national in character. This is probably, as much as I hate to say it, reason for optimism.

Greg Ransom writes:

Gerson is very open -- his politics come mostly straight out of his religion.

His bigotry against "libertarians" is really a form of religious bigotry -- he sees libertarianism as world view rival to his own religious faith -- and Gergon's bigotry here is an allowed bigotry.

To many Gerson's religious beliefs are strange and frankly unbelievable -- but we aren't allowed to discuss them.

Advantage Gerson.

Greg Ransom writes:

Note well that Gerson's goal here is to defend the Bush Republicans against the tea party movement, by means of delegitimizing the the tea partiers as crazies.

It's the same strategy the left and the Obama Democrats are taking.

If the tea party people are nuts, their case against the Bush Presidency is not to be taken seriously.

This is what it's all about -- it's another effort of the Bush people to defend themselves by smearing their critics.

It's not the first time the Bushies have done this sort of thing.

Example of the tea party critic of Bush = Michelle Malkin.

Loof writes:

Don’t confuse “paranoia about paranoia” with “paranoia and anger”. They are different destructive mass movements.

Excessive fear about excessive fear is a sure recipe for sheep to panic at any stimulus, with or without leadership. There is no facing the fear, as goats do to avoid the problem. With so much fear about fear there’s absolute avoidance every which way as quickly as four limbs can run away or claw away – even trampling their lambs in the process.

Excessive fear mixed with anger creates emotional aggression, massive psychological projection and predatory packs. Fascism in general is the result; Nazism in particular was the worst effect. TP movement just needs the right leader.

MernaMoose writes:

the main problem is that the elites think they know more than they really do


But to be fair to the Tea Partiers, the charge against them for not "being there" when Bush was running wild, rings hollow.

Bush ran wild. Discontent grew. Then the Republicans ran the McCain Creature, and in desperation the vote swings to Obama. Then the people find that Obama has done (or strenuously tried to do) roughly as much damage in a year, as Bush did in eight.

Tilted. Past the boiling point. Whatever you want to call it, people finally just plain got p*ssed off.

Peasants don't generally want to fight wars or revolutions, they just want to live their lives with some measure of peace and justice. They don't rise up and fight until things get really, really bad. Well it finally got bad enough.

Wa la, Tea Party II is born (Tea Part I was a long long time ago).

Not complicated.

How many times in history have there been peasant uprisings that never went anywhere? Countless if we consider both East and West.

They never went anywhere, most often because the Zorro movie has it all wrong: the leader will not magically arise, just because the people are ready. Peasants have fought, suffered, and died for nothing, over the millenia, precisely because they had no effective leadership.

Lack of effective leadership is in fact a major part of the wellspring behind Tea Party II.

Another easily observed fact from history: if the peasants have no natural leader, who is in tune with their plight, then opportunists will attempt to fill the void.

Wa la, Palin & Company.

Sad perhaps, but again, not complicated.

I recall seeing polls which showed that Americans are widely concerned about the level of government debt. I recall seeing polls which said, cost was a significant issue that helped turn the public against ObamaCare.

Hence I argue, Arnold's interpretation of the root source of Tea Part II rings more true than anything else I've seen anyone put forth. I also argue that Palin & Co. are just opportunists, who are not in tune with the wellspring of Tea Party II.

Tea Part II badly needs effective leaders, in spite of those who wax eloquent about how it should remain leaderless. Nature abhores a vacuum, and if no one else is able to take the reins then the opportunists will.

It is unarguably true that both the Republicans and Democrats have their fair share of lunatics. The Tea Partiers are not unique in this regard.

Given the motivations of both the Republicans and Democrats, I put no stock in the MSM assessment of "the true motivations of Tea Partiers".

The Tea Partiers may not agree on much else, but it sure sounds to me like they want spending and debt reigned in.

Whether or not they have the intellect to stay committed to this path or not, is an entirely different matter -- and it depends in exceedingly large part on who, or what, ends up becoming their leader. An effective person who is in tune with their core gripe? Or an opportunist who is not?

Yancey Ward writes:


+1000. I find absolutely nothing in your comment to disagree with.

Dave writes:


You overstated your case. Tea partiers = nazis?
give me a break.

How about people sick of paying high taxes while both parties spend without restraint, illegal immigration, outsourcing; the fact that 50 percent of people dont pay taxes; stupid unwinable wars; should I go on?

These are legitimate complaints.

Isn't there some internet law that says at some point in a comment thread someone will start comparing people to nazis?

Fascist - no way. I teach Constitutional law- most people who are angry are angry because the US Const is not being followed.

That being said, I agree that at some point - waaay in the future, a movement could devolve into fascism, but the Tea Party movement aint there.

dlr writes:

The Teaparty is a very diverse social movement. It would be a mistake to lump them all into a single, monolithic group that believes "x", especially based on reports from the mainstream media, or reports from self appointed leaders professing to speak for the 'Teaparty movement'. Some of the Teaparty groups are Republican's who are disgusted with the Bush neo-cons. But other Teaparty groups are actually much more like Libertarians - even if they don't necessarily call themselves that, or have even heard the name.

Since Libertarian and Republican beliefs overlap in some areas, it can be confusing sometimes sorting them out. Especially since some Republican's would dearly love to hijack the entire movement and present it as a revolt against neo-cons. I think that is true for some groups, or some people, but, it's not the whole story. There are plenty of 'Teapartiers' out there who are as disgusted by the Republicans as they are by the Democrats.

It's impossible to make sense of what is going on if you insist that all the various Teaparty groups all believe the same thing, or that anything one Teaparty group says is something they all believe. That is definitely not true.

I have found that different 'Teaparty' groups have very disparate ideas about things like 'strong national defense' . (the group that staged the 'national convention') for instance, is very big on a 'strong national defense', and other issues that make me think they are really Republicans trying to distance themselves from the neo-cons., however, seems to be more like Libertarians than Republican's.

And there are lots of other groups out there still forming, so don't type cast the Teaparty movement YET based on a 'National Convention' put on by Teapartynation.

Greg Ransom writes:

The half-century old power struggle between "libertarians" and church-first Republicans is heating up.

Now it's Rev. Huckabee who is objecting to the "libertarian" take-over of the Republican party ..

Loof writes:


Not “Tea Partiers = Nazis”. Not so much fascist now. Simply observe a mass movement towards fascism, which could be extreme.

There’s a positive side of the movement: so many real problems, constitutional issues. Still, the pervasive growth of anger and hate against persons and groups is troubling. Anger and hate with self-righteousness pointing at opposition as evil is an explosive mix.

How much fascism is here now? While the term “fascism” tends to rhetorically snip more than being categorically clear, it seems the world is now ruled by “friendly fascists” and, ironically, China most of all. Here “fascism” essentially means ever-bigger Big Business-Big Government collusions in the selfish-interests of the rich and powerful (capitalists-communists). Couple of classics on this view: C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite (1956); and especially, Bertram Gross’ Friendly Fascists (1980).

So, if true, even somewhat, is the pivotal point via the constitution issue allowing ever-bigger business “personhood”?

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