Empathy for Tea Partiers

When I watch Tea Partiers’ faces twisted in anger, and hear their blatantly racist remarks and threats of violence, I have to admit, empathy has not been my first response.  I’m appalled at their ignorance and confusion, and disgusted by their guns and their images of President Obama as Hitler. It’s easy to forget compassion and simply dismiss them as pathetic human beings. Yet, it’s hard to dismiss the damaging role they played in weakening health care reform, and the negative role they could play in the upcoming midterm elections.

Psychologist Michael Bader, a self-identified progressive, feels it is crucial that we try to develop some understanding and even empathy for Tea Partiers so as to be able to counter them effectively. His recent article in Psychology Today, “We Need to Have Empathy for Tea Partiers,” changed my thinking—and feeling—about Tea Partiers and other right wing fringe groups. To make a long story short, Bader sees most Tea Partiers as suffering from paranoia. In his article, he outlines the basic characteristics of paranoia, and how it manifests in Tea Party members:

“Paranoid people are trying their best to make sense of and mitigate feelings of helplessness and worthlessness. Their beliefs are attempts to solve a profound problem, albeit in ways that distort reality. People can’t tolerate feeling helpless and self-hating for very long. It’s too painful. It’s too demoralizing, too frightening. They have to find an antidote. They have to make sense of it all in a way that restores their sense of meaning, their feeling of agency, their self-esteem and their belief in the possibility of redemption. They have to. They have no choice. That’s just the way the mind works.

The paranoid strategy is to generate a narrative that finally ‘explains it all.’ A narrative—a set of beliefs about the way the world is and is supposed to be—helps make sense of chaos. It reduces guilt and self-blame by projecting it onto someone else. And it restores a sense of agency by offering up an enemy to fight. Finally, it offers hope that if “they”—the enemy, the conspirators-—can be avoided or destroyed, the paranoid person’s core feelings of helplessness and devaluation will go away.”

Bader notes that Tea Partiers are mostly new to politics and often identify as independent rather than Republican.  They have lost jobs, had their homes foreclosed, and are seeing their fantasies of white supremacy, the one thing they felt they had going for them, crumbling as the country turns more non-white every day. The final insult, to them, is that Barack Obama was elected president.

“They began listening to Beck, reading the Federalist Papers, books by Ayn Rand and George Orwell, and started visiting radical right wing websites. . . . In other words, like my patients, the Tea Party folks find in their paranoid views about politics a narrative that “explains it all,” that reduces their sense of helpless confusion, and that channels their feelings of victimization into ones of self-righteous militancy. They go from passive victim to active agent, from guilty to innocent, but all at the price of distorting reality into one full of malevolent conspiracies.”

And, Bader says, the right wing media machine offers ready-made narratives 24/7 to help their listeners clear up their confusion and absolve them of any personal blame. Basically, the narrative is that big forces out there are hurting them and denying their freedom, and the main culprits are liberal Democrats and the government. The Tea Party movement offers those in the grip of these paranoid ideas a sense of identity based on “certainty, a commonality of interests, innocence, and even martyrdom.”

Baden says, however, that the key to understanding the Tea Partiers is not to focus on their paranoid story line but the feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and pain behind it. It’s pain we all feel and can identify with—feeling anxious and helpless about our jobs and the economy, our own personal finances, the corruption in Washington and in our financial institutions, the spiraling cost of health insurance, the threat of global warming, and everyday feelings of isolation, loneliness and alienation. He says that the feeling that ‘things are falling apart’ is not crazy; it’s fairly accurate.

According to Baden, the problem with Tea Partiers is that they can’t tolerate these legitimate feelings, and they leap over them to embrace paranoid political ideas that are simplistic, dangerous and cruel. Because these ideas shore up their fragile sense of self and serve an important psychological function, no amount of rational argument is going to change their minds. Baden suggests another way. And this might be important information for progressive politicians running for office this November, especially in districts with a strong Tea Party presence:

“It would help if we found ways to get into relationships with them, to demonstrate a genuine curiosity not about their paranoid theories but about the underlying pain and fear that is the source of them. In this way, perhaps we can figure out how to speak to that pain and fear in ways that are both authentic and comforting. Perhaps we can figure out what experiences they might need to have in order to feel safe enough to at least listen to another narrative—ours.”