On the Many Forms of Political Paranoia

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 7, 2012

Keith Humphreys has a post on paranoid political beliefs that I think deserves a close read. I found the following passage particularly arresting:

Half the time, the believer rails at the fecklessness, immorality and incompetence of the enemy (e.g., “the guvmint has trouble getting a letter across town!”). Yet then comes the psychological pivot: The putatively blundering force is somehow operating the most brilliant system of political control in the history of the world with hardly anyone being able to detect it.

The evident contradiction between the idiocy and genius of the enemy never troubles the political paranoid. And pointing it out typically evokes not a change of mind but sputtering rage. That’s why William F. Buckley’s approach to this type of political animal in the John Birch Society’s heyday was the correct one: Instead of trying to persuade them to change, try to persuade them to leave.

Quite so, and I agree wholeheartedly that “[t]he evident contradiction between the idiocy and genius of the enemy” found in the rhetoric of the political paranoid ought to indeed disqualify the political paranoid from membership in the realms of political discussion designed to influence political outcomes. For instance, during the Bush years, I found it bizarre and fascinating that opponents of President Bush could claim that he was both some kind of monumental imbecile, and the evil genius who could (a) manipulate the Florida recount to his liking; (b) stage an attack on the United States that he could–and did–blame on al Qaeda; (c) brilliantly and cynically manipulate and lie an entire country into waging war on Iraq on evidence the Bush administration supposedly made up (and it is worth emphasizing that there is no evidence whatsoever that the administration lied the country into war); and (d) undermine the democratic and republican institutions of the country to remain in power in a thoroughly unconstitutional fashion. This last bit of paranoia is particularly interesting, because as Tim Blair points out, Paul Krugman fails to notice that he is attributing powers of genius both to a president, and a political movement he has regularly described as being stupid, in addition to venal. As Humphreys might point out, Krugman doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that he can’t have it both ways; George W. Bush and the American political right can’t both be stupid, and intelligent and savvy enough to steal the 2004 election and upend the American political and constitutional order in so tremendously dramatic a fashion.

Of course, I do wish that Humphreys’s post would have recognized and denounced these bits of political paranoia, in addition to the examples that he saw fit to mention and mock. But I applaud him for reminding readers that paranoia will indeed destroy ya. Hopefully, all readers will be able to make the necessary connection between Humphreys’s general disapproval of political paranoia, and the examples of political paranoia we saw in the words, thoughts and actions of many opponents of the Bush administration. And as an aside, who knew that the self-styled Reality-Based Community could actually produce a post that is so reality-based?

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