Empathy for 'the devil': The psychology of the Tea Party

You knew it was a matter of time: Psychology Today is here to tell us what makes the Tea Party tick. I think the piece is both insightful and bizarre at the same time.


Psychologically speaking, however, it offers relief from helplessness and a sense that things are falling apart. It offers a sense of cohesion and identity based on certainty, a commonality of interests, innocence, and even martyrdom. While the world of the tea-party'ers is filled with danger, it is a danger mitigated by moral certainty, clarity of purpose, and a definable external enemy.

The "problem," then, is not the paranoid story line but the anxiety, helplessness, and pain that generate it. And that pain is not irrational or crazy. It's real. We all feel it. Most of us do feel helpless in relation to the most important aspects of our lives, from the nature of our work to its security, from our politicians who are on the corporate dole to those perpetuating gridlock through their narrow ideology, from the quality of our health care to its availability, and from the isolation and loneliness of everyday social life.

The piece by Michael Bader makes the point that I completely agree with, which is that people who've lost their job or who are frightened by conditions in America right now deserve empathy -- these are folks who in making cases are looking for answers and are turning to the simplistic ones oftered by the likes of manipulative folks like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin. The only sane approach is to offer these people a better alternative, as opposed to heaping scorn, which is very bad politics but more importantly bad humanity. The "Teabagger" joke was funny for a day or two when some of the protesters naively called themselves that, but people who still call them "Teabaggers" now are hurting their own cause, greatly.

And so the thing I find bizarre about the article is a purported plea for empathy with such a condescending tone, especially this part: "I hate these folks but I also understand them." Huh? How can you empathize with someone and hate them at the same time? I do have tremendous contempt for the extent that racism is involved in the Tea Party movement (based on what I've seen, that would be a lot for a few and a little for some more) -- but at day's end individuals should be judged...as individuals.

I've also wondered if it's over-the-top to call the right-wing movement "The American Taliban," as Markos Moulitsas of Daily Kos will do in a coming book. I would say generally, yes, it is over-the-top, but not when referring to this alarming group called Repent Amarillo:

An evangelical Christian hate group called “Repent Amarillo” is reportedly terrorizing the town of Amarillo, Texas. Repent fashions itself as a sort of militia and targets a wide range of community members they deem offensive to their theology: gays, liberal Christians, Muslims, environmentalists, breast cancer events that do not highlight abortion, Halloween, “spring break events,” and pornography shops. On its website, Repent has posted a “Warfare Map” of its enemies in town. Calling Repent an “American Taliban,” blogger Charles Johnson notes that the group’s moniker “Army of God” is a rough translation of “Hezbollah.”

The only thing I would add to this is, wow! The original piece on Repent Amarillo is here.