The Narcissistic Style in Liberal Politics
What are we to make of the liberal tendency to blame the conservative movement for violent acts that have nothing to do with conservatives? Does the left's obsession with blaming conservatives suggest that a kind of paranoid style has infected American liberalism?
After tragedies such as the Aurora and Tucson shootings, the center-right mainstream in America grieves with the victims, and we await the flood of reports that will soon come out about the suspect's history of bizarre behavior. We know that psychiatrists will be called in. The sad pattern could not be more predictable, and the thought of blaming liberals for the actions of the suspects never crosses our minds.
But soon after the first reports come out in situations such as Aurora or Tucson, the left buzzes with attempts to link the Tea Party, talk radio, or some element of the conservative movement to the act. The most obvious explanation for the growth of the grassroots conservative movement is that the people paying the bills finally decided to speak up about how their tax money is spent. But that obvious explanation seems almost impossible for liberals to grasp. As these liberal accusations become more reflexive, with every harmful act and every sinister motive projected onto the conservative movement, liberal accusations take on a paranoid cast that has important implications for conservative strategy.
The persistence of liberal accusations in the absence of evidence is especially interesting in light of the old claims by liberal academics that it is conservatives who are particularly prone to paranoid thinking. For example, Richard Hofstadter wrote The Paranoid Style in American Politics partly in response to the rise of Goldwater conservatism in the Republican Party. Hofstadter wrote at a time when the left's dominance in America's cultural institutions was almost unchallenged, and so the left struggled to make sense of the emerging conservative movement of the day. Through the lens of their own leftist worldview, liberal academics interpreted conservative concerns about the dangers of big government as projections of angry impulses or as reactions to harsh and punitive parenting. To be conservative was to risk being labeled by the intelligentsia as out of touch with reality.
But with the tragic histories of the Soviet Union, Communist China, and socialist Europe validating conservative concerns about big government, it is the leftist worldview that is at odds with reality. With liberals clinging to their outdated worldview and their suspicious view of the conservative movement in spite of the evidence, it might be tempting for conservatives to turn the tables and accuse the left of paranoia. Much as it might be emotionally gratifying for conservatives to envision liberal news anchors searching under their beds for violent Tea Partiers, however, there is a simpler and more practical explanation for the left's behavior.
As Gary Casselman and I argue in Waking the Sleeping Giant, the political struggle in this country is really a contest between two worldviews and two types of political character. The grassroots conservative movement represents the Judeo-Christian worldview of mainstream America, with values of independence, personal responsibility, and respect for the rights of others. This movement has promoted a newfound appreciation for the link between our Judeo-Christian heritage and our constitutional liberties. If we are morally accountable individuals, then liberty -- within widely agreed-upon boundaries -- should be our natural state. It is this worldview that underlies the conservative belief in limited and defined government.
But the Judeo-Christian worldview, with its old-fashioned focus on personal responsibility, has gradually been pushed aside by a liberal worldview in our educational, news, and entertainment institutions. The left's worldview offers self-esteem in place of self-discipline, entitlement in place of earning. Just as showing up for the game merits a trophy, students at expensive law schools are entitled to contraceptives paid for by other people. Schools dominated by the left teach children to feel good about their math skills even as math performance plummets.
Those immersed in the narcissistic institutions of the left would be expected to have difficulty appreciating points of view that differ from their own, or that challenge their ingrained sense of superiority. And, if they become politically active, they would have difficulty recognizing any moral limits on their tactics because they are, in their own minds, intellectually and morally superior to their opponents. The battle cry of the pampered campus radicals of the 1960s -- "by any means necessary" -- echoes through the left's institutions today.
If our analysis is correct, then there is no need to look for deep psychological processes such as paranoid projection in order to understand the left's distorted view of grassroots conservatism; the left's accusations would be rooted more in their culture of narcissism than in paranoia. After all, paranoid individuals believe their delusions; narcissists just lie in order to get their way.
Conservatives are understandably concerned with winning the 2012 election, but the long-term battle is for the cultural institutions that shape the character of our children and our citizens.
Timothy C. Daughtry, Ph.D. is co-author of Waking The Sleeping Giant: How Mainstream Americans Can Beat Liberals At Their Own Game.