Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. When Right Wing Passion Becomes Ideological Paranoia
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Ideology often drives people to madness. History is full of frightening examples. The most recent may be California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a member of the House Science Committee, which means he has significant power over our health and the scientific enterprise in the United States. Rohrabacher not only denies that human activity is causing climate change, but says that the whole idea is a “fraud” perpetrated by people who “…want to create global government to control all of our lives.” This kind of ‘they’re coming to get us’ rant is just an aluminum foil hat and pair of antennas short of institutionalize-able paranoia.
Where does it come from? How can what starts as genuine deep belief become such frightening irrationality? The study of Cultural Cognition offers some answers. This research has found that we shape our views so they agree with those in the groups with which we most strongly identify. It identifies our ‘groups’ by our subconscious worldviews about the sort of society we’d prefer to live in, how we want the world to work. One of those groups is known as Individualists.
Individualists prefer a society that allows each person maximum freedom. They prefer minimal government interference in our lives. They believe that individuals should be responsible for their own welfare. These are Ayn Rand libertarians, or members of the ‘get government out of my life’ Tea Party. When it comes to environmental problems, the kinds of problems that individuals can’t fix for themselves and which require a more communal sort of societal response, individualists, who don’t want society to work that way, disregard the evidence and claim most of those problems just don’t exist. Problems like climate change.
Rohrabacher has denied that human activity is causing changes in the climate, in several novel ways. He has blamed it on dinosaurs, on rain forests, and has said that what’s happening on earth is the same thing that’s happening on the moons of Jupiter and on Mars…blame it all on the sun. But listen a little more closely to what Rohrabacher says and you can hear how his Individualist tribal worldviews inform not only his bizarre climate denialism but the broader paranoia to which he connects it. He fears “more and bigger control over our lives by higher levels of government.” He says that government-funded scientists have received “so much money” for research that “they have used it to intimidate people who disagree with their attempt to frighten all of us into changing our lives and giving up our freedoms to make choices.”…“Our freedom to make our choices on transportation and everything else? No, that’s gotta be done by a government official who, by the way, probably comes from Nigeria because he’s a UN government official, not a US government official.”
That sort of Individualism is so extreme and paranoid that it is not unfair to question Rohrabacher’s grip on reality. I mean, there’s plenty about big government I don’t like either, but I’m not losing sleep about Nigerians flying UN Black Helicopters coming to seize my civil liberties. That’s way more than deeply felt Cultural Cognition ideology. It’s the extremist myopia of the National Rifle Association and right wing militias. Where does that come from?
Here is a theory. Fear magnifies the degree to which Cultural Cognition shapes our views. The more worried we are - and there are plenty of economic and environmental and social reasons that many of us are worried about how things are going in our modern world – the more we look to our group to help keep us safe. We are, after all, social animals. We have evolved to rely on our group, our tribe, for our health and protection. So the more worried we are, the more we adopt views that fit the overall beliefs of our group, which insures that our group will accept us as a member in good standing so that when the enemy threatens and it’s time to circle the wagons, we get the protection of being safely inside the circle.
To Individualists, the enemy is the Cultural Cognition tribe known as Communitarians, people who prefer a more ‘We’re all in it together’ society in which individuals give up some personal freedoms in the name of the greater common good. Communitarians support a big government response to threats too big for individuals to handle alone…like climate change. But that sort of communal society threatens the way individualists want the world to work, so to rabid Individualists like Congressman Rohrabacher, ‘Communitarians’ are just a label for those Nigerian UN guys flying the Black Helicopters coming to impose a new communist world order.
Madness, huh? Sure, but it comes from the innate nature of how we respond to danger. The more threatened we feel, the more intense and polarizing our tribal passions and divisions become, and for Rohrabacher and other extreme Individualists, that can lead way past a desire for personal freedom and into ‘they’re coming to get us’ paranoia. And THAT is REALLY scary.
(photo courtesy Politico.com)
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