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Op-Ed

Politics' dark passions

In light of the Tucson shootings, it seems there is a link between politics and violence, or even, mental illness.

January 17, 2011|Gregory Rodriguez

Once you get a look at the evil smirk captured by the mug shot of Jared Lee Loughner, it's hard to believe that mere heated political rhetoric was the decisive factor in his allegedly pulling the trigger over and over and over again.

But that doesn't mean there's no link between politics and violence, or even, to some degree, mental illness.

A psychologist will tell you that plenty of factors may push an unstable person over the edge. In a democracy such as ours, politics has to be one of them. After all, political discourse provides our primary narrative of good versus bad, a morality tale upon which everyone projects their fears and hopes, anxieties and dreams.

Think about it: Alienation is the mother's milk of politics. Candidates and activists routinely poke, prod and leverage the public's dissatisfaction. "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" the presidential campaigns ask ad nauseam. Politicians offer us a vision of a better future, and stoke our anger over real or imagined threats to "our way of life." Politics is not the realm of the contented, satisfied and, dare I say, well adjusted.

Plenty of critics have decried the dark passions in the public debate over the last few years. But passionate intensity has a proper place in political rhetoric. Indeed, despite all of our attempts to pretend that the political process is a reasonable debate among competing interests, it is passion and emotion that drive it. What great political achievement was accomplished without a bruising fight and intense emotions?

It shouldn't be surprising, then, that political passion can be easily exploited, or that it could attract the delusional or generally excite violence. Back in the day, guns were brandished in Congress; Southerner Preston Brooks took a gold-tipped cane to abolitionist Charles Sumner in the Senate. chamber.

In the 1960s, Swiss psychiatrist Marie-Louise von Franz theorized that rather than face their defects as individuals, citizens or supporters of a particular cause, people project their worst flaws onto their political opponents. When a congressman yells "You lie" at the president, maybe he's revealing his own failings. "Political agitation in all countries," Von Franz wrote, "is full of such projections, just as much as the backyard gossip of little groups and individuals."

Over the last century, the average citizen's expectations of what government can deliver have grown exponentially. Even "tea party" proponents of small government, for example, demand that Washington keep its hands off Medicare and Social Security. That suggests that government, and the politics that underlie it, looms powerfully in the public's imagination today.

A few years ago, Engin F. Isin, a Canadian political scientist, identified the "neurotic citizen," driven by fear, anxiety, insecurity and the unrealistic belief that government can fix it all. That citizen, he argued, develops such an overgrown sense of entitlement that he feels it's a matter of justice that nothing adverse should ever happen to him. "Thus," Isin wrote, "the neurotic citizen is thrown into chronic discontent" and has a tendency "to shift responsibility to objects outside itself with hostility."

Entitlement isn't the only thing stoking explosive political hostility. Identity politics and the culture wars, and the way political discourse uses them as proxies for every agenda, increasingly focus our national conversation on deeply symbolic emotional matters. Throw in the electronic media — with its preference for gossip, controversy and heated, even hateful, ideas — and you have a politics that can't help but bring out the worst in us.

Nor does the distance between the seats of power and the La-Z-Boy help matters. In a complex, corporatized and globalized world in which distant decisions can have huge ramifications, conspiracy theories abound, breeding suspicion and distrust.

Just because politics wasn't the direct cause of the killings in Tucson doesn't let it off the hook. For good or ill, political discourse manipulates and magnifies whatever is bothering us, divides us as winners and losers, and feeds off and creates constant anxiety. None of that may have been enough to make the shooter do it, but is it any wonder he chose politics as the arena for his attack?

grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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