Confronting the Politics of Paranoia and Narcissism: An “Old Europe” Alternative

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In the early 1960s, the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter argued that “politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” This anger has emerged with a passion as the Republican candidates for the 2016 election gear up for the party’s presidential nomination. The US public will be increasingly exposed to what Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” of politics: discourse associated with “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.”

Leading the pack in paranoid discourse has been Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who recently signed the country’s 25th “Right-to-Work” law. Walker was quoted in the The New York Times, stressing that “Right-to-Work” legislation would “give workers the freedom to choose whether or not they want to join a union and employers another compelling reason to consider expanding or moving their business to Wisconsin.” A classic Orwellian euphemism, “Right to Work” eliminates workers’ due process rights, lowers their wages and allows “freeloaders” to refuse to pay union dues while gaining benefits from union-negotiated contracts and wage rates. Walker’s commitment to “workers’ freedom” is a cynical form of US-style authoritarianism masquerading as midwestern populism. Walker’s authoritarian tendencies became more transparent when he spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Walker boasted, if elected president, he could effectively deal with the Islamic State because, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world,” referring to his 2011 confrontation with protesters opposed to his austerity measures.

Walker’s tenure as governor of Wisconsin is symptomatic of the paranoid rage associated with the neoconservative agenda: creating legislation that obstructs liberal policies. Pensions, rights to health care, student loans, humane immigration policy and Medicaid are the targets of their paranoid anger. Union workers, public employees, college students, teachers, women, people of color and the poor are the victims of the neoconservative “take no prisoners” strategy for regaining the presidency. Austerity is their holy grail, and the market, a providential force for good in the US. In turn, the commonwealth is viewed as a threat to liberty and the American way of life.

Narcissism also plays a role in the neoconservative pursuit of the presidency. According to Leon Seltzer, a clinical psychologist, narcissists find their motivation in “objects of admiration: power, prestige, status and authority.” The United States is afflicted by social, economic and political inequities. These inequities are illuminated by the consolidation of power by economic elites in the United States Congress. A recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found that the net worth of a member of Congress equaled 18 US households. In 2013, the median net worth of a member of Congress was over $1 million (compared to $56,000 for the average US household). A majority of the United States Congress are millionaires.

Political scientist Larry Bartels, in a study of economic inequality and political representation in the US Senate, found constituents in the upper third of income distribution received “about 50 percent more weight than those in the middle third” and those in the bottom third of income distribution received no weight at all in decisions made by their elected senator. Bartels’ research findings suggest many members of Congress focus their political capital on the plutocratic elite and the middle and lower class become a marginalized constituency in the process.

Members of Congress are clearly not like the rest of the United States. Representative government works on the premise that elected officials are a mirror image of the constituents that elect them. In a majoritarian sense, they are to be responsive to the wants and needs of the electorate. The increasing “net worth gap” between Congress and the people who elect them creates a representational conundrum. Is Congress committed to the needs of the common good or to large corporate interests and billionaire donors who fund their campaigns? Seltzer points out that narcissist politicians’ “exaggerated sense of privilege frequently undermines their better judgment.” Political narcissism contributes to a corruption of representative democracy in the United States violating the founders’ vision of the “consent of the governed.”

Unlike the United States, democracies in the European Union are witnessing the emergence of social movements that are pushing back against political elites who cater to financial interests that have threatened the social safety nets commonly found in many European parliamentary systems. In Spain, Italy, Greece, and to a lesser extent, Portugal, grassroots movements have emerged to challenge the entrenched politics of representative democracy that does not represent the people. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and M5S in Italy have transcended establishment politics and stimulated citizen agency in participatory protest and collective decision-making. These movements are indicative of the growing mistrust of governments that have been hijacked by plutocratic interests. In response, the majority is organizing to take back democracy for the people.

Borrowing from the theories of Ernesto Laclau, these movements are attempting to expose the antagonistic elements of political elites’ hegemonic power in two ways: first, through opposition to austerity measures associated with neoliberalism that have reduced the rights of workers, cut social programs and privatized publicly owned institutions; and second, through their mobilization of potentially disaffected citizens who are organizing to effect change that is truly connected to the common good. As Donatella della Porta has observed, the left in these European countries is “maintaining a connection between social movements and political (i.e. party) representation in the defense of rights that rulers have defined as outdated, but which citizens still consider as essential.”

Unlike the Occupy Wall Street Movement that captivated the United States in 2011, the European social movements against neoliberalism appear to have staying power. Occupy Wall Street lacked a coherent set of political goals and was devoid of visionary, charismatic leadership. Further, it was not able to incorporate its direct democracy methodology into pragmatic party politics. Podemos, Syriza and the M5S, however, have been able to mobilize social movements against austerity and integrate their political objectives into nascent political parties that offer voters a clear alternative to the mainstream, political establishment in Spain, Greece and Italy. As Philippe Aigrain points out:

“The new movements are rooted in the personal expression of individuals, but they are no means individual in the neoliberal sense. They aim to develop communities based on friendship, shared interests, practices or neighborhoods, and whose products are under commons statute.”

Podemos, for example, exemplifies the engaged citizen model of these movements. Citizens volunteer their time to discuss and deliberate issues in discussion circles. Citizen assemblies elect a national citizens’ council, secretary general and an ethics committee. Once elected, representatives sign an ethics charter. These movements are creating new political choices for many voters. Podemos has become one of the top-tier parties in Spain after only one year of existence, while Syriza emerged as a party in 2012 and is now leading the Greek government.

The emerging European model of post-representation offers alternative possibilities to reinvigorate democracy in an age of fiscal austerity, reactionary politics from the right and political inertia from the center-left. The “Old Europe” may be instrumental in creating a “New Democracy” based on grassroots organizing and the embrace of participatory decision-making. Europe is demonstrating that engaged citizens still do matter in the political arena.