Recently, I had two eye-opening conversations with people who appear to believe genuinely crazy things. One of the people, a homeless man with two Harvard degrees, told me with conviction that Osama bin Laden is a secret member of the CIA and 9/11 was an inside job. The other person, a tattoo-covered, minimum-wage-earning bartender, told me that "welfare queens who have babies like cockroaches" are really responsible for the current economic crisis. The homeless man told me that his "political beliefs" had alienated him from his entire family but that he would never trade in the crippling isolation and depression which accompanied his conspiracy theory to believe the "Nazi-mind-control-myth" that had been perpetrated against the American people. The other man bragged that he was an entirely self-made man (as evidenced by the fact that he had moved up from dishwasher to bartender after working at the same dive bar for five years) but that socialized medicine (he doesn’t have health care) for "welfare queens" threatened to destroy his way of living. Given the circumstances of each conversation, I was not in the position to press these men on their contradictions or false assertions, but that didn’t interest me much anyway. What’s far more interesting to me is the way these men seemed to have invested so much of their personal identities in being members of a persecuted political minority.
What ties these men together is not simply that they are members of political minorities but that they are a part of reactionary movements, and this is really the underlying factor that explains the insanity of their beliefs. The major difference between a coherent political doctrine and a reactionary movement is that reactionaries don’t worry about how to reconcile competing intuitions about justice. Usually, they don’t even worry about using a consistent or coherent definition for common political terms because defining terms like "freedom", "justice", "Nazi" or "Fascist" is not what reactionary movements are about. Reactionaries care about defining the enemy –"Bush-Cheney-CIA-Nazi-mind-control" or "Obamacare-Hitler-take-all-our-guns"– and this makes reactionary positions very appealing to people who want to point to an enemy as the source of all trouble or injustice. This is dangerous not only because some of the people who are attracted to reactionary positions are already prone to paranoia or delusions but because, almost by definition, a reactionary political position can’t be altered by new evidence or rational arguments.
It is important to distinguish here between reactionaries and radicals. We can and should question the authority, honesty, and moral intent of political parties and government officials. Wise people often (perhaps usually) find themselves in a political minority. However, there is a huge gap between holding an uncommon political opinion -backed up by a rational thesis- and demonizing a constructed enemy. A person can have a set of political values that are not popular and still hold a coherent position that is flexible enough to allow for new evidence and respond to rational counterarguments. For example, right-wing libertarianism is a coherent political doctrine which rates the value of individual liberty much higher than the competing value of the common good. This means that a right-libertarian may have to bite the bullet in arguments about popular social programs and concede that he does not support them because he does not support taxation for the public good, but he maintains a consistent position. The right-libertarian may also adapt his theory to justify some intrusions on individual liberty (e.g. taxation to fund a military or emergency service programs) by appealing to some higher order position or value (e.g. some level of security is a pre-condition of freedom) which is consistent with his theory. In contrast, the so called Tea-Bagger or Tea-Partier who has defined his position in reaction to Obama’s proposed health care reform legislation cannot adjust his position in light of new evidence or arguments (e.g. Leading economists agree that a public option would lower overall healthcare costs and improve care in comparison to the current system) because his position isn’t based upon a coherent set of principles but upon the unalterable belief that the policies of the enemy are the cause of injustice, regardless of what those policies are. The same rule applies to the "9/11 Truthers" who move from legitimate arguments that the current U.S. wars are unjustified and the legitimate charge that the government misled the public about intelligence information (it probably did) to the shaky and unverifiable but wholly inflammatory claim that the Bush administration actually planned the murder of thousands of U.S. citizens.
The point at which political dissent is divorced from coherent doctrine and married to fear of an evil and deceptive enemy is the point at which rational citizens should become terrified. A person who has decided that law-makers are not simply dishonest or corrupt but actually conspiring against him or his people* is not someone who is likely to participate in the kind of political discussion that is the foundation of representative democracy. If I believe that your bad argument is a sign that you are wrong but your good argument is a sign that you are wrong and trying to trick me, I am not going to be convinced by you either way. Moreover, I am likely to react badly, even violently, if you continue to assault me with good reasons or evidence because I won’t view the discussion as political discourse but as insidious manipulation by an evil liar. This is the position that reactionaries hold.
In closing, I would really like to suggest some kind of productive response to reactionary arguments, but for obvious reasons I find it hard to imagine one. I think the best response is to continue to participate in a rational dialogue with those who will play by the rules (coherent theory, consistent definitions, etc.) and to refuse to glorify or engage those who won’t.
*I feel compelled to add here that there appears to be quite a bit of overlap between the anti-Obama "tea-party movement" and out-and-out racist reactionary groups such as the Conservative Citizens Council. You can watch an interesting excerpt from a documentary on this connection here.