Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- The left has a political interest in defining the broad backlash against expanded government as identical to the worst elements of the Tea Party movement -- birthers and Birchers, militias and nativists, racists and conspiracy theorists, acolytes of Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo and Lyndon LaRouche.

This characterization fits a predisposition of some on the left to dismiss many of their fellow citizens as dangerous rubes. It does not fit the 60 percent of New Jersey independents, the 66 percent of Virginia independents and the 73 percent of Massachusetts independents who voted for Republicans in recent elections. It does not fit Palinism, which, in spite of populist excesses, usually swims in the conservative mainstream. It does not even fit the polling of Tea Party activists and sympathizers, who report a fairly typical range of conservative views. The Tea Party movement, on the whole, seems to be an intensification of conservative activism, not the triumph of the paranoid style of politics.

But the birthers and Birchers, militias and nativists, racists and conspiracy theorists do exist. Some, having waited decades in deserved obscurity, now hope to ride a populist movement like lampreys. But there are others, new to political engagement, who have found paranoia and anger intoxicating. They watch Glenn Beck rail against the omnipresent threat of Saul Alinsky, read Ayn Rand's elevation of egotism and contempt for the weak, listen to Ron Paul attacking the Federal Reserve cabal, and suddenly their resentments become ordered into a theory. Such theories, in politics, can act like a drug, causing addiction, euphoria and psychedelic departures from reality.

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At any time of social disorientation, conspiracy theories have an appeal. They provide a narrative for an apparently random world. They promise that one key can unlock every door.

And these theories contribute to social division. Opponents are not just wrong; they are secretive, ruthless and demonic. They want to overturn the Constitution, establish a police state, cede American sovereignty to a new world order, fight wars for the sake of Israel, carve out a nation of Aztlan in the American Southwest.

The argument of "us against them" is a temptation across the ideological spectrum. But it is intensified by Gnostic insights that pit the children of light against the children of darkness.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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