Why are Americans so paranoid?


CONTROVERSY LEVEL: 10 of 10! After doing some international stuff, I’m back to the good old American political writings. Some Americans will say they’re not paranoid, and instead are “realistic.” While some of them are, I’ll say: Naw. Americans are pretty paranoid; and that’s both good and bad.

Here are some classic American-induced paranoid statements:

I NEED MY GUN! Why? Because I need to defend myself against foreigners and criminals. At the root of it, gun nuts worry about government marshall law (which has only occurred during the Civil War, really), foreign invasion (has yet to happen), or they flatly connect it to freedom. There are other reasons, but this is a common paranoid statement.

“THE NSA IS SPYING ON ME!” Why? Because they want to steal my information. This is actually a legit concern, but not in the way some people claim. I mean, really, do you think NSA analysts are going to listen to you talk to your boo? In reality, people think too much of themselves sometimes.

“THOSE UNEMPLOYED PEOPLE WANT TO MOOCH OFF OF ME!” Why? Because everyone wants my money to do nothing. Does this happen? Of course. But it’s probably extreme cases and a minority of recipients. Are there rich people making money off of people unfairly? Of course. Should we give up the enterprise of capitalism? No. … I rest my case.

“THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO CONTROL ME!” Why? Because they want me to agree with all their policies. … I’m not even going to address that.

Are these extremes? Yes, but is there a theme here? Yes, it’s that Americans are paranoid people; but for a reason. This worldview has both its strengths and weaknesses. By understanding WHY Americans are paranoid, it’s easier to see why people say crazy things and understand why political polarization is possible.

Check it out:

How American political theory contributes to paranoia:

The American political system assumes that no one person can have absolute power. It doesn’t even assume that two powers can have a monopoly on power. Rather than divide power up among a few people or groups, the system was designed so that every interest could have a fighting chance at policy say. While this ensures that no one idea rules over everyone, it also makes a circus of a political system.

There are 435 House representatives, 100 Senators, a president, and 9 judges who all have different roles and deliberate how policy is made; that’s a total of 545 people deciding on policy in a fairly complex political machine (keep in mind that’s only federal). This also doesn’t address the number of bureaucracies, agencies, government corporations, and contractors who have say in policy. In addition, there is the general public, businesses, religious institutions, and a variety of other interest groups.

… So that’s not all. There are 50 individual states that have their own governing bodies, and those bodies have latitude to implement policy. EVEN FURTHER, if there is a discrepancy between federal and state actions, then a jury can decide whether or not it’s in line with “the rules” (the Constitution).

After even that simple description, we can see that there are a lot of people who deliberate policy. This doesn’t even address the mechanisms of civilian oversight or “indirect” democratic say (like protests, sit-ins, strikes, and so forth). Also, we have political parties that glom together all sorts of interests to formalize and fight for positions of power. In short, the system is pretty paranoid that any single idea taking hold in policy; and that is mostly a good thing. I mean, if people weren’t paranoid, then change probably wouldn’t happen and we would be stuck in the 1800s mindset or something.

So, the news can break corruption stories, report on policy decisions, and inform the public about wrongdoing (although there are lots of problems with news outlets). The Supreme Court can limit Congressional and presidential actions; the president can limit Congressional action; Congress votes on the budget; NGOs can act as whistleblowers; hackers now threaten to release classified information; and generally it’s a circus.

Quick background on human development and its implications:

If you’ve read your Rousseau (if not, it’s OK), he explains that every great revolution in human affairs necessarily comes with a positive and negative effect.

Here are some examples:

So, humans invented the condition of love (before it was cavemen walking around shacking up with whoever, and leaving the woman to take care of the kid … a contemporary feminist‘s nightmare); love’s negative counterpart is jealousy.

Similarly, humans invented money to formalize trade; negatively, money equates to power, and power can lead to corruption, slavery, or a number of negative things.

Nuclear technology was invented with the possibility infinite energy; but it was also be weaponized.

Religion was created to lead people spiritually and ethically; but fanaticism can lead to war (and it has).

The Internet was developed to connect the world; but that includes connecting criminals and generally bad people who now are free to develop ideas of violence, human trafficking, and broadly develop ways of inducing human suffering.

In Rousseau’s discourse on inequality, he uses this principle (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) to explain why there is inequality among people … and he does so fairly convincingly.

OK, so?

Well, the American system was invented on the assumption that nobody can be trusted, which is logical enough (and established above). Thus no one person (or idea) is in control. But, because of this, people within that system are intrinsically skeptical of one another, and skeptical of foreign ideas as well. Why? Because the system empowers them to be that way. Well … at first it only guaranteed that wealthy white dudes were empowered and stayed in power; but eventually minorities and women joined (although I would say not completely yet).

This paranoia manifests itself in not only politics, but in news, business, the workplace, and just about any place you can imagine. Journalists are skeptical of politicians, so they investigate in depth. We all assume politicians lie. Businesses compete with one another (and some say the government), so they are always worrying about new products, marketing campaigns, and partnerships. When you go apply and interview for jobs, interviewers are skeptical of the skills you say you have, whether or not you’re “committed,” if you are capable of doing the job, and whether or not you’re an asshole in general.

In short, Americans are worried about somebody (or something) getting too much power or are skeptical of others in general. But there is good. It’s true; no single idea, ism, majority, or minority can gain control for a significant amount of time. So the American system limits hubris. Because that good condition exists, the necessary reaction is a state of paranoia.

Rugged Individualism!

Also contributing to the every-person-for-themselves American mindset is the principle of liberty, which transfers responsibility from the community to the individual. So in addition to the power-configuration structures, we have emphasis on extreme individualism here in the old USA.

In American culture, there’s a reason why comic book heroes, action heroes, and westerns are popular. Why? Because they’re all parables for individual contributions. The hero can single-handedly save the bus of school kids, and, in the comic realm, they even have powers far beyond the average individual. The lone unnamed man in the western is able to enforce law and expand westward — while haphazardly killing 60 indians. The diligent and successful businessman can create billions in profits, thousands of jobs, establish nonprofits, and change the world!

In reality, there is a VERY small percentage of people who make significant contributions huge scales. … probably like .004% of people. I mean really, think about every famous person you know, and then realize there is like 7 billion people in the world. So, a very small percentage of people actually make a difference on that scale.

The image of a president singlehandedly changing the course of American society is by and large a fantasy. Regardless, presidential hopefuls must promise a 100% change, and if not, they aren’t even considered. Wait for election season; they all will promise the world.

But really, because of the inherent paranoia of power monopolies, the president is limited to what can actually be done (though admittedly, presidential power has grown throughout American history — writeup for another day).

Here’s the moral of the story:

First, the American political system ensures that interests (even minority or fringe) are heard, and are given a fighting chance. If not formally heard, there are ways to get the ideas out there (especially in contemporary times with Internet).

Authors, journalists, politicians, businessmen, and artists all struggle to define what the American community and, more whimsically, the “dream” actually is. This is fundamentally impossible, because the system refuses to conform to one conception of community; instead, it’s an evolutionary system that seeks to balance interests and maintain individual life, liberty, and property. So, as long as you play the rules of the game, then the ideas and policy have a say.

… If you think about it, you can see why the American political system is a pretty extreme experiment in human history.

So, paranoia is a necessary result of the system. While the system was meant to safeguard against dominating ideas and policy —  like, say, the KKK (Madison was paranoid of this; hence the electoral system) — it also encourages citizens in that system to be skeptical of their fellow citizens. This, in turn, provides a difficult environment to forge any coherent community. … Hence Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism and the American political system.

In the end, where you emphasize individualism, you sacrifice community. Similarly, where you emphasize community, you reduce the role of the individual.

I will say that plenty of people and ideas seek to strike a balance between the two, and achieving this is perhaps the greatest challenge in the long run for the American society. If political polarization continues to get worse, that could have pretty bad consequences.

The good thing is that I think president Obama is a moderate, and, after all the yelling and crying is done, will probably set a precedent for presidential conduct. … At least I hope the future of the political system heads in a more-moderate direction.

Regardless, it’s interesting to think about why Americans are so skeptical and paranoid. Eh?


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