Powerlessness can be a precursor to paranoia.

Paranoia Rises When We Distrust Our Government

Paranoia Rises When We Distrust Our Government

Politics and Paranoia at the Movies
May 31 2017 4:05 PM

Paranoia Rises When We Feel Politically Powerless

When we stop trusting the government, we start believing in conspiracies.

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A population that feels itself to be powerless is a society with widespread potential for paranoid thinking.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images via XiXinXing, TothGaborGyula/iStock.

This article supplements Slate’s Conspiracy Thrillers Movie Club. To learn more and to join, visit Slate.com/thrillers.

Paranoia, in the most general sense, is the belief by an individual, or among a group, that it is being conspired against with the intention of inflicting harm. Increasingly widespread at the end of the 20th century was the related but more specific belief in conspiracy originating within sectors or agencies of the U.S. government. This, too, is a reflection of fundamental, historically well-documented aspects of the American political system and the larger society.

From a sociological perspective, there is evidence that those who are at lower status and relatively powerless positions—and thus vulnerable to victimization and exploitation—such as the poor, women, and members of minority ethnic groups, are more likely to be mistrustful of others and to believe in external control of their lives. This may be an accurate and objective assessment of their situation. Increasingly, this feeling seems evident among close to a majority of the citizens of the United States who do not vote and do not consider themselves affiliates of one of the two mainstream political parties.

While references to “paranoia” abound in popular discussions of conspiracy, there are no studies of the occurrence of actual clinically diagnosable paranoid character in the general population. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (commonly known as DSM I, II, III, IV, or V) distinguishes between “paranoid personality,” “paranoid personality disorder,” “delusional (paranoid) disorder,” and “paranoid schizophrenia.” Those with paranoid personality disorder may function in society even though they experience continual mistrust, see the world as a threatening place, and are hyperalert. The delusional (paranoid) disorder is characterized by a “persistent, non-bizarre delusion.” The most common delusion is that of persecution, that is suspecting others of harboring plots to hurt or injure them. Other delusional themes noted in clinical studies include: extreme romantic jealousy; erotic delusions (the belief that one is loved by another); grandiose delusions (the belief that one has special powers); and somatic delusions (the belief that something is very wrong with one’s body, that it might emit foul odors or have bugs crawling all over it). That all Americans are obviously encouraged in some of these feelings by the advertising culture probably does not help the situation.

Feelings of powerlessness reached an all-time high in 1990, as evidenced by the large numbers of Americans surveyed who said they felt politically powerless. National opinion surveys in the United States during the period showed significant portions of the population agreeing “completely” or “mostly” with the following statement: “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” In May 1990, 57 percent agreed; and in November 1997, 46 percent “mostly” or “completely” agreed. This question (one of a commonly asked series designed to elicit feelings of political powerlessness) has been asked on national surveys in the United States at least since 1956, when the proportion in agreement was only 28 percent, rising to 41 percent in 1968, declining to 36 percent in 1970, and ranging around 40 percent in 1980. Such data from national surveys provides substantial evidence of a trend toward increasing degrees of public perceptions of powerlessness, which is particularly in evidence since the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the onset of the Vietnam War. In a survey of the meanings of public perceptions about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, political scientist Sheldon Appleton suggested that the widespread belief—consistently 75 to 80 percent—that there was a conspiracy in JFK’s death actually reflected more fundamental public feelings of powerlessness, itself a precursor of paranoia.

Beyond indications in surveys of widespread feelings of powerlessness, the most striking trend in public opinion is the 30-year decline in “trust of the federal government” from 76 percent in 1964—who said that you can trust the federal government “most of the time” or “just about always”—to an all-time low of only 21 percent in 1994. This rose to 34 percent in 1998.

This striking downward secular trend line roughly conforms to the dates of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War (1963–73) and the outpouring of published criticism (beginning in 1968) of the Warren Report’s findings concerning the assassination of former president John F. Kennedy to Oliver Stone’s popular and highly controversial film JFK covering the same event. Stone’s film, commonly thought to be both a significant cause of the emergence of conspiracy thinking in the 1990s, is probably a better indicator because it actually did not alter pre-existing widespread views among the public of the conspiratorial origins of JFK’s assassination. It didn’t have to since there were plenty of other forces engendering cultural paranoia.

According to one study on paranoia and powerlessness, if powerlessness is the inability to achieve one’s ends, belief in external control of aspects of one’s life, that “outcomes are determined by forces external to one’s self ... often represents an awareness of objective conditions.” Other sociological theories view the belief in external control as synonymous with an awareness of such objective powerlessness, as their subjective image.

This is a realistic assessment for many subgroups within the U.S. population—particularly those of lower economic status, minority ethnics, many women, the aged, and the unemployed—in earlier historical periods marked by high unemployment. But the anxieties over loss of control of the conditions of one’s employment are much more widespread in American society. Despite the economic prosperity in the United States in the late 1990s and into the new century, virtually everyone in the United States has been conditioned to feel that no job is certain or secure, to accept job loss through “downsizing” as a routine fact of economic life, and to acknowledge the necessity of multiple occupational choices throughout one’s life. Setting aside the question of whether to react with extreme suspicion of employers as a general principle or to expect the worst from those in control of one’s economic security, it is not an irrational orientation for many, given the fluctuating history of minority employment and unemployment.

A population that feels itself to be powerless—as approximately half or more of national samples of U.S. citizens repeatedly indicated in the 1990s—is a society with widespread potential for paranoid thinking. If there are real enemies and one truly is powerless, some form of paranoia may be considered “rational,” justifying the old saying that “even paranoids have enemies.” A “mental state” has a reality if held consciously (or unconsciously), especially if it affects behavior. If it is a subjective reflection of objective conditions, it becomes even more “real”; Freud suggested that paranoia always contains a “kernel of truth.”

For true paranoiacs, every detail has meaning. Nothing can be left uninterpreted or taken for granted. Their conceptions of meaning, both totalizing and hermeneutic, make them the most rigorous of all metaphysicians. The paranoid outlook can be internally logical, never trivializing, and capable of explaining any or all observed phenomena as aspects of larger, symmetrical totalities. Indeed, as Carl Freedman has argued, “no particular of empirical reality is so contingent or heterogeneous that the paranoiac cannot, by a straightforward process of point-for-point correspondence, interpret its meaning within the framework of his or her own grand system.”

Excerpted from Projecting Paranoia: Conspiratorial Visions in American Film by Ray Pratt, published by the University Press of Kansas, © 2002. www.kansaspress.ku.edu. Used by permission of the publisher.