Reflections on American Political Divide and Mass Movements –What would Eric Hoffer Tell Us ?

“A society that refuses to strive for superfluities is likely to end up lacking in necessities.”  Eric Hoffer

” All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them… breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of  single-mind thinking.”

 As an idea, the above statement is a powerful wake-up call for all those who believe so strongly in a cause that they want everybody else to believe in it. The danger and negative effects of  single-mindedness or dogmatic thinking and intolerance of other people’s point of view , is the core message of  Hoffer’s True Believer’s.

what kind of people become fanatics?

The answer is personal, psychological and emotional. Before they believed, Hoffer writes, they felt small, confused, destined for nothing. With belief, they feel strong, certain. Their fanaticism transforms them; losers become winners. “Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in himself.”  Generally speaking these are lost people search for some kind of relieve or anchor in their life.

The goal of the mass movement doesn’t matter? Not according to Hoffer. He says: the more unrealistic and unattainable, the better. It’s not even important that the doctrine be understood. In fact, Hoffer says, the harder it is to believe, the better. Forget your mind, trust your heart, the true believer  says, and his followers do just that.These people are fundamentally dogmatic and absolutely certain about what is wrong with America. Their dualistic mind-set is dangerous because it provides simple answers for complex questions. “We would all be better off with Government out of our business and personal life..”  You and I know that change is the one immutable law of life, that there are always at least two opinions, that we’ll probably die not knowing the ultimate answers. Not so for members of mass movements. They know it all. (“A mass movement…must act as if it had already read the book of the future to the last word. Its doctrine is proclaimed as a key to that book.”)

Right now, we are seeing the spread of anti-Moslem groups in Europe. (That is textbook Hoffer: “A movement can exist without a God but no movement can exist without a devil.”) Here at home, we have quite a few people  who also have a genius for identifying “devils” and turning them into “the Other. For example, all the comments made about Obama during the Health Care and Stimulus debates.

There will be widespread disbelief when Congress and the White House have another debate that may cause the next Depression. When this happens and the mass media and extremist right-wing talkers like Rush will go on about the failure of Obama and Socialism;,great thinkers  like Hoffer will not be quoted  —because they call-out the real instigators of the causes for our divided nation– inequality between rich and poor.

The major point in  Hoffer’s books and essays is to see beyond irrational individual behavior to patterns of thought and behavior of  fanatical  “group think” .

Hoffer says on the first page of the “True Believer the following insight:  “Though there are obvious differences between the fanatical Christian, the fanatical Mohammedan, the fanatical nationalists, the fanatical Communist and the fanatical Tea Party members , it is still true that the fanaticism which motivates them may be viewed and treated as one… However different the holy causes people die for, they perhaps die basically for the same thing.