For my money the philosopher Hannah Arendt offers the most profound analysis of the causes of totalitarianism. During and after the Second World War, Arendt spent a lot of time researching and thinking about totalitarianism and wrote such classics as The Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s conclusions were controversial at the time because she argued that “evil” isn’t an isolated anomaly of the human condition, but a function of human social systems. As a matter of fact, Arendt thought, societies, not individuals, create evil.
Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men (sic), so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality.
The term “motivated reasoning” wasn’t around when Arendt wrote those words. But she fairly well sums up the idea: “the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality.” Arendt isn’t talking about just the political right wing here. All of us are susceptible. Individuals don’t think in the broad brush strokes of ideologies—groups of isolated people do. She goes on:
The preparation has succeeded when men have lost contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought.
Totalitarianism is born—paradoxically—from a combination of lost community and group-think. Losing the ability to act in accord with one’s own experience goes beyond what has come to be called alienation. In late-capitalist societies, the preexisting competitiveness, isolation, and loneliness that is so prevalent in our “bowling alone” society makes acting in in community and acting in accord with personal experience rather than in accord with collective angst very difficult. In an anti-intellectual society such as the United States, the prevalent dismissal of individual thought has likewise paved the way for group-think. Isolation, angst, and group-think are a potent brew.
Arendt sums up:
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.
Arendt’s greatest insight is that evil is “banal.” We don’t see it coming in a dark cloud of dust like the horsemen of the Apocalypse. Rather, evil seeps into societies as motivated reasoning and a mistrust of personal experience (ie, “Hey, my grandparents were immigrants!”) combines with an inability to gather into community and talk about issues. Without recourse to community—alone in an inane and isolated redundancy of false rage—evil is born into a society.