Blog, Media + Politics, Philosophy + Systems

The Origins of Republican Pathology: Rebuilding the Emotional Containers of Society

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 13, 2012

By now, it is of course a truism to say that the Republican Party has tilted so far to the Right that it is extreme, if not literally a cult. As harsh as this may be, it doesn’t even begin to describe what’s wrong with it. In a word, the Republican Party is deeply pathological. In saying this, I am not using the term “pathological” flippantly. While I am not a practicing clinician, I do have a background in psychoanalytic thought.My point is that in order to see pathology, one has to dig deeply below the surface of everyday life. And, that’s precisely what psychoanalysis helps us to do. While psychoanalysis originated primarily in order to help individuals, it now has an important role to play in helping society as a whole.To see this, it is enough to consider the work of Wilford Bion. Bion is one of the greatest psychoanalysts of all time. His pioneering discoveries not only shed important light on the very earliest stages of childhood, but they also help to explain the toxicity that is rampant throughout our current public discourse and politics, particularly that on the Right.

From his work with adults—most notably psychotics–Bion was able to work back to the earliest roots of psychosis–pathology in general. The earliest stages of life are governed by an incredibly powerful interplay of, mostly unconscious, intense emotions between a mother, her young infant, and the child’s other caretakers.

“Projective identification” is the technical term for the process. It is the means whereby young infants project outward onto others thoughts, feelings, and emotions that are too painful, unpleasant, and intense for them to bear at their stage of emotional development. In other words, the internal thoughts, feelings, and emotions that unpleasant experiences trigger in young children—e.g., fears of abandonment, the demise of their caretakers as well as their own fears of destruction, not being fed physically and/or emotionally and at the precise moments when the child wants it, etc.– are not only expelled in often angry and hostile ways, but dumped onto others. In this way, others, and not the child, are seen as the “cause” of all that is experienced and felt as unpleasant. In a similar fashion, those aspects of the child that are experienced as “bad parts of oneself,” and thereby unwanted, are also projected outwards onto others. This is the only mechanism available to very young infants and children for dealing with unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Their cognitive abilities are not yet developed so that they can understand what’s happening and thus deal with it in more acceptable ways.

This is the “projective” part of “projective identification.” The “identification” part occurs if the child and/or his or her caretakers “identify strongly with” the projections, i.e., psychologically speaking, regard them as “true” or “warranted.”

If the mother and/or caretakers are “understanding,” i.e., if they are not overly distressed and repelled by the often violent thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the child, especially since they are typically expressed in the form of directly hostile and vicious attacks on the mother and/or caretakers, then over time they help the child to “contain” his or her own unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

In the beginning of life, the mother and other caretakers are literally the “emotional container” for the child whose own internal “container” is not sufficiently well developed to act on its own. But if for some reason, the mother and other caretakers are themselves not sufficiently developed, then the child’s “container,” and hence development, is at risk of being impaired.This is not to lay sole blame on the mother or other caretakers, for many other factors such as abuse and trauma by others can also seriously interrupt healthy development. Also, some children are more susceptible to violent outbursts due to neurological and physical factors over which they have no control.

With these ideas in mind, let me turn to today’s toxic public discourse and politics.

In their important and powerful book, It’s Worse Than It Looks, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein lay the blame for today’s toxic politics primarily at the feet of the Republican Party (http://www.amazon.com/Even-Worse-Than-Looks-Constitutional/dp/0465031331). They especially single out Newt Gingrich.  Gingrich realized early on that the Republican Party could end the 40-year rein of the Democratic Party through the use of the worst smears and invectives, i.e., essentially by demonizing the Democratic Party. Indeed, to Gingrich and others, this was seen as the only way they could recapture the Congress and the White House. Thus, Democrats were not only branded as “socialists,” but even worse, as “traitors.”Obviously, except by conducting direct clinical interviews with Gingrich, key members of the Republican Party, and the Tea Party, we have no way of knowing what if any trauma they experienced such that they are driven repeatedly to use the most violent invectives in demonizing their opponents. Nonetheless, one thing I know for sure. One does not manifest such violent feelings repeatedly unless there has been serious disturbance of some kind in a person’s history.

But I want to make an even more important point. Social scientists have long known that there is a direct societal counterpart for every single one of the mechanisms that pertain to individuals, and vice versa Thus, society is often equated either with the mother—The Motherland—and/or the father—The Fatherland because society is a surrogate parent. It is a parent writ large. In the case of The Motherland, society is perceived and experienced primarily as benevolent and nurturing. In the case of The Fatherland, society perceived and experienced primarily as authoritarian, harsh, and unforgiving.

No wonder Birthers are driven to such extremes of pathological rage. How could a “true mother” give birth to and anoint a “Black Other” with the highest office in the world? The only way she could is through a deep act of betrayal. And, betrayal by one’s mother, real or symbolic, is the worst of all crimes. It unleashes such a torrent of fury that it wants to destroy the guilty party again and again. No wonder why The Radical Right wants to “kill government!”

In a word, the “emotional containers of society”—our grand institutions, our leaders, our supposedly shared history and values–have broken down. They are “leaky” at best. They are no longer able to “contain” the emotional impulses of the Far Right. The impulses have literally broken through the normal constraints of society that are there if only in part to help ensure civility.

To counter such tendencies that can literally destroy a society, Mann and Ornstein propose among many things, a Shadow Congress made up of retired Congress Persons to “model” civil discourse and reasoned examination of the great issues that by definition cannot be dealt with by a pathological Right. They also propose that popular figures need to speak out constantly and reinforce healthy emotional discourse.Let me end by quoting one of my favorite social philosophers, Jonathon Swift: “You can’t reason a man out of what he was not reasoned into in the first place.”

You don’t reason with pathology. You cope with and treat it emotionally with the best means society has at its disposal. You mobilize public figures and moderate politicians to speak out calmly, continuously, and forcefully, and by doing so, reinforce healthy discourse.In sum, there is no greater challenge facing us than rebuilding the emotional containers of society!

Originally published on Nation of Change, June 13, 2012

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