Diagnostic Politics and National Psychoses - Part 2

I want to continue some of my thoughts on psychotherapy and politics that I started to discuss in Tuesday’s post. I’m following the Politicopsychopathology essay by Benjamin Kunkel a bit more closely.

The idea of political dream-work is very intriguing. Kunkel describes the persistent sense of deception that now pervades most political debate and discussion in America. The constant praise for ‘job-creators’ by Republicans like Mitt Romney comes in for some close analysis.

In American political life today, you never show your work. So the answer to any question we take to be code for a hidden dream-work, to use Freud’s term for the impacted logic of dreams. In this way, for instance, even Mitt Romney’s pledge to relieve mass unemployment by cutting taxes for “job creators,” in the question-begging term, seems to refer not to any underlying economic theory, which he would never in any case elaborate, but to a concealed preference for the rich to get richer. Such a motive is not even, however, comprehensibly economic, since Romney himself is so rich already; it could only emerge out of some obscure compound of class loyalty, self-admiration, cultural nostalgia, power hunger, or other elements altogether. Romney would anyway deny the motive we impute to him, and his denial might be sincere. The point is only that if we listen to his words—or to almost any contemporary political speech—we find ourselves not in the position of a rational interlocutor, but in that of a shrink faced with a patient: here is a someone who either doesn’t believe what he says or says it for other reasons than he gives, and yet whose real reasons and motives are inaccessible to us, and may be to him, too.

Not that politicians and pundits are mentally ill in a clinical sense, but politics in American national life today can only be presented in pathological form. Politics no longer involves the public use of reason; it is instead a matter of psychopathology, and is already treated as such by politicians and the public alike. Only this can account for the political centrality of the “gaffe” or slip of the tongue, an eminence that verbal inadvertencies have not enjoyed since the early days of psychoanalysis. But verbal or other symbolic blunders (Michael Dukakis looking not macho but dweeby in a battle tank; George W. Bush standing before a hubristic MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner) are only the raw material or starting point for the practice of politico-psychopathology. The end result is an analysis—usually an accusation—of the “true” meaning not only of a politician’s words but of his hidden nature and undisclosed program. Almost invariably the true meaning reveals a taboo intention or identity.

Two ideas stand out for me in this excerpt. The first is the need to understand politics as form of psychopathology. The words spoken by politicians are no longer connected to any rational dialog about policies or even ideas. Instead they are code words for something else. There is no logical connection between cutting taxes for ‘job-creators’ because there is no economic evidence that such a tax cut would have any effect on actual job creation. So a rational person trying to discover what Romney’s words would actually mean is left groping in the dark trying to suss out the hidden meaning.

Of course this obsession with hidden meanings easily elides into conspiracy mongering. The public presentation of politics has taught the public to constantly seek out the hidden messages politicians are sending to their supporters. Back in the mid-2000s I remember this was described as dog whistles. The whole Lakoffian - Don’t Think of an Elephant - framing argument about political language is an example of trolling for metaphorical meaning. Media fact-checking websites, like Politifact, proliferate the need for the public to be constantly on guard against deception.

The second interesting connection from the Kunkel article is the gaffe. Slips of the tongue do seem to have become the central political speech act. Every campaign follows their opponent constantly in the hope of video taping a gaffe which will go viral on the internet and torpedo the opponent’s personality or message. Gaffes in debates were almost the entire content of political discussion during the early months of the Trump campaign last summer and into the fall of 2015. Pundits were always saying that Trump had finally gone too far by maligning something - McCain’s war record, or George Bush’s Iraq invasion - but the actual effect of these gaffes on the electorate seems to have been for naught.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.