Why Politics Are So Hard: A Psychoanalyst’s Perspective
Understanding the influence of unconscious processes in groups
Posted June 1, 2016
In recent weeks, I have been in several groups in which the question was asked, “How can psychoanalysts speak to the psychological dynamics at play in modern politics?” There is a felt need for a better understanding of the unconscious forces that make politics so divisive, explosive, and often unproductive. I feel fortunate to have this platform to share a perspective, informed by my understanding of the human psyche through the lens of psychoanalysis, from a distance and without commentary about anyone in particular.
Why are politics so hard? Put simply, politics are hard because people are hard. People are hard because we are unknowingly driven by unconscious forces. This is true for those who seek to govern as well as those who will vote to elect them. While unconscious forces are at play in all human interactions, the intensity of these dynamics is galvanized when anxiety and power are involved on a large scale.
In politics, deep personal and societal anxieties are activated. The opportunity for change in leadership sheds light on these anxieties and is a catalyst for important conversations. In election periods, we get an opportunity to take a look at the struggles that face ordinary people with regard to their finances, health, education, race and cultural relations, human rights, quality of life, and so on. Those who are struggling in such periods look for someone to help them find security. Those who are successful look for someone to keep it that way. Fear of survival and fear of loss are powerful human motivators.
Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion studied how groups operate in times of stress and anxiety. He identified a tendency for groups to devolve into unconscious operations in which constructive working-together is thwarted. He called these groups “basic assumption groups,” in which the group acts like a closed system to protect itself. In such a closed system, new ideas, creative problem-solving, and progress are not valued. Instead, the group unconsciously over-values what it already “knows”—and what it “knows” is a very narrow slice of reality suffused with anxiety and projection.
Bion identified three types of basic assumption groups, and two are clearly evident in modern politics. One is the “fight-flight” group, in which the group sees its main task as identifying an enemy and fighting or fleeing from it. You can tell when this type of group is operating by its rhetoric: people and issues are split into good-bad, us-them, right-wrong, insiders-outsiders, and so on. This splitting-and-projective process allows us to feel good about ourselves—at least temporarily—while distancing ourselves from the bad by controlling it or getting rid of it. The problem is “not us” and it is located “out there.”
While this kind of splitting-and-projection may be part of the politics show—as an intentional way to heighten interest and get our attention—it also preys on our worst fears and basest human impulses. Identify someone to hate or blame and you bring a group together in a powerful way. Rarely a productive way, but a powerful way.
Bion identified a second type of basic assumption group which he called the “dependency” group. In this state, the group unconsciously seeks a powerful and charismatic leader who will relieve them of their anxieties. This leader is seen as a savior, an omnipotent figure who knows what is really going on and has all the answers. The dependency group process is particularly insidious because the group and its members do not see themselves as needing to actively participate in solving their own problems, nor do they see the complexity of the difficulties at hand. Thinking is exchanged for magical solutions.
These unconscious ways of operating as groups are not new; human history is replete with examples in politics, government, religion, and culture. But I think that the temptation to operate in these ways is being fueled rather than tempered in American society today. Ambitions to get elected, maintain control, and improve ratings fan the flames of our natural tendency toward splitting, projection, envy, and greed.
Bion contrasted the “basic assumption group” with what he called the “work group.” In the work group, the members gather together to accomplish a specific task. They are goal- and achievement-oriented, able to manage unconscious anxiety and impulses without being taken over by them. Work groups operate with restraint, consider the complexities of reality, learn from experience, exercise patience, tolerate differences, and place stock in the common good. The work group shows maturity, civility, and sensibility.
Our culture tends not to value the attributes of the work group. These attributes are not sexy; they do not offer quick fixes. They don’t get ratings; they don’t stoke intense emotions. It is difficult for people who operate by work group values to get elected in this day and age, and those who operate by such values may not have the stomach for modern politics anyway. For those who do succeed, it is often hard for them to find like-minded colleagues and broad support to constructively move forward.
So, given these powerful unconscious forces, what are we to do? There are no simple solutions, but consider this general idea. One by one, person by person, we need to influence our group consciousness to deal more constructively with our group unconsciousness. That may sound like an odd way to say it, but think about it seriously. We must recognize the unconscious forces that drive us in order to deal with them more constructively. This is essentially what Freud meant when he said that psychological health is found in making the unconscious conscious or “where Id was, Ego shall be.” The shift from an impulsive, infantile mindset to a more considered, mature mindset is the same as the shift from a basic assumption group to a work group mentality.
Politics are hard, yes. People are hard, yes. But there is work to be done and it can be done, not just on Capitol Hill but in our individual and group consciousness. “Bit by bit,” as psychoanalyst Melanie Klein would say, we are each responsible to work together to make it better.
Copyright 2016 by Jennifer L. Kunst, PhD
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