Roots of Inflammatory Political Discourse

In the wake of the Tucson massacre, President Obama has called for a new era of political civility. If we really want this reform, we need to understand something about the roots of inflammatory discourse.

Many partisans are not interested in any resolution of political issues. The real purpose for the venom they direct at each other is to cover up their own unresolved negativity and to discharge that negativity on to their opponents and us.

If civility returns to political discourse, these partisans will be left to bake in their own neurotic juices. They prefer a scorched-earth political climate to a true accounting of their distemper.

That distemper has been particularly gruesome from the right wing where the most aggressive projections of negativity and the most irrational discourse originate. As a people, we are unable to outgrow regressive, reactionary, and violence-inviting political discourse when we don’t understood the psychological dynamics clearly enough. For all the advances in neuroscience and brain studies, we haven’t acknowledged an essential aspect of human nature. Psychoanalysis did identify this dark aspect of our psyche, but our education system failed to transmit this vital knowledge to the public.

Classical psychoanalysis realized correctly that the human psyche is contaminated by drives, conflicts, and instincts that produce negative emotions and self-defeating behaviors. Much of the negativity that we feel originates from this inner turmoil. Through resistance and denial, however, we have refused to acknowledge that our psyche is the source of these bad feelings. Instead, we tend to blame others or external circumstances for our distress, anxiety, anger, and fear. We are, in a sense, tricked into the act of blaming by unconscious processes that include projection, transference, and various defenses.

A fanatical partisan wants to believe that the (alleged) stupidity and malice of the other side are valid reasons for his negative feelings. This partisan doesn’t see that political opponents have become, at least in part, convenient targets for the negativity that he is compelled to project or transfer onto them. This enables the partisan to pose as a blameless and innocent contributor to the debate instead of the dysfunctional participant that he is.

Partisans are quick to denounce this claim made by psychoanalysis that they scatter and dispense their own negativity under the cover of their passion, righteousness, and ideology. (Terrorists also do this, though in the most vicious ways imaginable.) Were partisans to recognize this inner dynamic, they would also be obliged to acknowledge their personal need for psychological insight and growth. Their ego and resistance say “No thanks” to that option.

Of course, passion and partisanship are perfectly acceptable in political discourse. However, passionate intensity is a feature of the individual who is dumping his or her negativity on to others. Passion is best moderated by wisdom and humility. Partisans without insight become self-righteous, judgmental, negative, and divisive, while putting forward a triumphant self-image that cons the naïve and pulls them into the pits of anger, hatred, and hopelessness.

Unrelenting partisanship, taunting, and overheated rhetoric serve as defenses that cover up each individual’s own refusal to answer the call of human destiny, which is the realization of the oneness of humanity through a deep knowing of one’s self. As long as we blame the other side for our negative feelings, we can avoid taking, as mythologist Joseph Campbell put it, the hero’s journey through the dark underworld of the psyche. Meanwhile, the more stubbornly we cling to our ego, the more fiercely we end up battling what we experience as the arrogant, infuriating egos of others.

Inflammatory political discourse is just one symptom of the general ignorance of how our psyche works. Other symptoms include widespread narcissism, pervasive passivity, deteriorating mental health, and an entitlement mentality. All undermine the struggle for a better democracy.

We all have ways that we can grow psychologically and become more powerful in expressing the quality of our humanity. People on the Right need to address their hostility, irrationality, fear of change, and, ultimately, their deep unconscious fear of death that drives them to militarize the nation, stock up on handguns, and fantasize apocalyptically about salvation. On the Left we can become more powerful by recognizing and addressing our forms of negativity, which are more subtle and include defensiveness and feelings of victimization, oppression, criticism, and disappointment.

As we acquire more self-knowledge and clear out this negativity, we feel greater self-respect along with respect for others. This new personal harmony is automatically transferred to family, community, and nation.