The Primitive Conservative Psyche

The battles against the anti-democratic Right in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere are being fought to prevent conservatives from remaking America in the image of their moral worldview.

Berkeley professor and author George Lakoff advises us to see more deeply into the psychology of this crisis. We need to understand, he writes, how the conservative belief in individual responsibility, to the exclusion of social responsibility, is based on the model of the strict-father family.

According to this model, the father’s role in the family as Decider and moral authority is required to teach kids right from wrong. Conservatives claim that father’s superior moral guidance is needed, along with physical punishment if necessary, so kids can develop the discipline to become morally responsible adults.

Why do conservatives think that father knows best? Psychoanalysis can provide insight.

According to psychoanalysis, the superego, also known as the inner critic or inner aggression, typically assumes an authoritarian, even a tyrannical, stance within our psyche. The superego is an aggressive drive that can function as an inner disciplinarian. However, it is usually negative and irrational. In less evolved individuals, the superego often decides what is right and wrong. But it makes this distinction for the sake of fulfilling its function, which is to exercise inner authority. It is not interested in, nor can it even distinguish, what is truly right or wrong.

In their psychological naiveté, however, conservatives interpret the oppressive, impersonal superego as a guiding voice of inner conscience.

When people are inwardly weak and unaware, the superego can have the run of their psyche and dominate their personality. Often, it is critical, ruthless, mocking, and unforgiving. It frequently overpowers what little sense of autonomy and personal authority many people possess.

Unwittingly, conservatives plant their soul in the impersonal authority of the superego. Hence, they are enamored of the power of the impersonal, as evidenced by their emotional alignment with corporations, the market, and the military. These three impersonal forces impose their values and authority without interference from citizens, as when the alleged self-regulating “invisible hand” of the marketplace destroys the environment.

Conservatives distrust government because it is personal, not impersonal. Government is the voice and protector of the people. But the people are not supposed to have a voice. Only some “higher” impersonal law or representative of that law (father figure) is allowed to decide the right approach to life’s big issues. Just as children of conservatives must submit passively to the father, we adults are not supposed to have a mind of our own. We are not expected to grow in human consciousness.

Ideally, democratic governments express human consciousness at its best. This is the wise guiding authority that represents and protects us. But human consciousness is a discredited term in the conservative lexicon. That’s because on an inner level, the consciousness of rigid conservatives is frozen in place. Global warming can’t defrost it because “higher” authority hasn’t factored in that game-changing scenario. In addition, the superego, the conservative mind’s Decider, is hostile to our progress and completely indifferent to our suffering and self-defeat.

Hence, the superego has no capacity for empathy. Yet empathy is a quality of higher consciousness, as well as the basis of American democracy. Empathy is built into the principle of one person, one vote. When each person’s vote counts, each person is respected and valued. Democracy is an evolved system that practices equality and justice. Democracy is supportive of each person being strong and happy, and it’s not threatened when labor collectives possess bargaining rights. When it comes to power, the more the merrier.

Conservatives believe the government should not provide health care, environmental protection, and other forms of public service. That gives too much respect and power to everybody. They rationalize their lack of empathy by claiming that the poor deserve their poverty because they are responsible for their own failings. But the poor haven’t necessarily failed. Perhaps they’re doing well with the poor cards they were dealt. We’re the lesser ones if our hearts are closed. So we have no business being judgmental. But the superego’s specialty is being judgmental.

Conservatives’ mental gymnastics for disrespecting the poor enable them to practice guilt-free ruthlessness while feeling morally superior, which is precisely the stance adopted by the superego. The superego clings to its power like a dictator as it tries to keep down human consciousness. Meanwhile, the conservative embrace of individualism is derived from the righteousness and arrogance of the superego as a power onto itself.

The conservative mentality rests on this primitive aspect of human nature. How tragic for America and the world if it were to prevail!

Self-knowledge is power, and knowledge of the oppressor’s inner corruption is power to the people.