The 50th Law Pt III: The Neurotic Type, The Republican Party and the Transgression of the Law
According to The 50th Law, we can be defined by our relationship to reality. Reality is what lies outside of ourselves, beyond our subjective experience. We have desires. We want people to help, support and like us. We want our projects to gain the appropriate attention and our talents to be recognized. We wish the world around us to remain relatively stable so we can realize our plans or maintain what we have. But then reality intervenes. The people we look to for assistance think first of themselves and their self-interest; their support is rather tepid or they even resist us. To draw positive attention to our work is not so easy; we are competing against thousands of others who have the same desire. Nothing stays the same; unforeseen events are constantly spoiling our plans.
Confronted with this discrepancy between desire and reality, we can go in one of two directions. We can try our best to ignore these outside forces and escape into an inner world of dreams and fantasies. This is the childish reaction, born out of weakness and fear. Or we can see reality as something that must be accepted and dealt with. In coming to such a realization, we move towards power. Instead of whining about people’s lack of support or attention, we decide we will find ways to appeal to their self-interest and improve our communication skills. Instead of fearing change, we decide to embrace it in all its forms and discover how we can exploit it. Instead of resenting how difficult it is to get attention and approval for our projects, we use this resistance to make ourselves work harder, with more discipline and focus. To the degree that we accept reality, we now have the power to shape it.
Most of us throughout our lives are pulled in both directions. We find ourselves indulging in daydreams and deluding ourselves about what is happening around us, but then we recognize the importance of seeing things as they are and we make ourselves wake up to reality. There are people, however, who never engage in this struggle. Their fear of reality is so great and their sense of self is so fragile that their only solution in life is to retreat to a world of illusion and find a way to stay there. For our purposes we shall such a type a neurotic.
The personalities of neurotics are generally formed around some kind of trauma in childhood–parental neglect or suffocation, a nasty divorce in which they were buffeted by unwanted changes, some humiliating experience, a sudden loss of prestige or affection, etc. Their fears for a repeat of such experiences are intense and exaggerated. They come to see the world around them as filled with things that are unpredictable and beyond their control. The only way to gain control is to construct certain illusions in their mind, creating an inner space that is familiar and predictable. They see themselves as good, powerful and talented; people who don’t recognize this are malicious and evil. If neurotics believe and feel these things, then they are real.
Neurotics emphasize the past over the present. They look back to a time before the traumas and imagine a world that was once safe and pleasant. They cling to that memory. They cannot think too deeply about the world or themselves because such self-reflection might disturb their illusions. Instead, they value emotion over reason. Their strategies in life are rather repetitive–all designed to maintain their defenses.
We know we are dealing with such types because we are constantly hitting a wall with them. If we try to open their minds to another way of seeing something, they take this as criticism and a personal attack. They get upset and try to draw us into an emotional back-and-forth, during which our reasoning powers are neutralized and they can dominate. Their defenses can take the shape of a fortress, or a bubble that bends a little–but in either case we cannot really penetrate their world and inject some reality.
In their youth neurotics can seem rather interesting–dramatic, imaginative, and volatile. They often have an idea that they adhere to with incredible fanaticism, which can be seductive. But as the years go by, their detachment from reality becomes more noticeable. That one idea of theirs starts to seem obsessive and absurd. When people are young, their illusions and dreams can seem charming; as an adult, they start to seem pathetic and out of touch. We unconsciously avoid them and their increasing isolation makes them more fearful and neurotic. Sometimes their behavior is downright bizarre and self-defeating–such as deliberately alienating friends and family.
I was thinking of this neurotic syndrome as I contemplated the actions of the Republican Party through much of 2008. I did not make this connection with neurosis out of malice or personal political preferences. The Democrats have their own pathologies and psychological tics that I have outlined in other blogs, and which will certainly spark their own fall from grace years down the line. And there are certainly Republicans who demonstrate common sense and independent reasoning. But during the last election cycle, many of the actions of its leadership followed irrational and self-destructive patterns. Some of these included the following:
• Sudden bold gestures designed to draw attention and create some kind of excited response, such as McCain’s announcement he was going to suspend his campaign during the economic crisis. These gestures were not tied to any overall strategy and they were oddly disconnected from the moment. They seemed like the actions of a child stamping his feet to get attention.
• Peddling the same, simple ideas from election cycles long past: lower taxes, less government, the need to return to the kind of values exemplified in small-town America. It was as if they were living in a time warp and had taken no notice of Bush spending patterns or the economic meltdown in progress or any of the other immediate concerns of most Americans.
• Emotion over reason. Facts did not really matter. If Sarah Palin could assert that Obama had palled around with terrorists, it was enough to believe that. Anything could be asserted as long as the emotions behind them were sincere and strong.
• Actions designed to curry favor with the base at the expense of alienating critical portions of the electorate such as Hispanics, all of this from the need to maintain ideological purity but ensuring an electoral disaster.
• The constant appeal to fears–the country being overrun by illegal immigrants, the imminent decline of Judeo-Christian values, terrorists in our midst, socialism or communism if Obama is elected, the loss of countless freedoms, and so on. The party of John Wayne had morphed into the party of Chicken Little.
• Constant whining and finger-pointing. If they lost badly in 2006 and were trailing in the polls in 2008, it was not because of their actions but because of the liberal media, or natural election cycles or whatever other rationale could be found. This prevented any kind of self-reflection or challenge to their cherished beliefs. Everything to maintain the bubble and the illusion that they still represented mainstream America.
Considering where they had been a mere four or eight years earlier, the turnaround and fall from grace was rather shocking. How to explain this sudden group neurosis, these strategies detached from reality? In fact, this transformation was not as sudden or radical as it seems. The seeds of this neurotic reaction go back several decades.
For many Americans the events of the late 1960s and 70s were deeply traumatizing. America’s self-image as the world’s beacon of freedom and democracy had been shaken to the core by Vietnam and Watergate. Racial tensions and the emergence of feminism posed real challenges to the old order and power structures. White male dominance was no longer such a given. On the world stage, America’s supremacy was being challenged on several fronts. The world had become increasingly more chaotic; traditional values seemed to be dissolving. By the end of the 1970s many felt disturbed by the present and nostalgic for the past. (Change can be very upsetting to the human animal.) In culture, people suddenly became obsessed with the 1950s–a period that seemed stable, prosperous and idyllic in retrospect.
All of this set the stage for a charismatic leader–Ronald Reagan, the right man at the right time. He crafted a simple message of lower taxes, individual responsibility, the promotion of traditional values, and America as the global safeguard of these values. Government was something that had gotten in the way of the American spirit and needed to be pruned back like an overgrown tree, to a minimal form.
This message was immensely seductive but it stemmed from a reaction against change; it was a look backward and built on desire, not reality. We could not return to the simplicity of the 1950s, which were not as simple as we had liked to remember. Taxes could not be cut in some revolutionary manner while military spending escalated. The world had become increasingly complex and problems could not be solved by something so facile and reductive.
America could not maintain its preeminent position around the world without investing in education programs. The private sector could not see immediate value in such investments; it required some government intervention. Devaluing such social investments led us down the path of decay in education for which we are now paying a steep price. But the newness of the ideas and the easy fix they represented kept people under the spell of Reagan and diverted them from the realities bubbling up to the surface in the 60s and 70s.
Soon Reagan himself slipped into the past, and nostalgia for him supplanted that of the 1950s among Republicans. Underneath it all remained the same fears–of chaos, change and loss of identity. The attack launched on Iraq by George W. Bush can be seen as part of this last, dying sweep of nostalgia–America reasserting its global preeminence, establishing a stable order in the heart of darkness.
With the passing of the years we began to see through the childish illusions and rigidity of the Republican Party. As the election cycle of 2008 geared up we continued to hear the same platitudes about taxes, morality, terrorism and the endless stoking of fears. But now, the level of detachment from reality, and the disconnect to events was abundantly clear. In our face was the destructive result of devaluing government and its importance in regulating runaway capitalism. Playing upon our emotions and fears no longer had the desired effect–it seemed desperate and many were repelled. As with any neurotic, the defeats and rejection that the public gave them caused no real self-examination. The reaction instead was emotional–blame the messengers or the mainstream media, play the victim and martyr. Neurotics cannot learn from their mistakes. They get angry and defensive, not wise.
In essence, the dominant strain of Republicanism can be defined as a fear of modernity and a desire to return to a more comfortable and simpler past. They want to deny certain realities–the changing demographics of America, our diminishing role on the world stage (all a part of the rising and falling cycles of any civilization), the globalization of power and the less control that gives people on the local level, the increasing chaos and unpredictability in all facets of life.
Reality in this case does not lead to an either/or dynamic. America’s diminished role on the world stage does not mean it is doomed to fall like Rome or that it cannot reinvent itself in the near future. Asserting the undeniable importance of government in solving some problems does not imply that socialism or communism is the way to go. Stating that social values are shifting does not mean it is all good, or that we are helpless to resist some changes. But to neurotics, it can only be black or white, everything or nothing. The strength of their fears and insecurities require they react in this manner.
Which leads Republicans to a double bind: to bring about the changes they want, they have to have power. To have power in 21st century America they must broaden their base and accept certain givens, certain aspects of modernity. But to do so means abandoning some of their most cherished beliefs. Such a thought induces panic and so they prefer retreating to what is safe and familiar, ensuring their continued isolation and confirming their worst fears.
A key concept in The 50th Law is that of the masks of fear. It works like this: we generally acknowledge fear as a sign of weakness. If from childhood we are marked by a particular anxiety or insecurity, we learn over the years to cover this up with what seems to be the opposite–aggression and even bravado. In this way, we can hide these insecurities from the public and even from ourselves. We assert our opinions more loudly than others; we remain so rigidly true to some idea we fell for in our youth that it seems we are a rock of consistency and resolution. Rip away this mask, this deceptive veneer, and you will see below a frightened child–terrified of change, chaos, anything different or unfamiliar.
These are the masks that are worn by such types as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly and Dick Cheney. The louder and more persistently they talk, the harder it is for us to see through that façade. We may view them as irritating and repetitive, but at least we are not discerning that deep well of insecurity that is impelling them forward. The 50th Law demands that you look beyond such masks and view the strategies and ideas that people utilize. If they are rigid, reactive, backward looking, full of attempts at denying certain realities, and asserted with much loudness then you can be sure there is a great deal of fear underneath, causing an individual or group to cover this up with the opposite.
Nothing is set in stone. As the Democrats overreach and stop learning the lessons that came from being out of power, the cycle could very easily swing back. But for the Republicans the only hope is that they have the capacity to evolve and stop yearning for the past. They would have to refashion their principles around new realities, aiming at creating a party that would deliver efficient, streamlined government, one that could offer creative ideas instead of repackaged simplifications. This might very well happen as the old Republicans die off and are replaced by a younger generation that is no longer so neurotically tied to Ronald Reagan and ideas that have long since lost their relevance. Until that happens, it will be a long march in the wilderness.
Coming next: Part Four–Barack Obama, Realism and Observance of the Law