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The Psychology of...

The Psychology of Politics

The buzz of politics lingers in the background of culture like a perpetual muzak but on a daily basis it pretty much slips under the radar screen of the nation’s collective interest.

Most attention is focused on the increasingly newsworthy roller coaster ride of financial markets. Wall Street has replaced Washington (and even Hollywood) as the major national obsession.

But every four years politics takes center stage as the two parties "brand" themselves to appeal to the masses. During this time that perpetual background hum of politics gets crafted into short, sharp advertising sound bites.

The popular view is that our two big parties are involved in a clash of ideologies. Democrats stand for equality and greater federal control. Republicans represent freedom and greater state control. Most of us know the slogans and "talking points" of the two parties pretty well by now.

Yet while ideologies have traditionally defined our political parties, the real difference may be more psychological than ideological. It may really be one between psychological types rather than political ideologies. The distinction may seem subtle but it is important.

The notion of psychological types was originally set forth by Carl Jung in the early decades of the 20th century. It centered on what Jung identified as the four major psychological functions: feeling, intuition, sensing and thinking.

Over the years, rather than fading into some sort of esoteric oblivion, the idea of psychological types (as well as the concomitant concept of the psychological attitudes of introversion and extraversion) has offered society a practical and effective method for evaluating people. It is at the core of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as well as the Keirsey Temperament Indicator.

But while becoming a successful and unique method of personal evaluation, it has seen little use in evaluating groups, institutions or, for that matter, particular periods of history. It is one thing to call someone a "feeling type" but seldom has this term been extended to corporations or organizations. William Bridges has been one of the first to look at corporations this way in his important but little known 1992 book The Character of Organizations.

Politics has been one of the major institutions to escape examination from the perspective of psychological functions.

In this sense, the traditional view of Republicans and Democrats suggests that the major difference between the two parties is an ideological one. They simply think differently about issues. But a much more fruitful and enlightening perspective considers the two parties as different psychological types. One party thinks about issues while the other party feels about issues.

The subtextual conflict of America’s two major parties might really be between two key psychological functions rather than between two ideologies inside one psychological function.

In effect, the real conflict might be more psychological than political in nature - between a thinking Republican perspective, for instance, and a feeling Democratic perspective.

This divergence of psychological types seems to go much further than divergence of ideology in explaining the historic split in American politics at the beginning of the new millennium.

In her famous book Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand envisioned a world where the "engine" of the world simply stopped, where the "Prima Movers go on strike." A world where thinking stopped.

Welcome to our image based, sound bite, short attention span culture of 2001.

In many ways, it is the world Rand created in Atlas Shrugged, a world where thinking and its "Prima Movers" has gone on strike. It is a culture defined more by the brief comings-and-goings of "drive by" emotions than even a meager edifice of cobbled out thought. Those ancient meta-narratives which held up major ideologies for so many centuries have crumbled into bite-size postmodern emotions of relativism. The culture pops these short up-and-down emotions in its mouth like nuggets of frosted morning breakfast cereal or happy-day drugs like Prozac.

Our culture is one much more in tune with feeling than with thinking. This is not to suggest there is such a great amount of feeling in contemporary culture but more to point out an almost total absence of thinking.

The Republicans have won the immediate political day but the ultimate success of Republicans will be in acknowledging and trying to understand in some way the Democratic postmodern culture of short, flashy images and icons.

Hollywood understands this attitude. Madison Avenue understands it. Wall Street understands it. The Democrats exude it. Will the Republicans make an attempt to understand it? Or will they try to change it rather than understand it?

While the differences between Republicans and Democrats began to crystallize during the campaign and election, these differences came to a head in the post-election Florida fiasco.

The Democrats were able to craft an emotional message of just three words in their continuing chant of "Count every vote." It provided an appealing ad headline based on emotion a lot more than thought. Like a successful business idea "elevator speech" it was something that could be grasped quickly and emotionally. It was the perfect easily remembered slogan for a dumbed-down American culture where Idiot Guides have become the new bestsellers.

Republicans vs. Democrats
Ideology Ideology (Ideologies=Thinking)
Thinking Feeling (Psychological Functions)

A contrast Between Psychology Rather Than Ideology

Faced with the difficult task of throwing a thoughtful logic at emotion, the Republicans were only able to come up with crafty wordsmithed phrases like "Sore Loserman." For the most part the three word emotional advertising headline chant of the Democrats was an ad headline copy that performed much better than any Republican "talking points" during the post election period.

Republican pundits went on all the television shows to try to explain the Republican position. But their "thinking approach" never let them develop a short emotional phrase like the Democrats. They were never able to develop an advertising headline, an emotional battle cry slogan that could send their troops to war.

By the time the Republicans had explained their position they had lost that short attention span of many Americans. Even other Republicans if truth be told. Yes, Republicans might have staked their claim on the high ground of rational thought but few were willing to make the trek up the hill to reach this particular high ground.

And the phrase "Count every vote" was such an American three words. So patriotic. So much a bullseye hit at the paradoxical heart of the American dream boasting the emotion of equality over the idea of freedom.

Yes, Republican political forces have won the presidential election and placed George W. Bush in the White House. But this does not mean that Republican political forces have won over that great fickle mass of American popular culture.

The Republican camp is like an island of ideology in the middle of an emotional sea of pop culture. Such is the symbol of the initial Republican assault on Washington after the election. Rather than a great tsunami wave rolling in over the nation’s capitol and sweeping in new values, the new leaders seem more like a group surrounded on all sides, their every move watched and monitored by an angry, emotional popular culture.

An hour north of San Francisco there is a narrow short little valley west of Napa’s wine country called the Valley of the Moon. A 1950ish two-lane road runs through the Valley of the Moon. At one point along it there is a fading political billboard promoting the Gore-Lieberman ticket. No one has bothered to take it down. What is the use? But it still seems to have some symbolic significance you can’t quite put your finger on. In a way it is like that billboard in The Great Gatsby rising over the "valley of ashes." Maybe its purpose is simply to remind by its persistent presence that while ideology and Republicans have won a big battle, the war is not yet over.

The storm clouds of this war are beginning to build just below the immediate horizon and soon they might roll in over the land. They might bring with them the real "storm of the century" in another great civil war for America. This time the war will be greater than the daily buzzings of those persistent, pesty cultural wars. This time the grandness and pervasiveness of psychology rather than the comings and goings of fashionable ideologies might serve to define the new armies fighting for the soul of our land.

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