Politics & Media
Oct 24, 2008, 05:43AM

All in the Family

Does Freud explain the GOP’s “family values” ideology?

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The anthropologist John Borneman once told me that the appeal of Freud lies not in the correctness of Freudian analysis, but rather in the creativity and excitement of elaborating a convoluted Freudian explanation for behavior. A young woman hides all of her clocks and flowerpots before going to bed; Freud explains that this expresses anxiety over the rapidly approaching loss of her virginity. Maybe the clocks and her hymen have nothing to do with one another. Making an argument that connects the obsessive action with the ostensible root cause is nonetheless almost always entertaining and frequently reveals truths, even if its central assertion stands on shaky ground. Please read this analysis of our current, bizarre American politics in this spirit.

Freud, in his brilliant Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, argues that joining a group engenders several psychological effects on the individual. Following the French psychoanalyst Le Bon, Freud claims that joining a group tends to homogenize the identity, making the members behave more like one another. Surprise, surprise. The next effect is much more interesting: this plunge into the cesspool of others’ thoughts and attitudes erodes responsibility, allowing a member of a group to “yield to instincts which, had he been alone, he would perforce have kept under restraint” (this is Le Bon, quoted in Freud). Simply being in a group generates euphoria, a concept similar to what sociologist Emile Durkheim called collective effervescence. Placing yourself in a net of others feels great, makes you happy, and authorizes terrible thoughts and feelings that you think you don’t entertain privately. Anyone who has attended a basketball game has felt this, as has anyone who has attended a political rally; watch this video of Americans outside a Palin rally to see the more corrosive effects of the group.

Freud continues his dismal appraisal of groups by talking about the church—this is where he begins to describe the relationship between the group and its leader. In the church, Freud argues, every member of the group feels entitled to an equal portion of the leader’s love. It is an almost contractual relationship; becoming a congregant entitles you to a portion of Christ’s love that precisely equals every other member’s.

Freud goes on to argue that there is something inherent about large groups of people that demand lies. Members of the group want their leaders to lie to them, they love it when their leaders persuade them with lies and distortions: “They demand illusions, and cannot do without them. They constantly give what is unreal precedence over what is real; they are almost as strongly influenced by what is untrue as by what is true. They have an evident tendency not to distinguish between the two.” Keep the Republican Party in mind for this next part.

The intellectual gadfly and notorious wimp Theodor Adorno analyzed Freud’s work on group psychology in the context of modern, capitalist, individualistic society. Adorno diagnoses Freud’s project as an attempt to determine why people join groups that act against their self-interest. In Aesthetic Theory he makes a few points about Freud and groups—joining a group constitutes a redirection of sexual energy (love may only attach to the leader of the group and, in a general way, to other members of the group), and the leader of the group constitutes a perfected version of the self. The group members imagine the leader as the perfect being, a flawless representation of their highest possible potential, and it is on this self-as-other that they lavish their love. To join a group is to participate in an elaborate, convincing outpouring of love for the self, regardless of what the group advocates or practices.

One more piece of Freud before we get to the election. Freud describes an obsessional neurosis as a deficiency of the mnemic processes arising from a trauma. This means that the horror of a particular event (which might not look horrifying to another person) is so extreme that the neurotic cannot abreact it and make it part of his memory; he can’t move past it. Therefore he continually re-experiences it, sometimes going to elaborate lengths to stage analogous traumas.

So, armed with all of these theories let’s look at the politics of the modern Republican Party as we head into this most dismal and enervating election. At the most basic level, Freud argues that people join repressive, authoritarian groups because they did not receive the love they wanted from their fathers—a group guarantees the love of the leader, which is a great substitute. The Republican Party, with its continual emphasis on family and sex, provides in John McCain an extremely strong father figure who promises to restrict people’s behavior in all kinds of interesting ways. Americans come from flawed families, but the Republican Party has wrapped up its leaders in a pure and perfect image of the family—they will oppose gay marriage, they will oppose abortion, they will take a stoic and masculine role in foreign policy. By vocally supporting the Republican agenda members of the group worship a perfected image of the self and, more importantly, a perfected image of the family.

Sarah Palin contributes brilliantly to this. She is the ultimate mom to McCain’s stern, wry dad—she has many children, she is feminine and pretty. What then do we make of her many oddly masculine traits? She wields a long steel phallus to shoot wolves from helicopters, she leads a state, and her husband attends her like a retainer. And what of McCain’s stereotypically (and I mean stereotypical in the most pejorative sense) feminine traits? He is weak and frail, he was the passive victim of torture, and he confuses nations when discussing foreign policy. McCain and Palin, together in the spotlight of the presidential campaign, present a family image that is simultaneously warped and idealized. It has its flaws (like Palin’s celebrated special needs child, or McCain’s ill health and inability to lift his arms), but that makes it all the more suitable for worship as an idealized, purified image of the scarred American families of the conservative voting blocks. They are the perfection of imperfection.

A Freudian argument would pin all this on a lack of father-love. Conservative voters (they need not vote or be members of the Republican Party; here I mean people who “support” McCain/Palin) wish to follow a strong, masculine father figure, a man identified with America itself. They wish to feel loved and wanted by the leader, and following makes this a contractual obligation. McCain and Palin love you, perhaps as your family never could. Yet a lack of father-love (expressed in the desire to follow an authoritarian, conservative leader who rules against your self interest) also implies a family trauma. If your father didn’t love you and you constantly search out a father figure who will strictly regulate and punish your behavior, as in conservative social programs, you are acting like someone with an obsessional neurosis who compulsively repeats his originary traumatic event. All conservative politics point to the father and to childhood—why else the obsession with sex, birth, origin (intelligent design and stem cell research), and the power of violence? Note that this reasoning does not necessarily apply to fiscal conservatives who vote exactly according to their self-interest; I’m writing here about the men and women who are called, in this caricaturish election, Joe Six-Pack.

So what is going on with the Democrats? Where do cool, mannered Obama and lovable Joe Biden fit in? They aren’t a family, and neither one of them is masculine in McCain’s broad-shouldered, stolid mold (nor feminine in Palin’s hyper-elaborated beauty-queen burlesque). Obama has occasionally appeared with his abrasive wife, and Biden of course has his story of tragic loss, but their family psychodramas seem less baroque than Palin’s public (but supposedly off-limits) peccadilloes. Are Democratic voters and liberals free of traumatic neurosis? Have they moved past the excretory stages and lost interest in what other people do with their orifices? Is Obama the idealized image of the self for Democrats? Do liberals all come from resplendently healthy families in which the fathers freely show affection? I don’t think so. This is where the Freudian analysis stumbles, but perhaps it actually explains why the Democrats have been so comically disorganized for so long. They have never formed a group in the Freudian sense, a group with a clear, strong leader who demands obedience and gives carefully portioned love in return.

  • This is an interesting take on the whole thing, one I haven't heard before, certainly. I am left thinking about the Obama analysis though, feeling sure that there is more there. Would love to read an analysis of Obama's and McCain's dreams. Would make for a funny short film, I think.

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  • An interesting read, Ari, but you over-generalize. Do you honestly think the vast majority of Republicans are tethered to Religious Right view of the world. I'm not: I think it's warped, yet I almost always vote Republican for fiscal and international policy matters.

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  • i first clicked on this article because i thought it would piss me off. i feel like people are always lazily representing freudian ideas, and the last place i wanted to see that happen was to justify the republican party's family values. but alas, you actually know what you are talking about. instead of generalizing about dreams and penises, you know freud's worthwhile theories, and your point about re-enacting trauma is very deep and something i've never thought of when generalizing about republicans. this sounded kind of like a cultural studies paper, but it's a nice article, and props for daring to use freud.

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  • I also enjoyed reading the article, wrong-headed as it was, because Ari Samsky can write very well. But "props" (how 80s is that term?) for using Freud? Doesn't every op-ed columnist in America, at least those on the liberal side, do that?

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  • I agree with Timothy. This article was well written, but the only place freud still really has a use (and this is even debatable)is in literary criticism.

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  • Thanks all for the comments! Timothy, I exclude fiscal conservatives from this analysis (see the end of the second to last paragraph) - I'm really talking about the rhetorical machine surrounding the current Republican social platform. So I don't think you had a traumatic childhood. Will, all the anthropologists I know love Freud and find his work useful and entertaining, if not always perfectly relevant.

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  • Ari, the GOP social program hasn't changed in decades. It's weird, I agree, but has, for example, Roe v. Wade ever been overturned? No, I didn't have a traumatic childhood, but how is that germane?

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