In two recent op-eds in The Huffington Post, "The Republicans' Masterful and Insidious Prey on America's Founding Fears," and "The Republicans' Masterful and Insidious Prey on America's Founding Fears, Part II," I talked about two masterful analysts of America's founding myths and stories, Rupert Wilkinson and Robert Reich.
Wilkerson identified four fears have not only been present from the very founding of the Republic, but they are so basic that they are virtually synonymous with it: 1) The Fear of Being Owned; 2) The Fear of Falling Away; 3) The Fear of Winding Down; and 4) The Fear of Falling Apart.
In turn, Reich described four primary myths or stories that historically have not only defined American character, but have from the very beginning of our existence as nation shaped our major attitudes and policies towards key issues and problems: 1) The Rot at the Top; 2) The Barbarians at the Gate; 3) The Triumphant Individual; and, 4) The Benevolent Society.
Briefly, The Rot at the Top is all the European despots, evil kings, and tyrants from whom we initially fled. Given that Freudian Oedipal fears are always just beneath the surface as a natural phase of human development, they are especially painful, easily triggered, and manipulated when they have a strong basis in historical fact.
The Rot at the Top corresponds directly to Wilkerson's Fear of Being Owned. It helps to explain why the outrage towards President Obama and "Obamacare" is so nasty and intense. As the head of government, a black president especially stokes fear, fury, and hatred of unimaginable force.
As helpful as Wilkerson and Reich are in understanding the largely unconscious forces that not only drive all Americans, but are especially powerful in motivating today's Republicans and conservatives, I want to go even deeper. In a recent book, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, NYU psychiatrist James Gilligan makes the case that lethal violence, whether in the form of homicide or suicide, has increased significantly under Republican presidents and declined just as significantly under Democratic presidents. Indeed, lethal violence typically reaches epidemic levels under Republican presidents. Even under Democrats, it is still significantly higher than other developed nations.
The link is as follows: While Republicans perpetually talk about getting tough on crime, they actually need it to get and stay in power. Pitting the lower middle class and poor against the really poor, who are simultaneously seen as responsible for and the victims of crime, is a great way of diverting attention away from the fact that under Republicans, unemployment, income and social inequality, all of which lead to crime, actually increase considerably under Republican presidents. This is precisely why Gilligan sees some politicians, mainly Republicans -- there are enough Democrats -- as more dangerous than others.
More importantly, as a psychiatrist, Gilligan digs deeper for the underlying unconscious elements of human behavior. Republicans, and the Red State constituents they represent, are governed largely by a shame-based morality or ethic. Democrats, and their Blue State constituents, are governed largely by a guilt-based morality.
Under shame, I am bad. Under guilt, we or I did something bad, but we are not necessarily bad per se. Those who have suffered shame, say by being fired or chronically unemployed, are more likely to feel they are bad, and as a result, to strike back with intense acts of violence against others (homicide) or oneself (suicide).
In contrast, under guilt, one is motivated to help those who through no fault of their own have suffered, e.g., racial discrimination, unemployment, etc.
I cannot stress enough that it is absolutely vital to understand that these forces are largely unconscious. They are also not necessarily independent for one can be under the grip of both of them simultaneously.
Understanding such forces is crucial in attacking issues such as gun control, which are completely out of control. Even though the vast majority of both NRA and non-NRA gun owners are for tighter gun control laws, fear and shame are still the primary factors driving gun ownership to record highs. But neither fear nor shame can be approached directly, for one is generally too ashamed to admit one is ashamed! They have to be approached indirectly. For example, one needs to get uber-macho spokespersons to say in the most nonthreatening and blameless terms that it is OK to have as few guns as possible in one's home: "It's the manly thing to cut back."
My point is not that we will solve all of our thorny problems through a better understanding of unconscious forces alone. That is absurd. But, we will not solve them through all of the appeals to so-called rational policies and thinking alone!
Unfortunately, conservatives understand this far better than liberals. If they are so smart, why do liberals have such trouble in understanding the power of emotions and good stories to shape politics and people's behavior? Because sadly, as a general rule, liberals don't understand that we don't learn with our conscious minds alone. I don't believe that we even learn primarily through consciousness!
Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert and an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping With the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book with Murat Alpaslan, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is a Mess and How to Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press. His Ph.D. is in Engineering Science and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.
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