An Interview with Jungian psychoanalyst Murray Stein. Part of an ongoing series on the American Psyche.
In search of insight into the deeper forces shaping the presidential election, I turned to American Jungian psychoanalyst Murray Stein, Ph.D. Currently president of the International School of Analytical Psychology in Zurich, Stein lectures on analytical psychology and its applications in the contemporary world. He is the author of many books, including most recently The Principle of Individuation. The following is an edited version of our conversation, and the first of a two-part interview.
Pythia: In 2003 you left Chicago to live abroad in Switzerland. This vantage point must give you an interesting perspective on the upcoming presidential election.
Stein: Yes, I was just thinking about that. The Swiss Constitution was modeled on the American constitution. But they made some changes that, in light of the polarized American electorate, seem significant. Instead of a single president, the Swiss system has a council of seven leaders elected from their congress every four years. The presidency rotates among this council each year. They also have four strong parties -- two are extreme and two are in the middle -- as opposed to the two-party system in the United States. Everyone has to compromise; nobody gets everything they want.
Psychologically, this has a moderating effect that disperses the power, rather than focusing it on one leader. This also prevents the severe splitting effect that we see in the states, where the parties are set so strongly against each other. Whenever you have two of anything running against each other you're going to have a splitting process: It's a psychological phenomenon. People side with one against the other, and then those differences become pushed to an extreme.
Pythia: A "tension of the opposites," or the ability to hold two opposing views at the same time, is considered psychologically healthy. Why isn't this working on the collective level of the American psyche?
Stein: Differences are necessary in order to have growth and dynamic movement. Out of the dialectic between two polarities, a new possibility emerges. But if the "opposites," or in this case the two parties, become completely unrelated, then the collective psyche is in danger of splitting: There's no forward movement, there's just mutual aggression, stalemate and stagnation. The system doesn't evolve, it devolves, and you don't want to see that happen.
Pythia: Why, what happens to a society that splits into unrelated, opposing factions?
Stein: Then you have disintegration and even war in the streets. You can look at history and see where it's happened: Germany after World War I, for example, tried to form a democracy. But the parties couldn't work together, and they broke into opposites, with the communists fighting the fascists in the streets, until one party killed the others off, or put them in prison. So if the public splits without being able to contain this play of opposing party beliefs, then you have a very dangerous situation of one or the other prevailing -- and that's a psychological recipe for a neurosis or a psychosis on a collective level.
Pythia: When an individual person's psyche goes through this process of splitting, what is the therapeutic intervention?
Stein: Initially what a person who is suffering this kind of severe splitting does is blame everything that's gone wrong in their lives on someone else: They're innocent and the other person is guilty.
For that dynamic to change they have to develop a strong enough identity and feel safe enough to recognize their own faults. As trust builds slowly between the therapist and patient, a safe container for holding these uncomfortable feelings is created. Then the idea is gradually introduced that perhaps that person bears some responsibilities too. So overcoming splitting means taking back what you've put out there into the world to protect yourself from feeling threatened from within.
Pythia: It seems to me America has that tendency to put all that is bad onto the "other." What does this say about our sense of self as a country -- do we have a weak sense of identity?
Stein: I think the feeling of security in the United States is quite weak right now. And when you feel insecure in your identity, you don't feel safe, and your defense mechanisms take over, and projection gets going. We saw this after the trauma of 9/11, and the aggressive attitude that developed toward finding the enemy. I'm not saying that that there aren't very real, serious threats to our national security; it's a crazy world. But we have to be careful in distinguishing what we're projecting onto the "other" -- and what presents a genuine threat.
Pythia: Do you feel that the increasing polarization of the electorate over the last decade has something to do with the trauma we suffered after 9/11?
Stein: Yes. In addition, there's another trauma the country has been suffering through -- the financial crisis has also added to people's insecurity.
A really good politician can do a lot to heal these wounds by giving people something to believe in, or a healing symbol that will pull the people out of their fear. Roosevelt was good at this; he had a way of inspiring people and getting things moving. Reagan was skilled at using symbols, such as the image of the city on the hill, and as a light to the nations, to unite people. These are classic American symbols, derived from the Bible. Kennedy, with his various programs and his call to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," gave Americans a sense of mission.
A strong candidate like Obama was in the last election generated a surplus of symbolism. Because of his character and his multicultural background, he was a reconciling figure who symbolized the coming together of opposites. When he was inaugurated it was a numinous moment in American history that generated a lot of hope. People were hoping that he could end the nuclear arms race, solve the problems in the economy and the Mideast and that everything would work out. But the hope was too great. He couldn't do it; nobody could. It was too much.
Pythia: So in a way Obama represents both the benefits and the pitfalls of the enormous power and symbolism the American president carries. Can you say more about that?
Stein: The American president is a big, big figurehead who has to make the voters feel proud that they're a part of this people that call themselves Americans. Because the president represents the whole people, a lot of psychological material gets loaded up on the two candidates. There's a lot of fear that somebody will get elected who will make us look bad. And if the individual voter doesn't feel good about the person representing them, they don't feel good about their country; they could even feel ashamed of themselves as an American.
So when an election takes place, what the American people are really deciding is what identity they're going to present to the world as "The American." Do they want the world to see us as a Mitt Romney, or as a Barak Obama? In a sense, the president is a kind of "self-representative" in the world -- an archetypal, larger-than-life "American" whose qualities go beyond the capacities of an ordinary human.
Pythia: How does the rest of the world play into these heightened expectations surrounding the presidential election?
Stein: The American president is also a world leader. So in addition to the projections of the American voter onto the presidential candidates, there is the enormous attention paid around the world to an American election. It's on the news every night and in the newspapers every day. And right now the world is watching very closely. Even an unknown congressman from Missouri like Todd Akin can make a controversial comment -- and the whole world hears about it.
Pythia: Speaking of Todd Akin's offensive remarks around "legitimate" rape, it seems that no matter how much we strive to talk about what we think we should be talking about, like the economy, these culture war issues keep cropping up. What's going on in the American psyche to cause this recurring phenomenon?
Stein: The huge wave of consternation generated by this incident is yet another symptom of the in-between state America is in. Things are in a lot of flux. So there's tremendous fear on both sides that the country is losing its identity, and in that climate so-called little things can get blown up out of proportion. As a result you get this tug of war over what we stand for: Who are we? What kind of people are we going to be? And because an election is a turning point when anything can happen, this mood of anxiety is heightened even further. Thus, when Todd Akin makes a statement like that, it sets off bells of alarm on one side that the country is going backward to the days when abortion was illegal.
Pythia: So you're saying that as much as we want to believe that the election is about policy issues, it's really about who we are as a country, and our identity. Would you say America is in the midst of an identity crisis?
Stein: Yes, America is struggling with its sense of itself. And all Americans are a part of this process. If you grow up in America, and you participate in American culture, you're affected by this, because it's a part of your own personal identity.
Pythia: What would be an example of how this identity crisis in the American psyche is playing out for conservatives?
Stein: For many, the influx of foreign cultures threatens the roots of their American identity; there is the fear that we're losing our identity, this isn't who we are. As a result, there's a big push-back to recapture our previous and imagined pristine identity. At the edge of this movement are extremists who are ready to take all kinds of crazy action.
Pythia: How does the role of big money in this election play into America's identity crisis? Money seems to have become the very face of America itself.
Stein: The bottom line is that money has become a fundamental symbol of value: It's power, position and social status. So when a candidate raises a lot of money, people think, "Wow, he must really have something." This is not only true in America, but on the global stage. A rich country is seen as powerful, and if a country like Greece goes broke, it pays a terrible price. If America goes broke because it's borrowed too much money, it won't be as valuable. And that gets translated into people's personal lives.
Pythia: So that even if you don't have a lot of money personally, you can still identify with your rich country?
Stein: Right. Just look at the symbol of the "rich American." It used to be that Americans could take a lot of pride in the power that was projected onto them when they traveled around the world. They might not have had much in their pockets, but because they were Americans they could catch that projection. It's not like that anymore, because the dollar is weak against the other currencies, and because other countries are now becoming wealthy economic powers.
Pythia: In terms of the healing symbols that you mentioned earlier, is there anything you can point to that is emerging out of the country's soul-searching on these various issues?
Stein: One positive self-image would be that of the "generous American." Bill Gates is one of the wealthiest men in the world, and he's committed to doing good things through his foundations to deal with problems in other countries. It's not often the case that people of great wealth in other countries are willing to share it with the rest of the world; it stays at home more.
And as much as some feel threatened by the foreign "other," the new immigrant has always been central to our American identity. It's what sets America apart; we've done a good job, to a point, of creating a society out of immigrants that can work together. Because America is like a miniature globalized culture in a way that older cultures can't be, other countries struggling with globalization look to us as a model for how to deal with differences. But the country can't see this positive self-image, because from the inside it's suffering all the difficulties around it.
Pythia: In closing, where do you see the country in its psychological development?
Stein: Since the 19th century America has been seen as a great power. So I would say it's reached a point of maturity and is at midlife. For an individual at midlife, part of the crisis is coming to terms with death and decline. For America, this means that it can't go on expanding as a world power indefinitely; it has to come to terms with its limitations. I think it hit that point in its wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places.
Pythia: What would be the tasks of America in its second half of life?
Stein: If the first half of life for an individual is about achievement and expansion, the second half of life is about the richness of maturity, deepening one's spiritual values, cultivating the next generation and preparing for death.
Pythia: This brings to mind the soldiers returning from these wars bearing both physical wounds and the invisible wounds of PTSD. As they courageously face their inner struggles in the same way they faced outer battles, would you say they're the harbingers of the healing culture developing in this country around psychotherapy, meditation, yoga and other kinds of sustainable lifestyles that are part of a wiser, more mature American identity?
Stein: Yes, that's part of it, absolutely. America is a very extraverted country; for a young, expanding country, this side of our American character has been an asset. But now that America is mature, it needs to develop its other side: a sense of interiority, and a turn toward contemplation and religion -- not in the sense of a missionary drive to convert the world, but a spiritual reflection on the meaning of life. America could also become a nation of culture that doesn't just provide entertainment, but literature, music and art that nourishes the soul and that sustains people when they go through dark times.
Next: On the Psychology of the American Voter