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The Primitive Conservative Psyche

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The battles against the anti-democratic Right in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere are being fought to prevent conservatives from remaking America in the image of their moral worldview.

Berkeley professor and author George Lakoff advises us to see more deeply into the psychology of this crisis. We need to understand, he writes, how the conservative belief in individual responsibility, to the exclusion of social responsibility, is based on the model of the strict-father family.

According to this model, the father's role in the family as Decider and moral authority is required to teach kids right from wrong. Conservatives claim that father's superior moral guidance is needed, along with physical punishment if necessary, so kids can develop the discipline to become morally responsible adults.

Why do conservatives think that father knows best? Psychoanalysis can provide insight.

According to psychoanalysis, the superego, also known as the inner critic or inner aggression, typically assumes an authoritarian, even a tyrannical, stance within our psyche. The superego is an aggressive drive that can function as an inner disciplinarian. However, it is usually negative and irrational. In less evolved individuals, the superego often decides what is right and wrong. But it makes this distinction for the sake of fulfilling its function, which is to exercise inner authority. It is not interested in, nor can it even distinguish, what is truly right or wrong.

In their psychological naivete, however, conservatives interpret the oppressive, impersonal superego as a guiding voice of inner conscience.

When people are inwardly weak and unaware, the superego can have the run of their psyche and dominate their personality. Often, it is critical, ruthless, mocking, and unforgiving. It frequently overpowers what little sense of autonomy and personal authority many people possess.

Unwittingly, conservatives plant their soul in the impersonal authority of the superego. Hence, they are enamored of the power of the impersonal, as evidenced by their emotional alignment with corporations, the market, and the military. These three impersonal forces impose their values and authority without interference from citizens, as when the alleged self-regulating "invisible hand" of the marketplace destroys the environment.

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Conservatives distrust government because it is personal, not impersonal. Government is the voice and protector of the people. But the people are not supposed to have a voice. Only some "higher" impersonal law or representative of that law (father figure) is allowed to decide the right approach to life's big issues. Just as children of conservatives must submit passively to the father, we adults are not supposed to have a mind of our own. We are not expected to grow in human consciousness.

Ideally, democratic governments express human consciousness at its best. This is the wise guiding authority that represents and protects us. But human consciousness is a discredited term in the conservative lexicon. That's because on an inner level, the consciousness of rigid conservatives is frozen in place. Global warming can't defrost it because "higher" authority hasn't factored in that game-changing scenario. In addition, the superego, the conservative mind's Decider, is hostile to our progress and completely indifferent to our suffering and self-defeat.

Hence, the superego has no capacity for empathy. Yet empathy is a quality of higher consciousness, as well as the basis of American democracy. Empathy is built into the principle of one person, one vote. When each person's vote counts, each person is respected and valued. Democracy is an evolved system that practices equality and justice. Democracy is supportive of each person being strong and happy, and it's not threatened when labor collectives possess bargaining rights. When it comes to power, the more the merrier.

Conservatives believe the government should not provide health care, environmental protection, and other forms of public service. That gives too much respect and power to everybody. They rationalize their lack of empathy by claiming that the poor deserve their poverty because they are responsible for their own failings. But the poor haven't necessarily failed. Perhaps they're doing well with the poor cards they were dealt. We're the lesser ones if our hearts are closed. So we have no business being judgmental. But the superego's specialty is being judgmental.

Conservatives' mental gymnastics for disrespecting the poor enable them to practice guilt-free ruthlessness while feeling morally superior, which is precisely the stance adopted by the superego. The superego clings to its power like a dictator as it tries to keep down human consciousness. Meanwhile, the conservative embrace of individualism is derived from the righteousness and arrogance of the superego as a power onto itself.

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The conservative mentality rests on this primitive aspect of human nature. How tragic for America and the world if it were to prevail!

Self-knowledge is power, and knowledge of the oppressor's inner corruption is power to the people.

Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)

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As human consciousness evolves, personal authority... by Peter Michaelson on Friday, Feb 25, 2011 at 11:54:34 AM
Since I do not know psychoanalysis. In every group... by BFalcon on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 2:52:23 PM
"not considering the opinions of his group critica... by Joe L on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 9:56:38 PM
Every Republican president found some Democrats to... by BFalcon on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 10:27:45 AM
conquer because they have been "educated" in a sys... by Mark Adams JD/MBA on Friday, Feb 25, 2011 at 5:46:14 PM
the problem is how stupid Americans are to keep vo... by Mark Adams JD/MBA on Friday, Feb 25, 2011 at 5:54:57 PM
click here... by Daniel Geery on Friday, Feb 25, 2011 at 6:41:04 PM
This is an interesting "slant".... by Chad Chase on Friday, Feb 25, 2011 at 7:18:29 PM
I agree with Lakoff's analysis and find this psych... by Lee Cash on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 12:55:33 AM
Yes, you're right. That could be a better term. So... by Peter Michaelson on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 8:43:01 AM
Peter, Great response! Thank you. I agree, for man... by Lee Cash on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 11:05:23 AM
This article is unintentionally hilarious. The au... by Joe L on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 2:05:03 AM
Joe, you might be making some good points here, bu... by Peter Michaelson on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 8:52:29 AM
In general (although there are many exceptions) co... by Joe L on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 2:36:33 PM
No. Once again your a victim of misplaced loyalty ... by Gary Williams on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 11:06:10 AM
Are you saying that giving to a religious institut... by Joe L on Monday, Feb 28, 2011 at 12:20:42 AM
Seems to me that there is an adolescent strain in ... by Miriam Callaghan on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 10:30:28 AM
This is a good article, but perhaps too deep for m... by Ron Morris on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 12:38:01 PM
I didn't find the article to be particularly deep,... by Joe L on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 2:50:13 PM
I never said that ALL conservatives are nutjobs. O... by Ron Morris on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 2:55:43 AM
Agreed, Obama is quite charming, but are you tryin... by Joe L on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 8:47:38 PM
Why did you include blacks in a list that otherwis... by Gary Williams on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 11:20:02 AM
First, many of the "personality types" are much le... by Joe L on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 8:53:49 PM
Why, if it's conservatives who wail that blacks vo... by Gary Williams on Monday, Feb 28, 2011 at 3:29:25 AM
I can only speak for myself, I'm not "wailing" abo... by Joe L on Wednesday, Mar 2, 2011 at 1:06:06 AM
I was my union shop steward for years and conserva... by James OShanahan on Saturday, Feb 26, 2011 at 11:34:44 PM
When speaking about groups of people containing mi... by Gary Williams on Sunday, Feb 27, 2011 at 10:01:51 AM
Gary, of course ALL liberals don't make blanket st... by Joe L on Monday, Feb 28, 2011 at 12:50:50 AM
Gary, I've read this post several times, and it is... by Joe L on Thursday, Mar 3, 2011 at 7:43:10 PM