politics is mostly psychology
We live in a nation of more than 300 million people and rising. In your entire lifetime, how many of these people will you ever meet? How many of them will you ever hear about? How many of them will you even imagine — not just as abstract statistics, but as fully realized human beings?
Somehow complete strangers who live thousands of miles apart — and will never know the first thing about one another — are capable of sharing a common national identity and bonds of allegiance. Even more curious is that these same people are willing to kill and die for one another in the service of this intangible bond that holds them together. If these were not such ordinary facts of modern life, we might find them incomprehensibly absurd.
These are the central observations that propelled Bendict Anderon’s Imagined Communities, a groundbreaking work uncovering the nature and origins of nationalism. Anderson argues that a nation is an imagined community, rather than actual one, by virtue of the fact that even in the smallest nations most of their members will never know, nor even contemplate one another. The images of the nation — the sense of communion, the symbols, and the shared meanings that define nationhood — exist chiefly in our heads. The physical expressions of a nation — including its geographic boundaries, buildings, organizations, symbols, and policies — are the outward, real world manifestations of a kind of consensual fiction or narrative that we project into the world. In that narrative, the nation and its people are the protagonists. That narrative and its associated imaginings can be contested by citizens or outsiders, subjected to retroactive or prospective revision, or in extreme cases abandoned entirely. This process of contesting the imagined narrative is what we normally call “politics.”
If Anderson is right that a nation is a kind of shared psychological projection, then politics is the province of psychology. When you consider how little of what we call politics is experienced directly — even by politicians themselves — this makes perfect sense. To begin with, most of pubic life is mediated through media. When you learn about political players, issues, and events, it is mostly by reading an article, watching a clip on TV, or hearing about it from a colleague; rarely through participating in the event or through firsthand observation. Certain elements of politics are experienced directly, such as when a leader speaks to a crowd of followers, a voter casts a ballot, or a public school teacher loses her job due to state budget cutbacks. But even these elements are shaped by powerful psychological forces, and remain deeply embedded in a narrative context laden with psychological projectivity.
Nearly all politics is conducted in the realm of abstractions, images, statistics, and symbols. When a small tribal society decides to build a fence, they gather the materials, build the fence, and viscerally experience the consequences. When a national, state, or local governing body decides to build a fence, they do it through lawmaking. They use words and numbers on pieces of paper that symbolize the fence and its costs, and debate it using arguments that may or may not bear any relationship to reality. The mental images of the fence both before and after it is built — as well as all the civic meanings associated with it — reside inside the heads of the people who contemplated it, not in the real world. These mental representations are governed only by the laws of the psyche — the laws of physics and logic need not apply.
Only a tiny few will ever experience the fence directly and encounter its effects. But even if the effects of that fence reach far beyond the fence itself, the civic content embedded in those effects (e.g. the fact that a political body created the fence to achieve certain political goals) will be eventually be forgotten or go unacknowledged — not because that content has gone anywhere, but because the content was a psychological projection to begin with. Like the community itself, the civic content associated with the fence is only as real or as meaningful as we imagine it to be. And if we fail to imagine it at all, it is as though it does not exist. Let me illustrate this in practice.
If you are reading this blog, you are probably sitting in a chair in a room with floors and walls and a roof over your head with electricity, plumbing, and insulation. You’re likely gazing into a monitor on a laptop, desktop, tablet, or smartphone. Somebody had to make all those things. That process no doubt occurred somewhere on the planet delimited by national boundaries and other recognized civil jurisdictions. There were laws made by civic leaders governing how those materials were created, how any waste was disposed, how the people that did the work were treated and compensated, which territorial boundaries the materials would be permitted to cross, how much could be charged for the end product, what tariffs and taxes would have to be paid and by whom, under what circumstances the materials could be assembled, how they could be marketed and sold, who was allowed to make the purchase and by what means, and so on and so forth. Even if no such laws existed or were enforced, civic processes likely played a role in that too.
Hopefully none of these revelations about your immediate surroundings come as any great surprise. But it is likely that the sheer volume of civic content surrounding you — that nearly always surrounds you — escaped your attention. Indeed, modern life is an endless sea of forgotten and unacknowledged civic content. Whether we remember it or not has little to do with what is actually there, or even what we know to be true, but is determined by the narrative relevance and by what our psyches want to see.
Decades worth of psychological experiments have demonstrated that our reality is fundamentally shaped by our conscious and unconscious expectations and our underlying psychological makeup. Nowhere is this more true than in public life, the realm where we contest the abstract mental representations, projected narratives, and imagined communities that define who we are.
This is the flimsy ground on which nations and polities rest. It is a truth that can be enormously terrifying or powerfully liberating depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, we have Carl Jung’s ominous warning hinting at the prospect of disaster: “The world today hangs by a thin thread, and that thread is the psyche of man.” In light of the enormous and seemingly intractable problems facing humanity in the early 21st Century, we think he makes a very good point. But there is another more hopeful perspective that is just as valid: “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”
If you want to understand politics and bring about social or political change, there can be nothing more central to the task than understanding the human psyche and applying the lessons of psychology. That, in a nutshell, is what First Person Politics is all about.