Psychological Types at Work in Politics
Politics arouses strong emotions in people. People can hate people who have different political views. This hatred can even lead to physical fighting and killing. When a psychologist trained in marriage counseling watches the different sides of a political dispute, it is easy to fall into seeing it as if it were a marital dispute.
There are many differences between political and marital disputes but not necessarily as many as might appear at first sight. For one thing, many (or probably most) marriages begin with loving feelings that are rarely present between two parties in a political dispute. On the other hand, when political disputes are between two people or parties in the same country (or region), there is usually an assumption that, no matter how much they disagree, they will have to get along, as they are both "living under the same roof," as it were. And the same is true for marriages. Couples who seek marriage counseling often feel they share responsibilities for children and property, and this can make them feel they want to live together in spite of their differences.
Of course civil war is possible in politics, and divorce is possible in marriages, and some marriages produce disputes that lead one party to murder the other. Not all marriage counseling leads to reconciliation and harmony.
So, even if we look at political parties as if they were a marriage, and, even if two political parties, locked in a bitter dispute, were to come to a psychologist for counseling, there is no reason to think that a psychologist could help the parties get along and reconcile. As in marriages, sometimes one or both parties may not want to get along, or else the differences and real issues may be too great to bridge.
Still, even if no reconciliation is possible via marriage counseling, the psychologist may learn a great deal about each party and may be able to convey this knowledge to the participants. In some cases, the very awareness on the part of each person in the couple that both are different types of people, this awareness can lead to a lessening of tensions. Each party may ease up in their criticisms, if and when they realize that there is no point, because the other person is just who he or she is. Even if this awareness leads the couple to want to separate, it can help each person in their professional lives and in future relations and in understanding themselves.
As just mentioned, one of the things that can be useful for the disputing parties in a problemed marriage is to see how much of their differences come because they are different types of people. It is tempting for a psychologist to look for differences in personality types in political disputes as well. How much of political differences are due to differences in personality types? Certainly there many disputes that are not only a matter of ways of seeing things or of differences in attitude and so on. Arguments over shortages of food, who has rights to what property, and many other such issues can develop even between mother and child or people with the identical psychologies. I heard that there is a bay in Japan whose currents are so treacherous that it is called "Where mother forgets baby, and baby forgets mother." There are situations so extreme that many or most of us will forget everyone else and do anything to claw our way to safety.
But, even if this is true, the issue of psychological type is relevant in understanding who will view what situation in which way. And, in theory, this might be useful to some or all of the disputants, either in the present or in the future.
It is in this spirit that I offer this article as an attempt to understand some political differences as differences in psychological type. Among other things, this approach can help us see similarities between people who seem to be political opposites and can lead to thoughts about some possible ways out of political stand-offs that seem to be based on inherent and irreconcilable differences.
I should add that, in what follows, I am not speaking specifically about professional politicians. I am writing about anyone with deep and strong political feelings.
I want to say that this type is the sensitive type or the idealistic type, but the words "sensitive" and "idealistic" are not really accurate, especially with all their connotations. Instead of trying to label or describe the type, I think it is easier to give examples.
Example 1: People who are very strongly against abortion. Those of us living in the United States know very well that abortion is a subject that arouses strong emotions in many people and that has become an important political issue. Many people are against abortion, not so much because, deep in their hearts, they feel it is wrong, but because they are loyal members of churches that label it sacrilegious. These people might vote against any pro-abortion politician, but I want to focus more on those who have very strong personal feelings about the subject. These people may or may not be part of a church, and their objections may or may not be religious. For the type of person I'm now considering, the objection to abortion comes from deep down in their hearts or souls. Perhaps they once saw a picture of an abortion. Or, perhaps. they thought it through, step by step, and decided that it can't be right to uproot a creature from its place in the womb. They have heard all the arguments that embryos are not living creatures, that they can not survive independent from the mother, and so on. But they keep getting images of the embryos in the womb, attached to the mother by the umbilical cord, and they just feel it is wrong to yank this embryo out. It feels unnatural and wrong. It does not feel wrong because of an argument but because of an image. There are other reasons a person might have for being against abortion (for example, someone may argue that it has a bad effect on the mother or encourages light-hearted and improper attitudes towards sexuality), but it is this one on which I want to focus. It is the one where abortion feels unnatural, a violation of a sacred order. It may not be based on religious teachings, but it is based on a kind of spiritual or religious feeling.
We all know that many people feel very strongly about abortion. A few have gone so far as to bomb abortion clinics and kill doctors who perform abortion.
Example 2: People who feel strongly about the environment. I am thinking about the Greenpeace movement that resorts to violence to protect whales and dolphins, but I am also thinking of people who feel very strongly but who do not and would not resort to violence. There are those in the Sierra Club or the other groups whose goal is to protect the environment and to keep it as pristine as possible. There is the feeling that there is a natural order, the way things were before there were people — or something like this — and that it is unnatural and wrong to violate it. "Mother Nature," as the earth and sky are called, can and is suffering, and we must listen to her and protect her. This is partly because, if we don't, it will hurt us, but it is also because it is simply wrong to violate Mother Nature. Environmentalists feel emotionally attached to trees, to mountains, to rivers, to meadows and feel strong upset when they see trees being cut down for real estate developments, mountains being strip-mined for gold, rivers being dammed and diverted, and off-road vehicles charging across meadows they find beautiful. The loss of a single animal life strikes them, on an emotional level, as much as the loss of a single human life.
The environmentalist is similar to the pro-life person in that both have an image of a natural order and of the beauty and sanctity or holiness of the natural order, and they feel, deeply in their soul, when a person comes along who is insensitive to this order and who violates it. Both, I think feel the same feeling although towards different objects: one feels it towards the pristine embryo and the other towards the pristine forests or oceans or deserts.
Example 3: People who feel strongly about honor. In the movies about Italian families from the 1930's, if you insult someone's mother, you have struck to the heart of the man himself. For these people, the mother is so sacred that the mother's image is also sacred.
For some it is the mother, and for others it is something else. A United States marine may feel a respectful awe towards the Marine Corps, and any insult to it is felt as an attack on something sacred. We can feel this about members of our family, about a school, about a social club or organization, about our religion or church, about a business company, about our country or state or town, about a flag, and so on.
It can also be a person such as Abraham Lincoln or Ronald Reagan. We know how the words "Ronald Reagan" move and inspire many people, and, around these people, it is dangerous to take these words in vain. Of course, it is not only Republicans who invoke sacred memories. Many Democrats may speak in the same tone when they talk about the Kennedy's. We also know people who are in awe of the Dalai Lama, the Pope, Gandhi, Moses, Jesus, Mohammad.
What is in common in all these situations is a reverence for a person or the image or memory or even name of the person or group of people. People get very emotional and may even fight and die and kill to protect the person or image or memory or name.
Example 4: People who feel strongly about an idea or an ideal. A current political has to do with gay marriages. Many, perhaps most, have an image of marriage in which a man and a woman move to the altar and take vows and then kiss and then go off together. The idea of two men or two women going through these motions wrecks the image they have carried with them for years or decades. Even for those whose marriages have gone bad may carry, deep within them, the idea of marriage to which they return in dark moments. They get angry at anyone who is tampering with their image.
"Marriage" is not the only idea that inspires people. We all know that "freedom" is a fighting word as is "free speech" and "world peace" and "capitalism" and "socialism."
The point I want to emphasize again, a point I found surprising, is that this type cuts across the political spectrum as we normally think of it. There are Democrats of this type, and Republicans; there are Liberals if this type group, and Conservatives. A while back, Republicans scored political points by talking about "bleeding heart" liberals. What is surprising to me is that, if deep feelings about a thing or person or image or concept is what it is to have a "bleeding heart," then there are just as many bleeding heart conservatives as there are bleeding heart liberals. The only difference is that the hearts of conservatives bleed over different things than the hearts of liberals. They bleed over unborn embryos, over the American flag, over marriage, over the memory of Ronald Reagan, and so on instead of over prisoners on death row and the rights of gay people and the memory of Martin Luther King.
A second point is that, whatever this type of person thinks about the government, he or she will think that one of the government's functions is to protect the things about which this person feels the strongest. The government should prohibit abortions or prevent big companies from "raping" the land and so on.
But the last point here is quite surprising. If, psychologically, people of this type, underneath, in spite of their surface differences, are really the same — people who hold on to a thing or image as sacrosanct — then it might be possible for them to respect each other, to feel a kinship, to understand each other and to understand the depth of each other's feelings, and, possibly, to work out some compromise and agreement between them. For example, environmentalists, according to psychological theory, might understand pro-lifer's, and vice verse, and this could, in theory, lead to each agreeing to support the other: the environmentalist would fight abortion if the pro-lifer would fight the destruction of trees, the pollution of the air, and so.
The second type of politically oriented person is the type whose strongest emotions are aroused, not when a person or institution or idea is violated, but when he or she is told what to do or what not to do. This person can't stand it when someone tells him or what what he can do or not do. "Government, if it needs to exist at all, should not interfere in my life!!"
Again, as with the first type, we can find this type in both parties and among so-called "conservatives" and so-called "liberals." This type of person can be a businessman who feels that no one has a right to tell him how to run his business. This is not a philosophical vision of the importance of capitalism, but a gut feeling that "I built this business! I worked hard and sweated blood to build it! I'm the only one who knows it from the inside, how it works and what's good for it and for those working in it! No fed can come in here, holding his damn rule book, and check off this and that violation as if this means anything at all! They should just stay out of it! I'm not asking help from them, and I expect that they shouldn't interfere with my business!"
Or it might be a man and a woman who feel very very strongly about the right way for their children to be raised, and they are going to home school them. They don't want any state agency coming in and monitoring what they can and can't teach. And, just as important, they're not going to let any governmental employee tell them how they're going to discipline their children. "Who they Hell do they think they are trying to meddle in our affairs!"
Or it might be the woman who wants an abortion, not because she believes or doesn't believe in some abstract ethical position, but because, "No one has the right to tell me what I can or can't do with my body! It's my body, not theirs!!"
Or it might be someone who enjoys marijuana or cocaine and thinks "the government has no damn business legislating morality!" It's not an abstract belief in the concept of freedom that is driving this person or someone who hates the laws banning different types of sexual behaviors or gambling or drinking. These people just don't like being told what to do, by their parents, by their friends, by their families, by their teachers, by their churches, or by their governments.
Or it might be the members of the NRA who feel it is a dangerous time when the government is making laws trying to limit our rights to have and carry any weapon we want or feel we need. Or it might be someone who feels the government has no right to levy taxes.
Again, with this type also, I find it surprising that the type seems to cut across all the political parties and philosophies. People of this second type can be found among Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.
As with the first type, and speaking as a psychologist, it seems to me that the recognition of similarities here could, at least in theory, lead all people of this type feeling a certain respect for and understanding of each other. And, though this might be naive of me, it seems to me, at least in theory, based on the sameness of type, certain political understandings and intra-type deals might be worked out. For example, perhaps women who feel they have the right to do what they want with their own bodies might agree to lay off fighting for gun-control laws. In exchange, the NRA might come out in favor of a woman's right to have abortions. This compromise would be abhorrent to people of the first type who are against abortion. It would appear cynical and morally evil. But, for type two people, the underlying attitude is not about an ideal but about the practical issue of being left alone.
The third type of people are those who feel, with respect to government, that government isn't worth anything if it doesn't help them. "I want my government to protect me and mine!" Again, this type cuts across what we normally think of as the political boundaries. Here we have people who want a strong police force, a well-financed and well-trained fire department, and the most powerful armed forces on earth. "I want to be safe in my country, against invasion or terrorist attacks! I want to feel safe in my house — no trespassers and intruders! I want to be safe walking the streets and in my place of work! I want my children safe in schools and on the streets!" and so on.
Others want government to be a safety net if they lose their jobs or become too sick or too old to provide for and take care of themselves and their families. And they think it would be a wonderful thing if government would guarantee medical assistance.
Not everyone feels this. Some don't want to feel dependent on anyone else, let alone the government. If I can't fight my own battles and protect myself and my own family and live well and take care of my own body and work hard and get by on my own, then I don't deserve to get by. "It is a dog eat dog world out here, and it will weaken the human species to coddle everyone and to encourage dependency! We all have problems; we all have suffered hardships; we all have handicaps; we can either whine and blame life and others, or we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps!"
I will point out here again, that, when we look at people from the psychological angle, the political lines we draw between them are not the ones we are accustomed to draw. There are Conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans who are of this third political type. And this can, in theory, lead to the possibility of some cross party, cross political philosophy compromises. For example, a person who very badly wants a massive government paid for health system might agree to support a massive, government financed military, and people who want the strongest possible military might to support a government financed health system. How much money would go towards which would be a matter of compromise.
Here is where I place the type of person who adopts positions based on their thinking. If a person of this type is against the pollution of the rivers and the air, it is not out of a feeling. It is not out of a deep love for the rivers and the sky or from a spiritual or religious feeling of their sacredness. Rather it is that we need the water of the rivers and the air in the sky for our own survival and well-being. If we tamper too much with these limited resources, we will, undoubtedly feel the consequences or our children will or our children's children will. The Dalai Lama takes this stance in the envirnomental talks he gave, transcriptions of which can be found on his web site.
Here is also where we will find the theoretical capitalist who argues that taxes should be decreased on the rich, as this is the way to stimulate the economy and to increase employeed. Side by side with the the theoretical capitalist, in this type we also find the theoretical socialist or Marxist. This would not be a socialism of the heart based on love of the working man and woman and a belief in their sanctity, but an argued socialism, argued in terms of economic theory.
Capitalists of this type are not self-made businessmen fighting for what they built; that is a different type of person. It is not the "bleeding heart" conservative whose heart throbs when he or she hears the very word "capitalism" and who heart sinks with the sound of the word "socialism" or "communism." This is the thinking persons capitalism discussed in the universities and studied by Nobel Prize winning economists whose papers are filled with mathematics and statistics and are so difficult that 99% of people can have no hope of understanding them.
These people may turn to politics and support one party or another and vote for one politician or another and become quite worked up about the issues, but their beliefs and arguments and votes have to do with a different part of their psyches than those of the other types. Even if they vote the same as people of other types, their reasons are completely different, and they probably see people of the other types, even those who vote the same, as irrational or foolish or immoral or even stupid. For example, they may see all people of the first type as getting overly attached or identified with external things or ideals and may see them as unrealistic and impractical. They may see themselves as what William James called hard-headed.
As with the other types, it seems that there are Republican and Democrats, conservatives and liberals who are of this type.
I want to include this type, because they are important. It is difficult to find the right name for them, and I will use a name that could antagonize some, maybe rightfully so. However, it is the a name that is vivid and that is current and that captures what I am getting at. The fifth type of political people are the crazies. These are the people who used to be called (and still are called) extremists or fanatics. We are each free to make our own moral judgments about these people, but my goal is not to judge but to note that there is such a type of person. Those in this category may be people suffering from genuine psychoses (such as the man who shot President Reagan) or severe personality disorders. There are others in this category who are acting out of desperation, possibly under a temporary psychosis, but maybe just from one of those mental states, in extremis, in which any of us might become capable of anything. In these states, only God knows under what influences we might fall, what fleeting idea might capture our fantasies and push us to action. If we invite people to a dinner, these are not the ones who might argue (or want to argue), possibly in loud voice, who are sitting on the left side and the right side of the table. These are the people who get up and throw the table over or who weren't invited in the first place and are sitting outside figuring out how to blow up everyone in the party. Using the metaphor of group psychotherapy, the first four types are sitting around in the group with the therapist, but the fifth type is threatening to bring a gun to the next meeting and to blow everyone away.
We can sympathize and empathize with an extremist if we are willing and able, but we have to treat them differently than we treat people of other types. There is an art to dealing with extremist types. If you have ever had to deal with one yourself or seen another person, perhaps a psychologically oriented policeman, deal with one effectively, you will never forget the experience. "Talking down" an extremist is a delicate business.
Further, it's not a hundred percent clear, but, possibly, the fifth type is not a type at all. Possibly certainly people of any of the first four types, under certain circumstances, could become extremists. Possibly we could all become extremists, individually or as part of an extremist group. It may be the correct way to look at it that extremists are people too, pretty much like us, not really a different type. Also, it is probably important to remember that many of us, in some part or parts of our present personalities, are pretty extreme and even pretty crazy and fanatic. And this even when we feel we are being our most reasonable and rational and moral — maybe most when we feel this way.
It is also important to remember that one person's extremist is another person's hero. This is not to say who is right and who is wrong but to emphasize the psychological point that people have different points of views that have to be factored in to our dealings with them. It is a simple fact. For example, the American revolutionaries looked like extremist fanatics to the British.
In order to help us understand, psychologically, how people can have such strong political feelings and find themselves involved in such strong political disagreements, I have tried to recognize five types that tend towards five political positions. This is not to say there are only five types, that the five types are all there are. And it is not to say that these five types are exclusive — people can be, and most probably are, in all the types depending on the political issue. To put this another way, almost certainly, we all have five attitudes (representing the five types) within each of us. We all hold certain truths (and things) to be sacred; none of us like to be told what to do; all of us want to be helped out in certain ways (and not in others); probably all of us have thought out reasons for some of our political views; and, as mentioned, almost certainly, all of us are fanatics in some part of ourselves, and, at least, some of us could become dangerously fanatic under certain circumstances.
Another point is that, within each political type, there is room for much variation. People who hold this or that to be sacred, hold different this's and that's sacred, and this can, and does, lead to political disagreements within type. People who want to be left alone in their businesses are different from those who want to be left alone to take whatever drug they want, yet they are of the same political type. And so on. I have suggested that within type there is possibly some room for compromises. It is not so clear to me that compromises are as easy between political types.
And I want to re-emphasize the point that, when we start looking for the psychological types underlying the strong political positions, the types we find cut across the traditional political lines. It means that, from a psychological angle, many Republicans and Democrats have more in common than they have with members of their own parties. And many liberals are more like many conservatives in their type and not like other liberals. This seems to me to be a good from the point of view of someone who has hope that the parties might become reconciled. There are more lines for agreement and mutual respect and understanding than we might have thought.
It is clear to all of us that there are unresolvable differences between us, differences so deep that just thinking about them can agitate us to great emotionality. Is it possible for people with such great chasms lying between them to live together in peace, if not in harmony? Especially if we throw in the factor that there are crazed extremists amongst us and even within each of us who want to blow up any peace talks and that maybe these extremes must be listened to and understood and integrated into the whole. Or not.