A Psychological Snapshot of America, January 1999

Published in the Brattleboro Reformer, January 15, 1999

“This is as strange a Maze, as ere men trod.” (Shakespeare, Tempest, v. i. 242)

Politicians and news commentators used the word surreal to describe the recent House impeachment proceedings. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals all used this same word. One commentator said the hearings reminded him of a bad Hollywood script. This was his way of describing surreal feelings.

Apparently President Clinton has had similar feelings for years now. In December, 1996 he reported a recurring dream: “Hilary and I are in a strange land.” Setting aside that this dream has religious overtones (see Exodus 22 where Moses calls himself a “stranger in a strange land”), we conclude that much of the leadership of our country feels things have become strange in America.

If an individual person (say a man) reports to his psychologist that he is getting surreal feelings, there is cause for alarm. A man in such a borderline state often feels alien impulses compelling him to act contrary to his standards (he may even feel possessed). His old ways feel bland and meaningless. If he gives into his new impulses, he may feel heroic and even god-like for a while, but then guilt and fear will set in. This conflict can paralyze him with inaction. In the extreme, there may be a genuine nervous breakdown and an eventual hospitalization.

In times like these it is generally best, if possible, for the patient to tolerate the extreme thoughts and feelings raging within, to try to keep an objective eye on this inner struggle, and to go about as best he can with his daily responsibilities. Patience can pay off, and there is a good chance of an altogether new outlook arising. This comes to a man like a bolt of lightening — almost like a brilliant new religious idea — that reason alone could never have devised. The new idea must not be followed blindly but, when examined objectively, often contains the resolution of the conflict, points to new directions, and liberates energy back for the chores of daily life.

Let us try to analyze the country itself as a patient in analysis. Even though the country is not a person, in some ways it is like a person: The president and the congress are the decision-making ego, and the populace corresponds to a person’s deeper feelings and desires. If the two are out of touch, the people get angry and the oblivious leaders begin to develop surreal feelings. It seems our country has entered a borderline state as the senate begins its impeachment trial.

During the House hearings, many congressmen seemed pushed by forces they did not fully understand. Moderate Republicans almost seemed “possessed” to act against their ordinary judgment. In spite of the attempt of the Democrats to suppress the forces, they broke out with religious intensity. Some Republicans portrayed themselves as heroes who were defying the polls in order to save the legal system and the country. Democrats and moderate Republicans sensed an hatred surfacing, deeper than political motives, more than the desire for Watergate revenge. (We wait to see what will happen in the Senate.)

What forces in this country may have surfaced in the hearings? One such force has been visible for years: the demand to know the whole truth about our leaders. Many have criticized the public’s taste for more and more detailed gossip. However, psychologically, this may be the first stage of an honest self-analysis. Perhaps America has been bitten by the psychology bug and has a genuine desire to look behind our leader’s masks at their shadow side. In a personal analysis, patients bravely “confess” their scandalous secrets. Here, a brave country is placing its public figures on a couch: Clinton, Livingston, Dick Morris, and the rest. The myth of a perfect leader is vanishing. We are left with real humans beings.

Not only are we demanding to know every detail of our leaders’ behavior, we also want to see their real motives. Just like therapists, we are asking if Clinton is genuinely repentant or only acting politically, whether his December bombings of Iraq were motivated by patriotism or to escape the humiliation of impeachment or a mixture of both. These psychologically sophisticated questions are being debated on the streets and in Congress. Like psychologists, lay people accepting that everyone has a shadowy side. We are shocked but will need the truths in front of us when we are ready to decide what we can reasonably demand from our leaders.

The more we come to see our leaders as “human, all-too-human,” the more we feel leaderless. Do they care about us at all? It is easy to picture the government as an impersonal bully, impressed with its own regulations, whatever their effects on us. Some in the radical right stock-pile weapons for a confrontation with this government; some set up their own little independent governments inside the U.S. Anger at government is symbolized in recent films in which aliens destroy Washington and other big cities. Even moderates who hate and fear extremists often empathize with some of their concerns. A federal judge recently said he has no answer for people who lose their livelihoods while their just cases hang up in the court system for years; he fears that people can no longer turn to the courts for help. A doctor at a big hospital is depressed that every day patients die waiting for approval for life-saving surgery from their government sponsored HMO’s; why do our leaders seem isolated from this fact? Locally, there is the extreme anger at Act 60 of many elderly Vermonters who can not believe the government is squeezing them off their land. There are also the Vermont gun owners who fear that city people, who have never fired a weapon, will pass laws and try to take their guns away.

Clinton is an ambiguous figure. The right sees him as a cold-blooded, trickster, isolated in Washington, seeking only pleasure and the preservation of his image. So far the left sees him as an ordinary citizen, with human frailties, persecuted by a giant self-righteous government — a counter-hero who has managed to evade the legal and political powers trying to crush him.

Perhaps what surfaced in the hearing rooms in Washington is frustration and hopelessness with politicians, with courts, and even with ourselves — no one has answers. The real anger of ordinary people feels surreal to powerful people living in Washington. Is the country having an inner breakdown even though the economy seems O.K. and many are content? When a country has a breakdown, it can not be sent to a mental hospital — rather its citizens start to question and rebel: witness the three towns refusing to obey Act 60 How serious the problem is and how it compares to past problems in the U.S., only an historian can say.

With our leaders reporting surreal feelings, we ask, “In this strange land, will a new direction appear to anyone? If so, to whom? When? In what form?" Like a person in analysis, we must wait patiently for answers to these questions and go about our daily business as best we can praying we and those amongst us will not violate the deepest sense of conscience.

The fight over what to do with Clinton is the fight over what do with all our leaders since all have Shadows. It is also the fight we each have within ourselves over what to do with our own Shadows. This is a tremendous question, fit for a new millennium.