Psychologies of the “professional left”

Published online 27 August 2011.

I was amused by this post over at The People’s View, which claims to discuss a psychology of the “professional left.”  The idea behind this psychology is that, if you criticize the President, something must be wrong with you, and so that something wrong must be diagnosed.  This is a step upward from the outright demonization of the President’s opponents.

Unfortunately for The People’s View, there are these things called “reasons” standing between critics and the possibility of their uncritical embrace of the President.  These reasons have to be addressed — but this is best done through the formulation of proper arguments, and not by a classification of “personality types.”

Proper arguments will even be useful in addressing the background audiences of Presidential critics — which is to say that making fun of Presidential critics by saying that they’re “narcissists” or “anarchists” or “elitists” or “reactionaries” is likely to appear as a sort of distraction from the real task at hand, which is to address the objections that people might have to supporting the President.

We can say in support of the perspective given at The People’s View that psychology does indeed play a role in proper argument.  The psychology of argument, however, is what Aristotle called “rhetoric,” and it’s to be complemented by what Aristotle called “logic” and “dialectic,” the arts of correct reasoning and of resolving arguments.  Moreover, rhetoric is not to be reduced to psychological manipulation, but to be respected as an art in its own right.

To begin, I’m going to quote from The People’s View’s other page on “narcissists”, to clarify its thinking on the first of these personality types:

Parents, teachers, law enforcement and the government are the principle enemies of a narcissist. Adolescent rebellion tends to be their only consistent weapon against these enemies.

Maybe those “narcissists” are against the War On Drugs or the network of secret CIA prisons or mandates to buy insurance we won’t be able to afford to use or something like that.  But if all we’re willing to consider about the people who don’t like those things is that they’re a bunch of narcissists, we can’t really address those objections to government policy in the Age of Obama.

Then the piece moves on to its critique of the “Anarchist,” the second category in its typology of critics.  Now, the problem with anarchists, for The People’s View, is that they don’t respect “corporatism”:

Their opposition to our President, any President really, stems from the perception that the American government exists to protect corporations and to that end readily override the will of the people. If President Obama isn’t seen as actively working to disrupt corporations, then he is complicit in all that corporations do.

Or maybe it’s that this President, like other Presidents, has corporate beneficiaries built into any sort of social program he might proclaim in support of “the people.”  The reasoning behind this objection, then, is that there’s something wrong with corporatism, and that it might be good to explore what that “something wrong” might be.  Maybe the “anarchists” don’t like it that corporations and the rich scarf up lots of benefits while the common folk have to endure 9% unemployment and 20% underemployment, or something like that.  Instead, the “left-wing hierarchy” piece takes a different tack:

Theoretically the true anarchist is so against government that supporting any office holder is out of the question. Very few people, even the youthful vandals are that extreme.

But even the “anarchist” objection to all officeholders employs reasoning.  To look at that reasoning carefully, let’s take a look at how the Zapatistas, in Mexico, handle the matter of “office holding.”  Zapatista “office holding” is a matter of the “juntas de buen gobierno,” or councils of good government.  The councils are rotated, everyone gets to participate, and the councils exist for the ad hoc purpose of carrying out the will of the people.  This “officeholding” structure is, in turn, guided by the principle of “mandar obedeciendo,” or “to rule by obeying.”  This reflects a different concept of “leadership” than the one which our government uses, in which the leaders exist to serve the led, and not the other way around.

The criticism of officeholders, then, is a criticism of the system which makes them “leaders” who impose a governing will upon the masses.  Such a system cannot be said to reflect the will of the people, and the Zapatista counterexample shines a light upon a system which could in fact do so, but does not.  It is only because our current political system creates a political class, a “strong public” in Nancy Fraser’s terms, which does our political decisionmaking for us, that we are reduced to being a “weak public,” a mass of people who merely hold opinions so that we can be exploited by politicians.

Onward the narrative of The People’s View continues, with a description of “elitists”:

Elitists tend to concern themselves more with policy than electoral politics. I’m not as willing as some to write these people off because in more cases than a few, people who behave in an elitist fashion are often engaged in actual policy making.

Here, fortunately, the website author suggests actually having discussions with said “elitists,” who are described as policy wonks of some sort.  More discussion is usually a good thing.  The problem, of course, is that no amount of policy-wonk discussion is going to rationalize the Super Congress entrusted with ten years of austerity planning in the midst of a recession.  Thus we are back to the problem of reasons, reasons given for why people object to government policy in the Age of Obama.

Lastly, The People’s View reflects upon the “reactionaries,” who (according to this typology) are just people who abide by the talking points set by the other three groups:

While the Narcissist has their entire personhood (and often livelihood) at stake, the Reactionary has at risk their place in the ‘society’ that is created for them by the actors higher up the food chain. It is the Narcissist, the Anarchist and the Elitist who create the blogs and generate the talking points upon which the Reactionary depends to help them fit in. Politics and Religion have an emotional context that rules the behavior and belief systems of pretty much everyone on the planet.

So the reactionaries are mere followers, grunts of the social order of which they are a part.  Most importantly, if this last sentence is true, then there’s really no point in arguing anything outside of a manipulation of emotional contexts.  If you can trick enough people into agreeing with you, and voting with you, then you’ve won, and there’s really no other way through.  For the author, then, logic and dialectic are mere formalities — and rhetoric is a psychological game.

OptionsAs I suggested in this diary, the primary strategy adopted by the Democratic Party in the Era of Obama appears to be guided by the “Elmer Fudd Theory of Electoral Victory,” which I characterized as follows:

1) Praise Obama’s big resume

2) Show how bad the Republicans are


The problem with this strategy, as I pointed out in the cited diary, is that it’s like trying to sell a damaged product (in this case, the Obama Presidency) to an audience of buyers.  If you’re trying to sell a damaged product, you have two major options: a) hush up the defects of your product, and emphasize (with a cherry-picked set of facts) that this is the best option because the other option is worse, or b) candidly admit that your product is, indeed, defective — but also — throw into your sales package a set of concrete measures, backed by guarantees, for improving the quality of the overall product in order to appeal to those who would otherwise be ripped off regardless of which choice they made.

It appears, however, that the Democratic Party has wagered its entire future upon strategy a) whereas Obama critics are, in their various and awkward manners, pushing for some form of strategy b).  This distinction points back to my discussion here of argument and of psychology, and of Aristotle’s rhetoric, dialectic, and logic.

If there is nothing about successful rhetoric but psychological manipulation, and if dialectic and logic are mere formalities, then we can find some way of making strategy a), the Elmer Fudd Theory of Electoral Victory, work.  And then Obama will be re-elected and we can live happily ever after, or so we’ll be telling ourselves.

If, however, we can’t just manipulate our way to success, then we would be obliged to confront the defects of the Obama product, as a matter of approaching the matter of “political appeal” with some degree of CANDOR.  We would then have to start from scratch, and to concentrate on making arguments which would help us agree, first generally and then later as to the particulars, upon measures we ought to take, together, to improve the world-society and the environment in which we live.  But if we were to do that, “re-electing Obama” would not be our first and last concern.


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