What’s Wrong With the Partisan Brain?

Oh my, that’s a clickbaity title, isn’t it?  Fear not, I’ll be backing it up with some utterly trash pop psychology!

Well, not even really psychology as such.  But Freud’s theory of the psyche — whatever one thinks of it — has gained enough traction in pop culture that it makes for a handy analogy or metaphor for some pop sociology about our two major political parties, and ourselves in general.

Most adults have at least heard in passing that Freud had this model positing the human psyche was divided into three parts: Id, ego and super-ego.  The id is supposedly the unconscious source of our basic drives, particularly for pleasure.  The super-ego is the moral component that recognizes what is supposed to be the right thing to do, regardless of the circumstances.   The ego is supposed to mediate between the id and super-ego and the part generally responsible for how humans generally act.

What’s wrong with partisans now is that their supposed egos — the two major parties — have not effectively functioned as egos for some time now.

A party’s “establishment” — Congressional leadership, sometimes party leadership, the donor class, many ensconced at the think tanks and journals — know in the abstract how their party is supposed to act, including on matters of public morals.  But these folks aren’t really much by themselves.  The populists among a party’s base are the id — they often provide the party’s energy and drive, but are often more interested in gratifying themselves and have impulses that occasionally need to be suppressed.

The Republican and Democratic parties are supposed to be the institution that mediates between these two forces, which is why they are occasionally beset by denial, repression, rationalization etc.  People accept these shortcomings of political parties because we understand the overarching function of balancing an ideological agenda against more pragmatic and tribal impulses.

As Jay Cost recently observed, this mediating function has been in the process of breaking down.  In 2016, it was the GOP and now it looks to be the Democrats engaging in yet another round of reforms tilting even further in favor of the populist id.  (Lest anyone think Cost was motivated in this critique by the rise of Trump, it’s worth noting that he and Jeffrey H. Anderson were arguing after 2012 that the GOP had adopted “reforms” that were in fact designed for the Democratic Party by its most liberal activists.)

It’s not clear how this problem gets fixed, either.  The more the id is empowered, the more dangerous it becomes and lashes out against civilization.  This is (spoiler alert) the lesson of MGM’s 1956 classic, Forbidden Planet.

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