Political psychoanalysis

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
12 August, 2022

The world is in a mess.

According to psychoanalyst Carl Jung, that’s because human psychology is messy. What’s worse, we usually lack the self-awareness to prevent our inner messes from spilling out all over the place.

Jung warned that “whatever is rejected from the self appears in the world as an event”. Psychologists call this projection. It happens because of an all-too-human tendency to see our flaws in others but to be blind to them in ourselves. Pots call kettles black – while calling themselves magenta.

We all project of course, but politicians seem especially susceptible.

After losing the presidential election in 2016, Hillary Clinton embarked on a monumental sulk. Understandable, considering the guy she lost to. But, in a recent bout of classic projection, Clinton accused eminent jurist Clarence Thomas of being ‘a person of grievance’.

Speaking of the guy she lost to, Clinton was repeatedly called a liar by none other than Trump himself.  Go figure.

Jung also observed that successful people often overestimate their own greatness. He called this ego inflation. We might call it believing one’s own hype.

There are exceptions. Second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was very successful. Not only is he remembered as one of the best emperors Rome ever had, but he was really good at philosophy as well.

Despite his many talents though, Marcus was well aware of his human failings. They say that anyone who desires power should get nowhere near it.  If that’s true, Marcus was an ideal emperor. When nominated as Hadrian's successor, he responded with sadness and reluctance.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius admonished readers to ask themselves, “what fault of mine most resembles the one I am about to criticise?” Good advice to anyone as an antidote to psychological projection – and brilliant advice to politicians.

Today’s politics is akin to reality television, with politicians treated as celebrities. This is not an environment in which a latter-day Marcus Aurelius would thrive. Rather, it favours those who never delve too deeply into the ugly reality of their own motives.

As a consequence of projection, fearful and envious politicians pursue policies that appeal to the fear and envy of voters. Their inflated egos enable them sincerely to believe that these policies are ‘protecting the vulnerable’ or ‘helping those in need’. Lacking self-awareness, celebrity politicians wreak mayhem on their countries with the approval of their own consciences.

Yes, the world is in a mess – and politics even more so.

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