Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s March 3 speech to a joint session of Congress was hailed by the Republicans as a stirring appeal for the United States to stand tough against foolish nuclear negotiations with Iran. Even more satisfying to them was the insult to President Obama delivered by House Speaker John Boehner, who broke protocol by not consulting the President before issuing the invitation in the first place.
Democrats, on the other hand, were enraged by what they saw as an obvious campaign ploy for Netanyahu’s somewhat wobbly struggle for re-election in Israel, and a violation of the American tradition of not blatantly interfering in foreign elections so close to the March 17 election day in Israel. Even worse in the view of Democrats was the intrusion of the legislative branch into the realm of foreign policy, traditionally the territory of the executive branch.
The story of how Netanyahu’s speech quickly became a bitter, adversarial clash of American political parties gives us a window into the psychology of the gridlock in Washington that threatens to paralyze our federal government. Our Congress and President arguably have given up any pretense of wanting to establish genuine cooperation. Congress delights in dishonoring and insulting the President, and the President fans the flames of resentment by pushing the limits of executive authority.
How can Washington gridlock ever be untangled, given the apparent inability of Congress and the President to function in a more mutually respectful fashion? Perhaps the field of psychology can be helpful.
Most attempts to explain Washington gridlock focus on political philosophies, looking at the polarized and entrenched positions of liberals and conservatives, blue states and red states, progressives and traditionalists. While that can be an interesting and emotionally motivating approach to explaining our national political paralysis, it devolves to a “good guys vs. bad guys” model. Discussion then easily turns to “gotcha” moments and closed minds – perhaps even what one might think of as mental gridlock.
A psychoanalytic lens provides a more complex and arguably a more helpful view of the situation, because psychoanalytic thinking is designed to privilege objectivity and depth of understanding. Psychoanalytic thinking starts with an awareness of the unconscious mind, and the reality that human beings operate constantly in two very different dimensions, only one of which that can be directly perceived, but both of which have enormous power and influence.
Sigmund Freud of course established psychoanalysis in the last century as a means to explore the unconscious mind of an individual patient in therapy. What is less widely appreciated is that the unconscious also plays a role in determining the dynamics of groups, organizations, nations and so on. Relationships are always shaped in part by unconscious thoughts and feelings, whether the relationship is of parent to child, teacher to student, citizen to country, CEO to stockholder, President to Congress, or whatever.
Some basic psychoanalytic concepts are a useful starting place. Freud shocked the repressed Victorian world with his discoveries about human sexuality. Polite company had assumed innocence in children, for example, so Freud’s discoveries of universal but unconscious sexual fantasies in children seemed too outrageous to be taken seriously by most people, including Freud’s colleagues. And yet time has shown Freud to have rightly identified generational differences to be central to understanding the human condition and the capacity to operate effectively as a society.
Young children are unconsciously and consciously troubled by being shut out of the parents’ bedroom; they are intensely curious what is going on in that room. They sneak in and poke around when they think no one is looking. Children imagine being able to marry one parent and conveniently knock off the other one. They don’t like feeling powerless to get what they want. They have nightmares of being eaten by wolves or chased by monsters as punishment for having forbidden wishes of having sex with the favored parent.
Freud’s ideas about the Oedipus Complex elaborate on these universal conflicts of early childhood. Psychoanalysts over the years have shown that in fact we never really outgrow our need to unconsciously deal with the oedipal issues that keep popping up in life. As adults we continue to compete with rivals to win the romantic partner, the business deal, the athletic contest, or the political election. Any experiences of being excluded, left out, left behind, overruled by authority, kept in the dark, or treated as less important will carry the sting associated with the original unconscious insult of having to bear being excluded from the parent’s sexual relationship and feeling rivalry with one or both of them.
Coming to terms with being almost completely dependent on parents they can’t control is one of the most important tasks of early childhood. Kind and thoughtful parents will be gentle but firm in teaching these lessons; inept parents will bungle the job. If the parents handle things well, the child becomes an adult who welcomes and observes appropriate boundaries. If not, the child becomes an adult who feels superior to others, is not subject to the limitations of boundaries, feels entitled to intrude inappropriately, believes he deserves special treatment, and should not be shut out of privileged spaces and activities. In other words, the child becomes a narcissistic adult.
The gridlock in Washington might be seen as a fine example of what happens when children fail to master the challenges of the Oedipus Complex. One might reasonably posit that narcissistic individuals are over-represented in political office in general, and for sure when the main goal becomes undermining one’s opponents, rather than governing effectively.
In Washington it seems as if there are no rules now about respecting the boundaries of decorum and propriety and tradition. Catcalls are made during the State of the Union address to the nation. Forty-seven Senators interfere with delicate negotiations that are the responsibility of the Executive branch, because they feel left out. The Congress shuts down the government if they don’t get what they want. The results are destructive, disconcerting, and dangerous for the future of the nation.
The bad feelings generated by the actions of narcissistic actors of every political party in Washington contaminate the entire political environment. Anger over one issue leads to reaction on the next.
What will turn this around? Unchallenged and rampant narcissism is destroying our ability to govern. Parents who know how to set limits gently but firmly would help a lot, but that means waiting for a new generation to come along. Expecting our public office holders to have some psychotherapy before running for office would be a more immediate help. Perhaps a fundamental challenge of our times is to elevate the importance of understanding the basic psychological tasks in life that enable us to live peacefully together.