Sunday, October 23, 2011

The American Unconscious


The cultural split in America has been at the foreground of many elections, legislative votes, and media controversies of the past decade. The fifty-fifty Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat, Right/Left split are dichotomies that have become more like competing sports teams, complete with fan clubs, pep rallies, and team jerseys. Political ideology is strongly correlated with personality. But what of the ideology that underlies both the conservative and liberal American Weltanschauung?
Dr. John Jost, psychologist at NYU, has established the powerful correlations between personality styles (orientations towards life) and political affiliation.
“Compared with liberals and moderates, conservatives score significantly higher on psychological instruments designed to measure epistemic needs for order, structure, simplicity, certainty, and closure, and they score significantly higher on instruments designed to measure the intensity of existential concerns such as fear of death and perceptions of a dangerous world. In terms of basic personality dimensions, liberals (and leftists) score significantly higher on Openness to New Experiences, and their greater open-mindedness manifests itself in terms of creativity, curiosity, novelty, diversity, and interest in travel. By contrast, conservatives (and rightists) score higher on Conscientiousness, and they are generally more orderly, organized, duty-bound, conventional, and more likely to follow rules. The evidence strongly contradicts the commonly held assumption that political orientation is “consistently and strikingly unrelated to personality and temperament factors.” (Jost)
Jost has written extensively on the personality differences between those with a conservative versus liberal orientations towards life. Not surprisingly, conservatives score higher on “Big 5″ traits including neuroticism and conscientiousness, and lower on dimensions including openness, extroversion, and agreeableness. Those holding a liberal political ideology tend to score higher in openness, extroversion, and agreeableness. The correlation between personality and political identification is evident from multiple research methodologies.
As a depth psychologist and media critic, the position is taken that personality is an orientation towards life, a Weltanschauung that is both a way of functioning in the environment as well as a way of understanding the world. This point of view insists that an individual’s Weltanschauung not only shapes their view of the world, but is rather, their reality.  In other words, this is not simply a matter of personality type but an individual’s understanding of what reality is. The conservative not only views the world differently from the liberal, the world is different for these two world views.
Gestalt and cognitive psychologists have shown us that our experience of the world is shaped by our Weltanschauung -our cognitive framing and beliefs about the world. We each hold our experience to be the experience (incidentally conservatives tend to be less aware of this than liberals) of our environment. When this occurs in its most blatant form, as in the young child, we call it egocentrism.
In other words, this is not simply a matter of personality type but an individual’s understanding of what reality is.
But what of the ideology that underlies both the conservative and liberal Weltanschauung? Despite the quantitative and qualitative differences between the conservative and liberal experience of the world, I argue that there is an underlying American ideology -a collective American unconscious, that links the seemingly disparate island chains of the liberal and conservative.
Take as an example the simple experience of two cars parked side by side at a local shopping center. The one, a Dodge Caravan, complete with Bush/Cheney sticker and the Jesus fish symbol pridefully fixed on the rear bumper. The neighboring car, a Volkswagen (or early model Volvo) sporting the Darwin fish and the various array of other liberal symbols. On the surface we might assume that these two car-owners are completely opposite in their political orientation, Weltanschauung, and orientation towards life. However, more critical analysis reveals a blatant similarity -these are both individuals who choose to express their ideology on the bumper of their car! (Choo & Mokhtarian)
However, more critical analyses reveal a blatant similarity -these are both individuals who choose to express their ideology on the bumper of their car.
This is the level we seek to reach regarding the conservative/liberal dichotomy, the ideology that underlies the seemingly opposed world views -the foundation that makes possible the interdependent existence or both positions. I believe that this underlying collective unconscious of the American conservative and liberal can be summarized in three qualities. These are the underlying, ideological, unconscious forces that shape the American identity. These are:
1. Protestant Ethic: hard work results in financial “success” -which also infers that lack of financial “success” is due to a lack of hard work (Weber).

2. Spencerian/ Darwinian economic “survival of the fittest”: those who are not aggressive enough will be weeded-out of the capitalist structure, leaving a higher performing, more efficient, and most fit society. Also leaving a sick, alienated, society (Spencer).

3. There is some absolute moral “right” versus “wrong” (usually stemming from a metaphysics). Any discussion of nuance or context is dismissed as “liberal, socialist, communist, or atheist” -which have all taken-on a pejorative tone from the language game of the right (Lyotard).
The Protestant work ethic, as described by Fromm in Escape From Freedom, is the belief that hard work, discipline, and dedication is smiled upon by god, and justly awarded. The ideology here is that one who works hard, does good and lives right will reap the rewards of a benevolent  heavenly father. It was not long after the reformation that this dogma became enmeshed with the political and economic structures of 16th century Europe. By the late 19th century and the industrial revolution this credo had become integrated into the American psyche (mostly from Herbert Spencer’s best-selling books and lectures). The ideology, still present in the American unconscious, is “if you are financially successful you worked hard, lived right, and were disciplined. If you are poor, indigent, or unfortunate you are doing something wrong, work harder!” This tenet is present in the background of the American psyche and shapes every opinion -as well as the very reality- of those raised in the American culture. In the famous words of Karl Marx “they do it but they do not know it”. This is the predominant position of the conservative right.
The Spencerian ideology melds into  the concept Darwinian economics (survival of the fittest as Spencer coined the phrase). This ideology, ever-present in the American way of being, is realized in the concept that there is some kind of natural process that weeds-out the economically weak, the poor, who are ultimately a drag on society and the economy. Laissez-faire economics is the contemporary term for this ideology -let it take care of itself. This is the predominant position of the conservative right.
The final aspect of the American unconscious is absolutist morality. This position disregards the fact that morality is culturally determined and instead views morality as something that is found with some acceptance of belief as fact. It rests on the intention -if I believe in it strongly enough it will be true (the Tinkerbell Effect). In other words, if a culture violates some (typically christian) taboo, that culture is viewed as primitive or needing to be saved. This is the project of missionary colonialism that flourishes today in areas of poverty and natural disaster -a Faustian exchange of food and shelter for the soul.
These three tenets affect, in different ways, each and every individual who has been raised in the American culture machine. Regardless of political orientation, the specter of the Protestant ethic, Spencerian social theory, and Moral absolutism shapes the way we view the world.