Politics & Policy

Psychoanalytic Politics

For Charles Blow, pop psychology has replaced philosophy.

In March of 2010 — more than a year after Barack Obama supposedly established a new, permanent liberal order — New York Times columnists scrambled to explain the extraordinary popular opposition to Obamacare. Usually when people go to Washington, it’s to ask for favors; why would ordinary citizens gather on the National Mall, with their fanny packs and posters, to demand a stop to government’s favors?

Columnist Charles Blow tried to elucidate. “A woman (Nancy Pelosi) pushed the health care bill through the House,” Blow explained. “The bill’s most visible and vocal proponents included a gay man (Barney Frank) and a Jew (Anthony Weiner). And the black man in the White House signed the bill into law. It’s enough to make a good old boy go crazy.” In other words, the Tea Party was a manifestation of bigotry, not, as it claimed, of principled opposition to big government. This narrative was echoed in the liberal blogosphere, by other New York Times columnists, and throughout polite society.

Certainly, the Left’s charges of bigotry are partly disingenuous, cynical power politics — attempts to increase the social costs of conservatism and to rile the Left’s base. But they’re also partly genuine. Many pundits have bought in, wittingly or not, to postmodern intellectual trends that reduce all politics to human psychology and group conflict. And in this respect, Charles Blow is the paradigmatic postmodern political pundit.

It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Blow is fixated on demographics, and observes politics primarily through that lens. Demographics are, in fact, nearly the exclusive subject of his New York Times page, “By the Numbers.” Almost every week, Blow investigates a recent poll and breaks it down to reveal interesting group differences. He’s often a great source for sharp insight and clear writing about fascinating data. But he goes awry when his demographic lens is combined with pop psychology, and — most important — his own political prejudices.

Take, as an example of his best work, “The Rise of the Religious Left.” Blow shows that, partly because minorities are both disproportionately Democratic and disproportionately religious, Democrats are actually more likely than Republicans to have the kinds of religious beliefs that give bien pensants the shakes. Blow’s reasoning and statistics effortlessly smash previously unquestioned stereotypes — just the thing statistics are for.

At other times, however, he abuses his data to reinforce his political prejudices. There was high irony to Blow’s response to Proposition 8, in which his speculations about black opposition to same-sex marriage became condescending. In a more balanced press, Blow’s account — in which black voters are deemed motivated by religious prejudice that “defies logic,” rather than a thoughtful belief in the traditional constitution of marriage — might itself be considered bigoted. And Times columnists might consider how their own demographics (journalists being disproportionately secular relative to the rest of the country) might prejudice their understanding of religious voters. Perhaps their circles are too parochial for them to consider that their casual accusations of bigotry against the parts of America with which they have little contact might be the real prejudice.

For Blow, demographic conflict extends outside of democratic politics, and even infects the supposedly elevated sphere of the judiciary. He used the debate over Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination to condemn Republicans for anti-Hispanic animus. It was evident to Blow that the conservative reaction to Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comment wasn’t actually about the idea that ethnicity constrains one’s legal insights. Rather, the dispute was essentially a conflict of wills between white men and a Latina; or, as Charles Blow put it, “fringe Republican race-baiting” that has “fallen flat” because of our growing national diversity.

So why was Blow convinced that conservatives were so exercised by Sotomayor’s race, despite their satisfactory alternative explanations for their objections? It’s all, it seems, recycled Sigmund Freud. For the liberal punditariat, popular opposition to their self-evidently good policies is motivated by subconscious psychological forces: biases and resentments of which voters themselves may be unaware. Conservative ideas are just elaborate excuses for acting out those more fundamental impulses.

Political psychology got its start with Theodore Adorno’s attempt to identify conservatives as a psychological type, as measured on his F-scale (F stands for fascist). Today, as his ideas have trickled down and pop psychology has caught on, we see the common conflation of “anti-illegal-immigration” and “anti-immigrant,” the belief that welfare reform was essentially anti-black, and the reduction of concerns about Islamism to a kind of phobia. Conservatives’ ostensible reasons and supporting facts are dismissed without consideration, because it is presumed that those reasons and facts aren’t what really motivate them. And when one lacks, in postmodern fashion, a belief that reasoning can lead to truth, questions of political motivation become preeminent. Conservative ideas are investigated as psychological phenomena — evaluated for the mental health or pathology they suggest — rather than as philosophical propositions — evaluated for the truth or falsehood they contain. The Left seems every day less concerned with substantive reasons for policies, and focuses more intellectual energy on trying to discover the invisible psychopathologies of its opponents.

When you combine the conceit that political ideas are merely manifestations of subconscious impulses with a habit of viewing people through racial and other group taxonomies, it’s easy to buy into Blow’s belief that Tea Partiers are so anti-government because of our president’s racial background. Indeed, given all that, it’s easy to understand how Blow’s columns have at times become streams of assertions about the revolting bigotry of Republicans and conservatives.

His most recent column observes Obama’s appeals to black voters, and turns it back on Republicans: “The president and fellow Democrats have taken a page from the Republican playbook . . . unabashedly using racial-solidarity politics.” Elsewhere, he calls Glenn Beck the “anti–[Martin Luther] King.” In another he implies that Jewish voters are abandoning Obama because of the president’s tolerance toward Muslims. He speaks in innuendos of how “Obama triggers a political Pavlovian response among some of these people [Tea Partiers].” He described a Dallas tea party that sought to showcase its diversity as “a political minstrel show.” He analyzed rising conservative identification as a kind of economic coping mechanism, a “retreat to a cocoon.” He said that, with racism, there are “many shades of grey,” but applied those shades exclusively to the Tea Party. These are all separate columns.

To be fair, it wasn’t always just Republicans. In some of his first columns, Blow accused Hillary Clinton of exploiting racism by voicing concerns about Jeremiah Wright (evidently, Wright’s anti-Semitism wasn’t worthy of legitimate concern to Blow, who’s normally so vigilant about signs of prejudice). Sincere concern about racism is good — and Blow sometimes does well at that. But often his selective condemnations and too-quick leaps to conclusions are clearly politicized in a way that, if anything, belittles the seriousness of racism.

Charles Blow’s column risks decaying into all race, ethnicity, and accusations of bigotry, all the time. When he’s scientific in his approach, his demographic data can be illuminating. But when he lets his political prejudices infect his approach to politics, he becomes divisive and unpersuasive, ultimately contributing nothing but more animosity to our political conversations.

This kind of rhetoric — not fanny-packed Tea Partiers — is the real bigotry that deserves our stigma.

– Matthew Shaffer is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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