Politics & Policy

Diagnosing Conservatism as a Mental Illness

The Left’s settled science (Photographerlondon/Dreamstime)
The Left has a long tradition of armchair psychoanalysis of conservatives and dissidents.

In 1950, the “conservative impulse” expressed itself in “irritable mental gestures,” in Lionel Trilling’s famous phrase. If Trilling’s liberal successors are to be believed, that impulse has come a long way since then — into a full-blown pathology.

Consider Michael Eric Dyson’s exchange with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on Sunday morning’s Meet the Press. Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a well-known left-wing commentator on race, was predictably incensed when Giuliani blamed the heavy police presence in many predominantly black neighborhoods on the high rates of black-on-black violent crime. That argument, Dyson replied, showed “the defensive mechanism of white supremacy at work in [Giuliani’s] mind.”

In his column in Monday’s New York Times, Charles Blow made a similar claim with regard to opponents of the president’s executive amnesty:

Make no mistake: This debate is not just about the president, this executive order or immigration. This is about the fear that makes the face flush when people stare into a future in which traditional power — their power — is eroded, and about their desperate, by-any-means determination to deny that future.

Thus when House Speaker John Boehner accuses the president of acting like a “king,” or when Iowa senator-elect Joni Ernst warns of a government that may “decide that my rights are no longer important,” they are really only expressing “a fear of subjugation by people like this president, an ‘other’ person.”

Freud and Foucault are dead, but their methods thrive. On the left, politics is not about debate; it’s about diagnosis.

The Left has a storied history of transforming legitimate disagreement into mental illness. Utilizing his influence as director of the Institute of Psychiatry of the USSR Academy of Medical Sciences, Soviet psychiatrist Andrei Snezhnevsky propagated throughout the Soviet Union and its satellites the notion of “sluggish schizophrenia,” a condition from which, conveniently, thousands of Soviet dissidents happened to suffer. Opposing official government policy, pessimism, religious practice — all were symptoms of mental instability, the solution for which was incarceration in a mental hospital.

The People’s Republic of China continues the practice. In September, watchdog group Chinese Human Rights Defenders reported that a blogger critical of the government had been seized in his home and committed. Another activist apparently has been in psychiatric detention since 2007.

The American Left has not set up hospitals, but one can see less extreme manifestations of the same impulse all about. Consider “sensitivity training.”

And certainly this impulse was on display in the quarrels above. How is one to debate whether Rudy Giuliani says what he does merely because he is a white supremacist? “But I am not a white supremacist!” he might object — which is, of course, what all white supremacists say! And when Blow claims that the president’s opponents are desperately clinging to power, how is such an opponent to respond? After all, doctor knows best.

To psychologize the question at issue in a debate is to remove it from the realm of debate altogether. That is why liberals are eager to explain their opponents’ positions as the work of psychological “mechanisms,” operating subconsciously or unconsciously, of which the opponent is unaware. Were he fully apprised of these mechanisms, he could be a constructive interlocutor. But oblivious to so much subliminal influence, debating him is just not fair; it would be taking advantage. He is, one might say, not in his “right mind.” Where the Soviets encouraged sulfozin, the American Left encourages Howard Zinn — but the difference between the two is, at root, not so large.

Obviously conservatives could employ this same practice. Dyson’s obsession with racial injustices they could blame on “querulous paranoia.” Blow’s concern about conservative “fear” they could explain as “persecutory delusions.”

But to do so would, besides being obviously false, serve no purpose. Ideas, proposals, platforms — the material of political progress — are refined in the clash. Reduced to expressions of hidden cognitive processes, ideas vanish.

And if you think American politics is unhealthy now . . . 

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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