Big Thinking: Jung and the Electoral Map

Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist who worked closely with Sigmund Freud before founding his own school of thought, composed a short book in 1957 that was translated into English by the Atlantic Monthly. The Undiscovered Self may have been Jung’s answer to Sigmund Freud’s similarly late-career consideration of world politics, Civilization and It’s Discontents. The great ethnologist and psychologist wrote some surprising things about modern Western government in this book’s opening chapter. Referring to the global conflicts of 1957, he describes the way these conflicts ripples through the social structure of every nation in the world:

What is the significance of that split, symbolized by the “Iron Curtain”, which divides humanity into two halves? What will become of our civilization, and of man himself, if hydrogen bombs begin to go off, or if the spiritual and moral darkness of State absolutism should spread over Europe?

Jung writes (in Nietzschean tones, but in the language of psychology) of the conflict between the “subversive minorities” (which may be presumed to refer to ideological or economic as well as ethnic minorities) and the “stratum” of established power. He writes of what happens when an entire society — not the individuals within the society, but the society itself, begins to go insane:

Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.

The amazing thing is, Sarah Palin hadn’t even been born when Carl Jung wrote these words. Some things never change, but the more things stay the same, the more I wonder if things around the world might go better if more people read Carl Jung (and Sigmund Freud, and William James and other classic psychologists) and more often thought about the deeper undercurrents that affect our so-called “rational democracy”, not just in 2008 but always.

Jung’s most unique contribution to psychology was to focus on our public shared self, the foundation of a “collective unconscious” that each of us carry within us. Since the 2008 Presidential election has been so intense and so emotional for many Americans, we may have been feeling the extra pull of the collective unconscious lately. Why do we feel so strongly about the things we feel strongly about, and how is it that other people can feel differently? In the end, are we really just fighting between tribes?

Well, you take a look at the electoral map and tell me.

I’m no more able to rise above my cultural background than anyone else — I’m a blue-state cliche, a pacifist socialist Buddhist Jewish pro-choice liberal married Saturn-driver with kids and a software job who watches Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow because I like to. I hate being a cliche, but this is who I am. I know many red-staters live out their cliches with all the conviction in the world too. Even when we manage to reverse our ingrained trends and adopt contrary political beliefs, we carry our cultural heritages within us in an endless number of ways.

As we await the final outcome of this slightly crazy election season, let’s pause to think about the electoral map in a different way. Whether we grow up in a red state or a blue state, that color runs deep inside us, and sometimes when a bunch of people are arguing about something, they may actually be arguing about something completely different, though none of them manage to figure it out. I have a feeling this happens a lot. It’s worth a moment’s reflection.

Here’s an idea: strip all the ideology away and see if the 2008 election boils down to anything. Here’s what I think you’ll find: a fight between tribes. Look at the map — there are no ideas there, just rivers and mountain ranges and time zones. So, America, why are we in the tribes we’re in, and what can our tribal affiliations tell us about ourselves?

I don’t know the answer. Carl Jung might have some ideas, or maybe you do.

* * * * *

This is the final installment in the blogging experiment “Big Thinking”, in which we tried to gain perspective on various topical issues during an exciting electoral season by examining the ideas of Thoreau, Wittgenstein, Kundera, Tolstoy, Plato, Mill and Jung.

Literary Kicks endorses Barack Obama for President. California, stand up for gay civil rights. John McCain, don’t let the door hit you in the ass. Thank you, readers and commenters, for being a part of the “Big Thinking” project.

9 Responses

  1. Looking at the electoral map
    Looking at the electoral map I can only think of one thing: Is breathing that sweet salty ocean air making people more intelligent, or are intelligent people drawn to it?

    As to the slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies, that is certainly not unique to Sarah Palin, though she has taken it to the (il)logical extreme. Yet I am glad that the American people finally got offended by someones ignorance, and the fact that she could be replaced by a hate spewing robot is not enough to get her elected.

    About two weeks ago, I met an 80 year old hard line conservative who had just canceled his subscription to the NY Times because of a defamatory article about Cindy McCain’s drug habit. When I asked him if he thought it was a bit extreme, maybe a bit crazy, his response was: they have crossed the line. I tried to explain how it was indicative of the level of crazy this election has injected into our society, but he wouldn’t hear of it. His mind was made up (my least favorite Republican trait). Imagine, 60+ years of reading a left-leaning newspaper and calling it quits a week ago because of one article.

    Imagine if he had the same sort of intolerance for McCains vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Obama (Ayers, Wright, terrorist, Moslem, ACORN, unpatriotic, etc)

  2. “And I swore I’d be in
    “And I swore I’d be in Chicago tomorrow, and made sure of that, taking a bus to Chicago, spending most of my money, and didn’t give a damn, just as long as I’d be in Chicago tomorrow.”

    – Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

    just as long as he’s in chicago tomorrow.
    or tonight.

  3. I find that in a race with so
    I find that in a race with so many specifics stretched far beyond the level of believability it’s impossible not to take the biggest picture possible.

    Perhaps those who seem to have such a deep seated sense of self-reliance come to believe that everyone must be able to be self-reliant in the same degree, should they only work hard enough. That the universe takes care of itself, or not, is the central difference in parties (lets face it, we elect ideologies not people).

    I was raised in a Midwestern Southern Baptist church in the heavily democratic household of my Grandmother. I like to think I’m not just some product of my scenery, but the chance is always there ya know?

    Certainly we can’t trust many of the facts quoted by either candidate, it’s tragic how quickly the justness of a statement becomes third priority.

    Does Truth have an archetype? I’d vote for the candidate who admits its raining before any other, they seem like they’d have the best umbrella.

    What Would Jung do?

    (I’m surprised Doctor Zhivago didn’t make it into these discussions before close, but was happy (if a bit too intimidated to post) to note Plato)

  4. The map looks kind of blurry
    The map looks kind of blurry to me!

    I predict we will see more blue. Blue is a cool, soothing color. Red is a hot color.

    The red tribes are going to cool out!

  5. I live in Canada. From my
    I live in Canada. From my perspective, however skewed by my Canadian-ness, is that this is perhaps the most pivotal moment in American politics, comparable to the election of Abraham Lincoln, or John F Kennedy.

  6. I live in a McCain
    I live in a McCain reactionary state of Tennessee. Only five counties in the state went for Obama. I am glad Obama won the election.
    However, in Tennessee, the republicans recaptured the state senate. So,as Democrats, we are in a minority here in Tennessee. My county,Hamilton, went for McCain, but the city of Chattanooga went for Obama. Davidson, which contains Nashville Metro area went for Obama. So did Memphis and Shelby County which surrounds it. It will be an uphill battle for Democrats in the state of Tennessee.

    That leaves only three other counties–two more close to Memphis and two not too far from Nashville which went for Obama. We also were “one of three states whose votes for republican candidates actually went up compared to 2004. More votes as a ratio to population went for republicans here in Tennessee in comparison to another conservative state next door: Georgia. As a matter of fact, Georgia is having a runoff between Sen. Saxby, (R), and Rep. Martin,(D), in December. In contrast, our moderate republican senator, Alexander, won by a landslide here in Tennessee.

    So, now, unfortunately, Tennessee has evolved from one the most liberal states in the south, twenty-five years ago, to presently one of the most conservative states. Fortunately, we have a Democratic Governor, named Bredesen.
    However, in two years, Bredesen may be replaced by a republican conservative. We Democrats have our work cut out for us in Tennessee. I envy those who live in blue states. I hope that republicans and Democrats in Tennessee may work together to solve our health care delivery system problems. We are especially hurting because of the inability of this state to take care of former TennCare patients which was the similer equivalent to Medicaid in this state.
    The new system they put in place does not properly, in my opinion, serve the poor. Health care is a right not a privilege. Poor people are dying because they can’t afford health insurance and have been stricken from the TennCare rolls.

  7. Funny, I’m a Democrat–and
    Funny, I’m a Democrat–and serious student of Jung’s– who came upon this site while seeking insight into why my Democratic friends have seemed incapable of sober discussion of Obama’s weaknesses and/or the puzzling inconsistencies in his story. When I try to reason with them, open such issues for discussion, they blow up on me, yell they can’t believe I would vote for McCain, that Palin is a certified moron etc.–even if I have never mentioned the latter. So it is rather disconcerting to me that I find it is Palin who is treated here as the hate-filled demagogue. After all, it is Obama who had the extremist minister, the education and professorships at universities noted for seeing Jewish conspiracies everywhere, and Obama who very publicly–in his 2002 anti-war speech–accused two Jews of “shoving their ideologies down our throats” and pinned on them (not Bush or Cheney) blame for the war in Iraq. If he is in fact a dissenter within his milieu–a milieu in which Ayres is a citizen of the year–and has the deep awareness of history and race relations that he claims, this was certainly a strange way to show it. For my part, I think the response to Palin is an overreaction somehow related to the”chimerical wish-fantasies” that have elevated a rather conventional, bare-knuckle Chicago politician to the heights. If anybody thinks it was rather his intellectual brilliance that did this I suggest they compare the afore-mentioned anti-war speech to that of ML King at Riverside Church in NYC. No comparison. King’s is profound and genuinely courageous as well as brimming with the tension of an engaged man’s moral struggle, Obama’s is a shallow and rather craven appeal to the choir (he supports the Civil War and WW II but not our war in Iraq; perhaps if our Iraqi effort turns out well and the ugly, incompetent parts are forgotten as with those others he will one day support it too)…

  8. The comments in this thread
    The comments in this thread are excellent examples of Levi’s thesis, beginning with Rubiao concluding that social or political conservatism constitutes a lack of intelligence, to Marv demonstrating that liberals don’t have a hold on wacky paranoid thinking. Both these contributors have told us far more about their personal psychologies than they likely intended, and very little about their actual politics (which was arguably their intent).

    It has often been said that people vote from their wallets, that economic interests will prevail over all else. But people actually vote from their subconscious, barely aware of why they prefer one candidate over another. Many “reasons” may be offered and proclaimed, but in the end each American is choosing some sort of comforting authority-figure. The deep psychology of this is never analyzed – and maybe it cannot be: the forces that compel a person into office are often ephemeral at best, difficult to pin down and fleeting with time.

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