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Mental Health In High Office: Psychological Problems, Political Cures

ISSUE:  Autumn 1985

Writing in 1876, Anthony Trollope made a sharp distinction between the ordinary citizens of America and their leaders. Four decades earlier, his mother had found all Americans laughable; Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans was a descriptive act of revenge that salved the wounds of Britons who had lost two American wars, and the book was a bestseller precisely because it showed every American to be an unmannered, tobacco-chewing, peanut-crunching oaf. In his autobiography, however, Anthony Trollope found the average citizen a paragon of democratic principles. In his reflections on his own experience of our national life, he cites the Americans’ generosity, their philanthropy, their love of education and hatred of ignorance. He admires their independence and their willingness to shoulder the responsibilities that go along with freedom. But then, says Trollope, the English visitor becomes cognizant of Americans’ official doings, of their politics, and “there at the top of everything,” says Trollope, the visitor from abroad “finds the very men who are the least fit to occupy high places.”

Trollope’s mother was reflecting the short-term jealousy and disgust that her fellow citizens felt at being bested by a nation of uncouth half-savages, but Trollope himself is taking the longer view, the Old World vision of America as a Utopia in the making, a continent-wide laboratory from which ancient superstitions and proscriptions could be excluded, a tabula rasa on which the history of a new and better race could be written. No wonder his disappointment at the gap between the “energy and courage” of the average citizen and the self-serving arrogance of the nation’s leaders.

In the minds of many Americans, little has changed in this country since Trollope’s day. Every four years 20 candidates from half a dozen political camps declare themselves for the presidency; there is a great deal of excitement, much hope, a genuine feeling that things will be different this time around. Then the best and the brightest fall away; they lack funding, they cannot win the endorsement of special interests, they make some slip that costs them the good will of a significant portion of the electorate. The American public is left with two choices, neither very inspiring, and it votes for the one it dislikes the least. Even then, the public is often fooled, as with the pacifists who voted for Lyndon Johnson, the “peace candidate” who became responsible for the most unpopular war in American history.

Recent biographies of American presidents seem to concentrate on the flaws in our leadership; they suggest that severely troubled and deeply conflicted men often seek the presidency. The most glaring example is the case of Richard Nixon; in Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, Fawn M.Brodie says that, because of a traumatic childhood, Nixon suffered from self-doubt and paranoia and also developed a love of being punished. As popular a president as John F.Kennedy may have suffered from an insatiable machismo that prompted dangerous foreign policy decisions, according to Garry Wills’ The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. And in a recent book called Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism, Robert Dallek writes that the most influential experiences in Reagan’s early life had to do with his alcoholic father. Reagan recalls in his autobiography an appalling image of his father sprawled on the front porch, too drunk to brush away the snow that had fallen on him; to Dallek, “the episode must have reinforced Reagan’s horror of being in a helpless condition, beholden to someone else for survival. Further, it probably encouraged him to see all human relations in extremes—one is either entirely dependent or fully free. . . . Reagan lived in fear of his father’s uncontrolled behavior and understandably places an exaggerated premium on self-mastery in his own life and in the life of the nation.” Critics of American foreign policy often say we have no foreign policy at all. What is worse is that, even with presidents like Kennedy and Reagan, who seem to glow with health and fellow feeling, our leaders may be making their most important decisions on the basis of their own private histories, histories which they themselves may understand dimly, if at all.

Where do our leaders come from? Darwin offered an explanation of our development into physical animals; Freud took Darwin a step further and explained how we became cultural animals. In Totem and Taboo, Freud said that society is based on murder: the powerful male, the father, must be overthrown by his sons who, if society is not to stagnate and die out, must themselves be overthrown eventually. It has long been a subject of debate as to whether or not Freud meant for the murder of the father to be a literal event or simply an Oedipal impulse that is acted out in various symbolic and nonlethal ways. Herbert Marcuse sees the debate as moot, arguing that psychological states become political states and that therefore they have practical consequences whether or not someone is actually murdered in a stagy way. In Eros and Civilization, Marcuse says that ours is an era characterized by “domination of man by man,” and the domination is growing. Concentration camps, world wars, mass exterminations, terrorist activities, and the bombing of civilian populations in cities like Hiroshima and Nagasaki are often denounced as lapses into barbarism, but actually they are achievements of marvelous efficiency. The Russian gulag system is an example that Marcuse, as a Marxist, might not credit, but the fact remains that it is a well-run, effective, and by now venerable program for controlling large masses, many of whom are guilty of nothing more than political or thought crimes.

Paradoxically, repression is growing rather than diminishing; in Marcuse’s words, “repressiveness is perhaps the more vigorously maintained the more unnecessary it becomes.” Why? The key, says Marcuse, is Freud’s correlation between progress and increasing guilt feeling. In Freud’s model, life is based on domination. The father dominates the sons; among the many constraints that he imposes, the main one is the father’s possession of women and his denial of them to his sons. The father is obviously right, in a sense, because his rule has brought the sons into the world and maintained them there. But the sons want what the father has. In a sense, they revolt against themselves when they revolt against him. But revolt they must if they are to obtain the satisfaction of basic needs that only the father enjoys. So they slay the father, but because they kill the source of their own life, they must repent even as they initiate an order of repression designed to discourage their own sons from killing them. In a single sentence that encapsulates the dynamics of repression, Marcuse writes: “The father survives as the god in whose adoration the sinners repent so that they can continue to sin, while the new fathers secure those suppressions of pleasure which are necessary for preserving their rule and their organization of the group.” Thus the sons mourn the father they have slain even as they try to keep their own sons powerless and incapable of slaying them. Again, Marcuse himself would probably not offer modern-day Russia as an example, but clearly the leaders in the Kremlin venerate the Czar by reserving his pleasures for themselves and perpetuating his police state even as they seek to suppress any latter-day Bolsheviks who wish to do to them what Lenin and his followers did to those in power earlier in the century, and for the same reasons.

As domination spreads, repression spreads. Aggression must be inhibited continuously, and if we are not to displease our leaders, we must learn to inhibit it ourselves. Yet thwarted aggression does not disappear. In a displacement analogous to the conservation of energy in physics, thwarted aggression strengthens the superego, makes it more severe and less tolerant of the ego’s activities. Now that the father is dead and the domination of the one is replaced by the domination of the group, each group member must dominate himself in order to maintain his status and avoid the father’s fate. In Marcuse’s words, “repression now permeates the life of the oppressors themselves.”

Freud’s model of a society based on murder and Marcuse’s elaboration of it remain compelling whether or not an actual murder was committed back in the mists of prehistory. The superego takes the wish for the deed and punishes even suppressed aggression. As Freud says in Civilization and Its Discontents, “it is not really a decisive matter whether one has killed one’s father or abstained from the deed; one must feel guilty in either case.” What makes these arguments important to a consideration of American culture, however, is that in this country we did kill the father—not in the mind only or in some rain forest of the caveman era, but actually, and in the full light of history. In 1776 the citizens of this country overthrew the European model of government with its father-king at the head and put themselves in charge, thus obtaining, in addition to the heady freedoms of self-control, the crushing responsibilities that accompany the freedoms.

There are advantages to being led; when one’s plans go awry, how convenient it is to shrug and blame the system. Conversely, it is a terrible thing to be in charge all the time. During his famous visit to this country, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed that the American, in contrast to the European, is always on duty, always “serious and almost sad.” In his own country, which had also been through a revolution yet which had not entirely thrown off its caste system, “the people readily give themselves up to bursts of tumultuous and boisterous gaiety, which shake off at once the recollection of their privations.” But the inhabitants of this country, who are comparatively free of privations, are nonetheless “not fond of being thus violently broken in upon, and they never lose sight of themselves without regret. Instead of these frivolous delights they prefer those more serious and silent amusements which are like business and which do not drive business wholly out of their minds.” The European goes “in a leisure hour to dance merrily at some place of public resort; the American “shuts himself up at home to drink. He thus enjoys two pleasures; he can go on thinking of his business and can get drunk decently by his own fireside.”

Sober, focused, unleavened by humor or even cynicism— another by-product of hierarchical social systems, in which a they’ll-do-it-to-you-every-time attitude is a prerequisite for sanity—the American mind has nothing to blame except itself. Traditionally, the American mind is characterized by an inwardness, not the contemplative kind, but the kind that is self-punishing, always seeking to achieve, to do better, to win the race, to outshine the competition. What is dimly visible in the collective psyche of a nation becomes glaringly obvious in that nation’s political life, where longings and half-thoughts become rigid patterns of behavior. In a secular age, our leaders are, if not our gods, at least a sort of community exhalation, an embodiment as well as an intensification of the tendencies that war within us. Tocqueville’s serious American becomes doubly serious when he is sent to Congress or the White House.

If the American mind is serious, comparatively speaking, the American political mind can often be described, without exaggeration, by the clinical term used by Richard Hofstadter in his celebrated essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” To be sure, Hofstadter makes a vital distinction between the clinical paranoiac and the paranoid political figure: “Although they both tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.” Those “millions of others,” those serious Americans described by Tocqueville, comprise an electorate that votes “again and again . . .for uncommonly angry minds,” says Hofstadter. Small wonder, then, that so many of our elected officials are militants rather than mediators, leaders whose chief characteristic is to fight to the finish rather than negotiate and bargain. To this type of leader the enemy is totally evil and totally unappeasable, and therefore he must be totally eliminated. There is no victory except the unconditional victory; given this impossibility, the paranoid must fail and become more frustrated.”Even partial success leaves him with the same sense of powerlessness with which he began,” says Hofstadter, “and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

As the ubiquitous graffito reminds us, however, even paranoids have enemies. Our planet is closed. We may communicate with space folk some day, but almost certainly not in our lifetimes or those of our children or our children’s children. We live in a kind of walled city, one that grows more crowded daily. Ideologies jostle for domination while, half-starved and half-consumerized, we step toward the abyss of nuclear warfare. We could exile our leaders from the global city, but no sooner would the gates clang shut than a new crop of leaders would spring up, with equally unattainable goals rooted in our common internal contradictions. If change is to come, it will not come through overt modifications in the political system per se but through a restructuring of the psyche that creates and perpetuates that system. Paranoia, xenophobia, racism, and other causes of political tension cannot be eliminated, but they can be moderated. Surprisingly, the means of moderation are fully functional and have been for some years; it remains only to put them to their most effective use.


The mind of the political leader is essentially the masculine mind. The father-son conflict used by Freud and Marcuse to account for cultural development lends its aggressive masculine values to all subsequent political activity. Nearly all political leaders are men, and very few of the women in office would be there had they not internalized masculine values. Where there are men, then, let there be women. The redirection of the male political psyche is most likely to come from the female and especially from the organized women’s movement. No other group has the potential to effect change because no other group is so thoroughly in and of the society that creates and maintains the power structure, so completely integrated into its every aspect. The most hate-filled, jingoistic, racist leaders may not have pacifists in their families or representatives of other racial or ethnic groups or religious creeds, but they all have wives, sisters, and daughters. It is likely that these women will be no more genteel than the violent men at the center of their lives, but that is hardly the point. Women are necessary to the national health not because they are more peaceable than men but because they have the capacity to remind men of forces and values outside of an exclusively masculine range. The greatest contribution women can make to world peace is to follow their own agendas in a way that reminds men in office of the presence on this planet of other lives.

After all, this is how emotional growth occurs. One matures ultimately by having children and accepting the need to mediate between one’s own desires and requirements and those of others. With parenthood begins a constant other-direction that shapes the self in a way that no other influence can. In large part, however, the men who lead us need not be concerned with this form of growth. Cared for by wives or wife-surrogates, they need not be parents, need not grow up at all.

It is this unexcelled capacity for other-direction that makes the women’s movement so potent a force for peace. There is little reason to think that women leaders will make the world more peaceful simply by assuming office, as some feminists assert. If anything, leaders such as Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi have proven to be even more bellicose than their immediate predecessors. Bellicosity is not a function of gender but a function of leadership, which tends to be aggressive when it is not directed toward anything other than its own narrow goals; thus even relatively healthy leaders are liable to be changed for the worse by the demands of office. Bellicosity is also a function of world crowding and arms buildup; if two or three of the most saintly among us were given a grenade apiece and put into a small closet, sooner or later there would be a terrific explosion, and it wouldn’t matter who pulled the pin.

No other organized movement has this capacity for other-direction because no other movement is made up of people who are so necessary to our leaders. As Aristophanes knew, women have something men want, namely, their sexuality. No other group has the power of women because no other group has so desirable a commodity. For this reason, alternative cures for a bellicose, narrowly masculine outlook can be rejected out of hand. For example, the goals of racial integration and its logical extension, a one-world, U.N.-dominated model of government, are laudable. Certainly these goals must be achieved, and as quickly as possible, but integration will never have the effect that feminism will. Black-white conflict, even on an extreme level, can be prolonged indefinitely; South African apartheid is doomed in the end, but consider how long it has lasted. Male-female conflict, on the other hand, tends to be short-lived and moderate because women are viewed as necessary in a way that no other group is. In our own country, the plight of the native American is given much lip service. Were this group to disappear completely, however, the impact on the average white citizen, especially in urban areas, would be no greater than if some species of exotic bird or mammal had perished on some other continent, far away.

Religion is often cited as a cure for the world’s ills, but while there are progressive religious movements here and there, there is no broad-based religion that does not treat women as inferiors, explicitly or otherwise; this exclusivity limits religion as an effective force for other-direction. In Hindu society, the wife walks behind her husband. In Islam, she veils her face. In Catholicism, the discrimination is more subtle, but the church’s opposition to birth control and abortion makes it clear that women’s rights lag far behind other considerations. Fundamentalist Protestant movements lead the battle against the Equal Rights Amendment, thus reflecting a wider bias against women in Protestantism as a whole; significantly, it was Martin Luther himself who said, “If women die in childbed, that does no harm. It is what they were made for.” Revolutionary religions like Rastafarianism are often the worst offenders: according to this Old Testament based cult, women must cover their hair at all times, may not enter into serious discussions with men, and are considered unclean during menstruation. Too, while there are splinter peace groups within the large religions (as in the Catholic church, for example), the opposition to disarmament is firmly rooted in religion and is led by such popular clergy as the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

Ironically, the most obvious political cure for a sick world outlook is one of the least likely to have any effect. The disarmament movement is unlikely to bring about peace since it creates its own opposition and exacerbates tensions rather than relieves them. In fact, any form of direct solution is bound to fail precisely because it is too direct, too frontal, too easily turned to one side or the other. The only solution lies in the redirection of the male psyche, and the only group that can effect this redirection is the women’s movement, for only women have what men want.

But if this is so, it would seem that otherwise mature men might acknowledge the importance of women other than as providers of sex and other forms of nurturing. To some extent, of course, men who disdain women are simply being commonsensical; since there are so few women in position of power, women need not be taken seriously by these men except as satisfiers of basic appetites. The truth goes some-what deeper than this, however. Indeed, it goes all the way into the serpent’s nest of the human psyche. Anyone who has watched a male child go through the painful struggle of adolescence knows that that child struggles much more vigorously with his mother than with his father and much more vigorously than does his sister. In psychological terms, the boy is distancing himself from his nurturing mother in order to establish a separate identity; he need not struggle as much against the father because they are of the same sex and are likely to share many of the same ideas and assumptions, just as his sister, for the same reason, need not declare so starkly her separateness from her mother. The most desperate battle for identity is fought between the male child and his mother; it is a battle that is joined in early infancy and continues until the child leaves the house, and sometimes long after. Typically, the battle is bloodiest just before the male child leaves his mother’s house, that is, during the period of adolescence. So the male child begins his separate life with the blood of battle on his hands, and it is the blood of his mother; paradoxically, he has had to repel the nurturing parent, the one most responsible for his upbringing.

Small wonder, then, that there is a severe conflict in the mind of the male toward the nurturing women in his adult life: his wife, his daughters, his secretary, perhaps a mistress, and, off to one side, his mother, still ready to lend a helping hand and forgive any slight. The more aggressive the male, the more likely he is to be a leader, and the more severe his conflict with the women who nurture him. One thinks of the more controversial presidents in our recent history— Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon—and their staffs. Who among them took a woman seriously except as a lover or secretary?

Of course some men will never be redirected from their aggression, even if they are given a choice between such redirection and a less desirable alternative. Recently, a study of men who batter their wives focused on one group who were given the choice of entering therapy or going to jail. Of course all the men decided to go into therapy. After the second session, however, every one of the men had decided to go to jail rather than continue treatment. In therapy they had to confront feelings they found threatening—not sadistic cravings or insatiable bloodlust but the gentleness, tolerance, and reason that we all have. Unable to live with emotions they found effeminate and sissified and that denied their macho selfhood, the wife beaters went instead to jail, where real men could be found.


Extreme cases often make visible the paradigm that cannot be seen in normal cases but which is nontheless there, shaping and conferring legitimacy upon actions and attitudes that are considered acceptable. Sick people often illuminate the sickness that is present, to a lesser degree, in people who are otherwise healthy. But sickness and health are interpenetrating conditions, and we must think very carefully before we commit ourselves to any particular cure. Good doctors are wary and cautious, and they intervene reluctantly. The qualities that currently endanger our national health and that of the world are also qualities that make America a desirable place to live. A foreign-policy truism states that you need to know only one thing about a country, namely, whether people are trying to get in or get out. America’s economic and social freedoms are, along with our penchant for domestic violence and bellicosity, the aspects of this country which distinguish it in the eyes of foreign observers. And these positive qualities stem from our narrowly masculine collective psyche as surely as the negative ones.

Even the briefest of glances at our history is convincing in this respect. In an essay on American humor, literary critic Douglas Fowler observes that “civilizations always begin outdoors and in the masculine gender.” Certainly this is even truer of a culture like ours, founded calculatedly and with the profit motive foremost, than it is of cultures which evolved gradually out of the mists of prehistory. The ax and the gun made this country what it is; the men who wielded them worked quickly, and the world watched with more awe than disdain. As a result, the Indian fighter, the cowboy, and the gangster are heroes in countries that have never had figures even remotely resembling these colorful individuals. According to Fowler, our national experience has been almost exclusively “picturesque, martial, rowdy, melodramatic, and exterior.” From these qualities come our aggressive and bellicose outlook. But these qualities also shape the American belief in freedom and individualism that is unparalleled elsewhere, a belief without which life as we know it would scarcely be tolerable.

A redirection of the narrowly masculine national psyche is desirable, not the elimination of it. Men (and women with internalized masculine values) need to be aware of the Other—one might even say of an Other, since almost any Other will do as long as it is sufficiently strong to distract men in power from narrow and exclusive goals. Only women, however, have what men want, which is to say that they alone have the power to change men.

Need women be conscious of this? Need they have a systematic program of redirecting the male psyche? No; in fact, they could possibly jeopardize or pervert the process of redirection were they to concentrate on it. The business of shaping minds is best accomplished through indirection; for example, a parent sets a good example for a child by working hard, enjoying life, and expressing love for others rather than by trying too hard to be masculine, feminine, or even grown-up. Similarly, the women’s movement should simply go about its business, guided always by enlightened self-interest. The predominately male power structure can hardly fail to acknowledge the needs of women, but, and more important to the issue at hand, it can hardly fail to open its eyes, acknowledge the world’s variety, and see the need to coexist with all that is different, whether it be female or dark-skinned or Communist—or capitalist, since the faults of Western male leadership are to be found, for other reasons and in indigenous forms, in Eastern leaders as well.

Direct action is not necessary. An intellectual climate alone can change things; millions of people are influenced by Marx and Freud, for example, who have never read these authors or even heard of them. Similarly, feminism can affect non- and even anti-feminists.”The ladies will save us,” says a character in one of Henry James’ novels. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that only the ladies will save us. No one else can.


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