Friday , February 21 2020
Home / New Economic Perspectives / 21st Century Machiavellians 1.1: Elites View the Democratic Party as a Containment Vessel for Popular Discontent

21st Century Machiavellians 1.1: Elites View the Democratic Party as a Containment Vessel for Popular Discontent

Summary:
(This is a 3-part essay divided here into a total of 4 installments, with the first part divided into two) Michael Hoexter, Ph.D. The on-again, off-again political war now being waged inside and around the Democratic Party between a new generation of progressives and the Democratic Party Establishment requires a new or expanded lens to help understand what is going on.  This quite intense “war” of varying intensities is being waged in an era when simultaneously the Democrats represent the only established political vehicle within the United States to unseat the monstrous Trump Administration and the Republican Party that backs them.  Perversely, it seems, the Democratic Establishment has tried and continues to try, at almost every turn, to suppress enthusiasm for ideals and policies

Topics:
Michael Hoexter considers the following as important:

This could be interesting, too:

Michael Hoexter writes 21st Century Machiavellians 3: The Clash of Machiavellians, the Billionaire Class, and an Anti-Machiavellian Politics

Michael Hoexter writes 21st Century Machiavellians 2: The Gaslighting, Neo-Fascist Gangsters of the Republican Party

Michael Hoexter writes 21st Century Machiavellians 1.2: Elites View the Democratic Party as a Containment Vessel for Popular Discontent

Michael Hoexter writes Alexandria on the Daily Show: the Moral Economy and Modern Money

(This is a 3-part essay divided here into a total of 4 installments, with the first part divided into two)

Michael Hoexter, Ph.D.

The on-again, off-again political war now being waged inside and around the Democratic Party between a new generation of progressives and the Democratic Party Establishment requires a new or expanded lens to help understand what is going on.  This quite intense “war” of varying intensities is being waged in an era when simultaneously the Democrats represent the only established political vehicle within the United States to unseat the monstrous Trump Administration and the Republican Party that backs them.  Perversely, it seems, the Democratic Establishment has tried and continues to try, at almost every turn, to suppress enthusiasm for ideals and policies as well as the representatives that most nearly embody those policies and ideals that would be its own political energy source, the basis for Democratic political identity.

21st Century Machiavellians 1.1: Elites View the Democratic Party as a Containment Vessel for Popular Discontent
Figure 1 Containment Vessel being installed at nuclear power plant under construction in China. Source: Power Engineering, August 5, 2015

I am proposing here that new metaphors and ideas are needed so we can understand what appears to be self-destructive behavior by the Democratic Party elite in trying to sideline and crush the upstart insurgency inspired in part by Bernie Sanders and Sanders-movement allied organizations, including the Justice Democrats.  One such metaphor is that of a “containment vessel” which will described more fully below.  While I have been writing this essay on and off over a period of months, recently the current nominal leader of the Party, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi once again sent barbs in the direction of progressive Presidential candidates like Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and against marquee progressive policy proposals like the Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.  This intra-party “war” is truly on-again and off-again but a durable divide is exposed.

As self-destructive by the Democratic Party elite in its moves against the progressive wing of the Party has been the half-hearted and self-defeating initial framing and late timing of the impeachment effort against Trump, nominally their nemesis and political opponent.  The leaders of the impeachment effort seemed to have designed their offensive against Trump to either fail or only have very limited and temporary success, with a lot of built-in and largely unnecessary backwash against Democrats.  In the second part of this essay, I will hope to apply a related but slightly different set of concepts to describe the GOP and their strategic outlook.  In the third part, I will attempt a dynamic view of how the two groups interact and the trajectory of the US political system (with echoes abroad) into the future.

The focus of my comments here is political meta-strategy, what political actors and those that have power in society more generally (mostly economic elites, i.e. a capitalist ruling class) are wanting to achieve politically and socioeconomically in a global sense over a period of decades and how they attempt to achieve it.  It is specifically “meta-“strategy in that the concepts proposed here underlie the more explicit conscious strategies that political actors pursue.  Meta-strategy may include contextual and semi-conscious or unconscious motivations and implications of action; it is akin to a party’s or political groupings’ “worldview”.  In contrast, more explicit “strategy” can be verbally discussed in open or closed rooms while meta-strategy is more likely to be observed at a distance and with the benefit of a longer time-scale as well as acted out largely unconsciously over years and years of political action and agitation.

From a purely descriptive point of view, it will require a new vocabulary to coherently describe the behavior of the leadership of the Democratic Party: their self-representations and own self-image do not correspond with their reality.  The Democratic Party elite as currently composed is Janus faced: on the one hand it has tended to capitulate without a fight to the machinations of the Trump Administration and the GOP, having declared itself at other times part of a “Resistance” to the Trump, who many of them have claimed is an illegitimate President, in part installed with the help of foreign powers.  On the other hand, we have seen that the Democratic Party leadership has openly and vigorously attacked the newer progressive U.S. Representatives, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley and Presidential candidates Sanders and Warren that are attempting to more aggressively pursue a number of new policies. The progressives are also more vociferous and open about their resistance to Trump policies, especially at the US border, and their desire to prosecute/impeach Donald Trump and his endlessly corrupt Administration. The progressives both young and old also use Twitter and other social media more effectively and more aggressively than the typical Member, circumventing the media Establishment to some degree.

That the Establishment wing of the Democratic Party has now backed into an impeachment inquiry does not change the fundamental dynamic here.  The Establishment seems intent on containing and steering an impeachment of or otherwise removal of Donald Trump in ways that reinforce their view of the world.  The Democratic Establishment’s worldview includes prioritizing the interests of the donor class, which has benefited mightily from the Trump tax cuts as well as other pro-plutocratic policies of both parties.  Trump has also been very, very valuable for Democratic fundraising and for boosting revenues for Establishment media organizations allied with the Democratic Establishment, so getting rid of his “colorful” dismantlement of political and cultural norms would be a loss to comfortable elites. 

Also the impeachment angle chosen by the Democratic leadership is attempting to reinforce it’s newly strengthened relationship with the military-industrial complex and the intelligence apparatus of the US government.  A too-open exposure of Washington D.C. corrupt practices endangers “the game” of the Democratic Establishment almost as much as it does the hyper-corrupt Trump and his Republican Trumpist supporters.  Stupidly, the first and primary angle on impeachment chosen, exposes Democrats to a Trump/GOP counterattack, as the trigger and impeachable offenses were the legal Washington corruption of nepotism in the form of cushy jobs in Ukraine for Hunter Biden, the son of the Establishment Democrats’ favorite, Joe Biden.  There are, also in reality, no real heroes in the political morass that is Ukrainian politics and foreign meddling therein.

From a purely political-strategic point of view, these efforts by the leadership of the Democratic Party are inept and self-defeating: shouldn’t they be attempting to reach compromises from within their caucus with the progressives and other elements or maybe even entertain supporting their new and often more popular ideas?  It looks on the one hand like the Democratic Party leadership doesn’t know what it’s doing and seems politically incompetent.  But taking a longer view shows at least that while they are incompetent, apparently they are also INTENTIONALLY incompetent in ways that become clearer if we look at meta-strategy or worldview and not just political strategy.  I am not paying them or anyone else the compliment that they are playing “11-dimensional” chess; more that they and we are embedded in a complex and quite troubling political and social reality.

One hypothesis about the aggressive stance towards internal dissent and the new progressive faction touches on political tactics of the leadership faction more than strategy.  Zach Carter in the Huffington Post speculates with some reason that the Democratic Party leadership is bending to demands of the entrenched New York State and New York City Democratic “machine” to contain or defeat the insurgency against it as represented by Ocasio-Cortez and the Queens District Attorney Candidate Tiffany Caban, just narrowly defeated in her election bid.  Carter provides substantial evidence that Pelosi, of the California Democratic machine, has been allowing Representative Hakeem Jeffries and others from the New York machine to take shots at the insurgents to quell the internal rebellion against Establishment Democrats.

The loosening of party discipline to allow regional machines to take over the reins of the party temporarily is not entirely unsurprising from a point of view that sees the Democratic Party apparatus as a collection of careerists based in Democratic stronghold regions of the country who are protecting themselves from challenge from the progressives who are trying to represent new ideas and/or the base of the Party.  However, the support of regional fiefdoms points to both the increasing regionalization of both American political parties and also within the Democratic Party a fragmentation of leadership and of overall direction and strategy for the Party.

The openly racist attacks by Trump in mid-July on the four Congresswomen subsequent to Pelosi’s attacks temporarily at least closed the ranks of the Democrats, even as Pelosi and the Democratic Establishment can be held partly responsible for exposing these progressive Congresswomen to mortal danger via the stochastic, gun-fetish-fueled terrorism of the right-wing.  The controversy forced Pelosi to condemn Trump more openly and with the continued exposure of Trump’s crimes and Trump’s continued pushing of the boundaries of what is allowed, has forced her to accede to impeachment proceedings, entirely against type and the Democratic Party meta-strategy as practiced over the past few decades. Signs are there that this impeachment inquiry may be mishandled if left in the hands of Pelosi and her nearest allies.

Now that impeachment hearings are taking place, it seems that the Democratic Establishment is making as many efforts as possible to contain that impeachment inquiry, so as to reinforce the neoliberal/neoconservative Washington status quo: that money in politics is a good thing and that the US military-industrial complex and interventionist state must be reinforced and fed with more military contracts and foreign interventions.  A wide-ranging inquiry that includes a confrontation with open and not-so-open corruption is being sidelined and avoided as much as possible by the Democratic leadership.

Corruption and the Gravy Train

One way to understand the internal party conflict between progressives and the Democratic Establishment is that the latter groups are now defending the lucrative world of big donor checks, campaign consultancies and lobbyist jobs to which electeds now aspire after a stint in government service. Their progressive opponents, now that they have happened upon a formula of relying only on small donations, campaign finance reform and a slate of social democratic policies that will free Americans from major sources of impoverishment and increasing private debt levels (the fuel for growth of the bloated financial sector), threaten the business model of the Democratic Establishment.  The Sanders Presidential campaign also is a similar threat, with the Warren campaign a somewhat more domesticated (possibly more corruptible) version of the same idea of politicians freed from corporate influence to dismantle a network of privilege and wealth accumulation via political patronage and corruption and encouraging debt peonage to private financial institutions for the masses.

The Democratic Establishment fights the progressives rather than Trump’s Republican Party because the progressives and not the Republicans represent a direct threat to the cozy world of Democratic operatives collecting large dollar donations, paying their friends, the expensive campaign consultants with the wealthy donor money, and finally, reserving for themselves lucrative post-elected-office jobs as lobbyists and consultants.  If this gravy train is ever more exposed to be openly corrupt by a new group of insurgents, who represent an entirely different model of politics and campaign finance, the gravy train will start to dry up, as the pretense that it serves the Democratic Party base, its values, and the public interest more generally will be exposed to be just a pretense. 

While Trump in his pseudo-populist campaigns and echoed by his GOP allies try to campaign occasionally on the corruption of families like the Clintons, they are likewise or more corrupt than the Democratic Establishment. Trump claimed, falsely, that his great wealth immunized him from corruption, when, in actions from Day 1 of his Administration, Trump has chosen the path of direct self-enrichment and self-dealing, rather than the roundabout method of conventional DC elites. Trump’s occasional forays into “populism” consist of making the world of college-educated upper middle-class political consultants and their patronage networks, an unseemly spectacle anyway, seem to be the zenith of corruption, leaving out or naturalizing (“this how we do deals in the business world”) the gross private sector and corporate-scam corruption within which Trump and his cronies swim. So intuitively or even perhaps collusively, the Democratic Establishment and the GOP Establishment, which Trump has now, in a fragile manner, joined and partially reshaped, share more with each other than the Democratic Establishment shares with progressives.  Voting records of so-called “moderate” members of Congress, both Senators and House Members, are an indication of how much in common they have with their Republican opposition.  The recent passing of a still-more-bloated defense spending bill with substantial Democratic support, highlights the common “values” between Establishment Democrats and the grotesque Trump and the Republicans, the Democrats claim to “resist” and abhor.

Resuscitating the “Moderate” Republican Party…within the Democratic Party

One way to describe what is going on with the Democratic Party Establishment and supporting media (Congressional leadership, Democratic National Committee, allied media organizations like CNN and the New York Times) is that they are furtively and desperately trying to resurrect the “moderate”, “reasonable” wing of the Republican Party that has been marginalized and dispersed as a political force since the New Right, the Tea Party and then Trumpists have taken over that Party.  The Establishment Democrats and their media allies’ undue respect and even adoration shown to figures such as George W. Bush, Bill Kristol, David Frum, and representatives of the national security establishment, who were most closely allied with neoconservative think tanks and “moderate” Republican politicians, is alarming and indicates that the Democratic Establishment political operatives and officeholders that play at times at being “progressive” are “in their hearts” looking to ally with or channel as political representatives the fragments of the moderate Republicans that have been largely ejected from the Republican Party.

The political vision then of the Democratic Party Establishment and their enabling media allies is to resurrect within the Democratic Party, the ejected “moderate” wing of the Republican Party, with its cozy relationship to the comfortable, wealthy, and supposedly “prudent” managers of late 20th and early 21st Century American Empire, with a political base of suburban “soccer moms” and other financially comfortable middle- and upper-class suburban dwellers.  Rather than ally with and absorb progressive ideas, which would strain relations with the ultrawealthy donor class and the military-industrial complex, the Democratic Establishment leadership wants to become, virtually, a resuscitated moderate Republican Party that masquerades occasionally as the Democratic Party of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Johnson but is in reality more the “new” Democratic Party of Clinton and Obama. 

Just in case the spectacle of the fully-sociopathic, thuggish, Trump-led Republican Party obscures the view, remember that with a few exceptions the “moderate”, traditional business elite Republican Party was partial to tax cuts, racist fearmongering, and support of the military industrial complex, creating a space, as the post-War consensus splintered, for the fully fascist reactionaries of the current GOP to “say the quiet parts loud”.  The Iraq War and other disastrous, hyperviolent interventionist policies were germinated within the confines of the neoconservative faction of the Washington DC elite, including what are now considered “moderate” Republicans like Dick Cheney and George W. Bush.  Neoconservatives and the aggressive war-fighting strategies they devised to sustain a bloated military in the post-Cold War world were favorites of military contractors and lobbyists from countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, who have wanted to use the US military as their bludgeon against neighboring powers as well as a continuing source, of unconditional military aid and unrestricted weapons sales.

The eagerness with which Democratic Establishment has embraced the constituency and personnel from the now politically “homeless” moderate Republicans has a lot to do with cementing political and economic ties to a combination of the military-industrial complex and the intelligence bureaucracy, the home to well-educated but paranoia- and right-wing-leaning elites since the Second World War.  Rather than lovable, bumbling moderates, as the former President George W Bush is now portrayed, the combination of the bloated U.S. military apparatus and the intelligence “community” have left a trail of carnage and genocide in mostly developing countries, as they pursued what they, most often erroneously, thought was best for American national interests and American national security.  No reckoning has yet occurred with the multiple failures of the neoconservative project for world domination in its repeated undermining of the security of numerous countries and the international death-toll associated with it, likely reaching over one million in the last 20 years.  The scam of neoconservative theory and practice of American national security is that these elite warmongers have made America and the world much more insecure and kept the US and other countries in a state of permanent war, with most of the carnage visited on citizens of countries other than the United States.

So the softened image of Establishment Republicans that are now being courted by Establishment Democrats and the media outlets that support and also steer their discourse, hides a gruesome and blood-soaked history.  This history will continue to repeat itself either in its current Trumpian version or in a more familiar and also gruesome, blood-soaked form, if Establishment Democrats succeed in becoming the new “moderate” Republicans and neocon warmongers.

A Containment Vessel for Popular Discontent

There clearly is a conflict in conceptions of what the Democratic Party is or could be between, on the one hand, the leadership of the Party, regional Democratic Party machine insiders, the media elites that support them, their ultra-wealthy and corporate donors, and on the other hand, the newly-energized group of progressives that have newly achieved some political positions of some influence or power, in online media, and the Democratic grassroots that is supporting progressive policies and ideas.  The now energized group that has formed in the wake of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign sees the Democratic Party as potentially a vehicle for social changes that are popular among much of the US population, including anti-corruption measures like banning corporate PAC money, instituting Medicare for All, free higher education, and rapid, transformative action on climate change with abundant employment opportunities, a Green New Deal.  Progressives see their vision as being potentially transformative not only in party strongholds but in “purple” and Republican-stronghold areas that are economically struggling.

The new progressive Democrats, some of them affiliated with Justice Democrats, like their New Deal predecessors, are looking at the Party as a potential majoritarian Party that would gain that majority by appealing to popular wishes that involve change in institutions of government and government spending.  This can be termed their “meta-strategy”. They are continuing the radical-reformist/activist tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal era.  Their political strategy is to gain and grow popular and electoral support via advocacy and success in policy implementation of popular policies that will lead to progressive change.  Their approach is logical and based on the principles of the Enlightenment and the various political revolutions of the past several centuries that have created democratic institutions and polities in much of the world.  Historically their views are also well-grounded in past political successes, in that the Democratic Party became a majoritarian party in Congress and, with the exception of moderate, generally pro-New Deal, Republican, Eisenhower from 1953-1961, the Presidency for several decades during and after Roosevelt’s Presidency until 1968.  They represent the impulses that created a majoritarian and powerful political party for the Democrats, even to this day.

From the experience of the last several years, and in particular from the beginning of 2019, it is clear the Democratic Establishment, as represented by Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Tom Perez, Barack Obama, and the Clintons, as well as the media Establishment that exerts influence on them and vice versa, have collectively an entirely different view of the Democratic Party.  One can infer that this view originates or is at least sustained by agreement from the ultra-wealthy and corporate donors that bankroll most of contemporary American politics, as currently enabled by our campaign finance and lobbying laws, and own and/or buy substantial blocks of advertising from media networks. These actors have expressed the political equivalent of rejection and revulsion at the idea of using the Democratic Party as a rational instrument to change US government policy to benefit ordinary Americans.  From a progressive Enlightenment view, or even for that matter, a sentimental view of the modern Democratic Party with its origins in the New Deal, this outright rejection of continuing the legacy of the New Deal in the 21st Century is either immoral, politically stupid or both.

I am proposing here (though I tweeted once about this idea ), that the Democratic elite and the corporate media culture which sustains it treat the Democratic Party as a containment vessel for popular discontent rather than using the Party and popular discontent as forces for change.  Secondarily, they attempt to divert the energies of the discontented base to targets that are unchallenging to the corporate and donor classes.

For those unfamiliar with the term “containment vessel”, nuclear power plants have as a part of their structure a containment vessel within which the nuclear reactions and other potentially dangerous processes take place.  The containment vessel is a large concrete domed housing, the structure of a large building really, the shape of which is often visible from the outside of the plant and can become a symbol, along with the large, hourglass-shaped, steam cooling towers (which are also part of other types thermal power plants), for nuclear power more generally.  The purpose of the containment vessel is to minimize the effects on the surrounding environment and human beings of meltdowns, fires and explosions that might occur if the the high-energy nuclear reactions inside the reactor’s core were to veer out of control.

Building a Virtual Containment Vessel

Unlike the relatively inanimate, though potentially dangerous, core of a nuclear plant, no political party can build a physical walled vessel around its supporters or their discontent.  Nor would a normal political party want to “contain” their activists or their discontent.  After all, the GOP has used and misdirected the discontents of its base and those it misleads into supporting it.  The relative success of the GOP, despite its anti-popular agenda, has depended on mobilizing and misdirecting discontents. 

To contain and neutralize popular discontent, a paradoxical goal for a political Party, the Democratic Party, its donors, allied media organizations and the operatives arrayed around it must create a virtual containment vessel, a “ring fence”, around what defines the party itself and keep out what the party elite finds taboo or define themselves against, i.e. their opposition, while keeping in or neutralizing as much as possible the “dangerous” elements of society and their dangerous feelings.  In the case of the Democratic Party, what is being contained is is more than just a club of like-minded people but are “the pitchforks” (as Barack Obama once put it) or even a pre-revolutionary social movement for change that emerges from street protest, as is now emerging in a number of nations in the world.  Like the Republicans, Democratic Party elites also attempt to divert the discontents of their constituency onto targets that are unthreatening but these diversions have tended not to help the Party as much, as have the Republican diversionary strategies. 

The Democrats’ virtual containment vessel then operates via a combination of the continuous generation and regeneration of both public and private discourse, where “discourse” being the fancy but handy word for organized and semi-organized bodies of language. One of the key components of culture and of human societies more generally is discourse, as by our human natures, we are language-creators and language-users.  The supporting discourses for the Democratic Party internal structure are disseminated via the following means and processes:  interpersonal interactions in real life and on the Internet, broadcast transmissions via airwaves and Internet, the building and maintenance of institutions of the party and, indirectly but very importantly, transmissions by allied media organizations.  Institutions (organizations of people with funding and an address) can give “solidity” and legitimacy to different pieces of discourse, as they can be the publishers of discourse and/or the certifiers of certain discourses as being “respectable” or true.  Those discourses and those institutions sustain real and virtual relationships between people, relationships that are premised on certain assumptions and beliefs.  The media’s role in managing discourse is especially powerful because of their supposedly “objective” role: media editorial or reporting content have more apparent “solidity” than partisan communication itself.

The internal space or containment area of the party can be divided into 4 concentric zones that outline the work that politicians and political operatives do to maintain the strength and identity of the party’s political organization and containment space.  These zones from innermost to outermost are:

  1. High Status/Charisma/Core Ideology Zone –  The party is usually centered on key figures that emanate status and/or charisma, drawing in both the party faithful and some outsiders/new recruits into the party fold.  The high status individuals can be drawn from politics, business, entertainment/celebrity culture, or punditry/academia and draw in followers via displays of charm, money, worldly knowledge or its appearance, political experience and power, connectedness with other high-status individuals and, of course, political or cultural statements (now sometimes originating on social media) that have some popular appeal.  Federal electeds are often part of this zone of the party. For the current Democratic Party, typical high-status/charismatic figures include Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, mega-donors from business and Wall Street, Hollywood stars identified as Democrats.  The new insurgents Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, for instance, have the charisma to be a part of such a zone but their policy and political positions often disagree with Party orthodoxy so they are still peripheral to it.  In theory and sometimes in practice, a party would also be centered on abstract ideas about the future of the society which are compelling, generate their own “charisma”, and are transferable between leaders and among leaders and followers.  The US Democratic Party has in the last several decades been very weak on ideology, i.e. lacking infectious abstract ideas about the future that energize the base and party activists.
  2. Zone of Identity and Reward – Around the high status zone are the party regulars and insiders that gain a substantial sense of personal identity, personal virtue and also emotional and political/financial rewards from being part of the “club” of the party.  They gain a sense of satisfaction in being associated with the party elite and political celebrities while hewing closely to party orthodoxy in terms of policy views.  There is a virtue-signaling component to this membership, in that those who identify strongly with the Party feel that they are morally superior to their opposition. In the current Democratic Party, this group will also act as informal “police” to make sure discourse is within the limits of what the party elite and donors want, while transmitting outward a positive spin on the Party’s identity and political positions such as they are.  As the current Democratic Party is generally weak on ideology, the identity formation and policing functions rely mostly on ad hominem discourse, attributing “good” and “bad” to people and their personal characteristics rather than ideas. For some, discontent can be thus canalized, i.e. channeled, into the theater of castigating the “bad” and celebrating the
  3. Zone of Transgression and Experimentation – A fairly thin transitional zone around the zone of identity is an area in which once taboo political/policy positions, personalities and discourse are introduced into Party discussions for either internal consumption or test sallies into the public sphere.  In this zone, the Party experiments with new ideas and incorporating them into the main Party rhetoric and platforms.  Once a fairly dead and razor-thin zone for Democrats, since the Sanders insurgent campaign of 2015-2016, this zone has been expanded and is a hotbed of new ideas (Election Campaign Finance Reform, Medicare for All, Student Loan Jubilee/Free Public Higher Education, Green New Deal, etc.) that have been adopted by some of the 2020 Presidential candidates, while still being excluded or viewed with suspicion by the DNC, donor-driven think tanks, and the Democratic Congressional leadership.  We are now seeing some of the new ideas from Sanders being watered down within this zone to be possibly absorbed, without too much conflict with the more inward zones of the Party discourse above.
  4. Zone of Taboo/Zone of Exclusion – Finally outside the Zone of Transgression is the zone of taboo ideas or personalities which are considered to be “beyond the pale” and can either be mostly ignored or used as foils to reinforce the “good” central identities of the Party within the containment zone (the three innermost zones).  This is the zone described by anthropologist Mary Douglas as the zone of “danger” in her famous work on taboo and cultural pollution Purity and Danger.  Inside the containment vessel of the party is the zone of “purity” or at least goodness, while outside the vessel is the zone of moral peril and “pollution”, of “badness”.  For the contemporary Democratic Party, certain Republican figures like Trump are definitely as least symbolically within the zone of taboo.  Grassroots progressives and Bernie Sanders are often pushed back and forth between the zone of transgression and the zone of taboo.  As I am highlighting here and by others, those in the zone of taboo are not necessarily consistently opposed and fought, especially by the weak and compliant Democratic Establishment.  The “zone of taboo” is sometimes then just a symbolic zone that is useful for containing “bogeymen” for fundraising purposes.

Political Splitting

The containment vessel of the party is dynamic and one of the actions or dynamics that support it is psychological splitting both inside individuals’s minds and played out in social dynamics.  Splitting is a defense mechanism and one of the fundamental observations and theoretical foundations for the more social-psychologically-oriented object relations school of psychoanalytic thinking originated by Melanie Klein in the 1920’s and 30’s. Politics involves a good bit of splitting which is the exaggerated separation of “good” and “bad” and often attempts to project “bad” outside the self into and onto the “Other”, the opposition. 

The theory behind the phenomenon of splitting is that a fragile sense of “good” is being protected by isolating it from “bad”.  The “bad” or unconscious conflicts from the self are expelled outward onto the external bad object, which is made their representative.  The good people and things the child holds dear are preserved by the separation, because the child is unable to hold good and bad close together. A child has the developmental task of learning good via emulating those they feel are good to them and for them. The classical cultural examples of splitting are contained in children’s fairy tales where evil is exaggerated and good is also exaggerated and cartoonishly represented by uncomplicatedly beneficent or benign figures. The introduction of the concept of splitting as an analytic lens, implies that interpersonal and objective reality are rarely as schematic and purified as in the fairy tale world.  In reality, adults are supposed to be able to evaluate good and bad in more “shades of grey” and alongside each other more closely.

In politics as in adversarial legal procedures (lawsuits, criminal prosecutions), the acting out of (internal psychological) splitting is deployed constantly to appear to purify the self or in-group while making one’s opponents or out-group look bad.  In the zones of the party’s internal structure sketched above, “good” is supposed to radiate from high status and charismatic leaders and/or from ideological precepts, reinforcing the party faithful’s sense of being good people by both belonging to the group and being nearer to the charismatic “good” core of high status and powerful individuals or ideals.  Simultaneously “bad” is projected outwards onto opponents, who are portrayed as causing harm to the world.  Thus splitting serves the political identity function of virtue signaling: we are ipso facto “good” versus the sometimes-exaggerated evil of the opposition.

The projection of bad or attribution of good to the self is not ONLY a distortion or vast over-simplification:  in the case of the Democratic Party, the Republican Party by contrast is doing a lot more evil in the world, if evaluated from some objective stance.  Still both Parties, realistically are doing different kinds of evil in different amounts. In my view, it’s more realistic to say the Republican Party does an order of magnitude greater amount of harm to the world at this point in time than the Democratic Party.  However, despite this imbalance in good and bad, the tendency towards splitting leads to a public discourse in which self-reflection is hard to come by in political life and therefore improvement/reform in ethics or performance of good acts is also made very hard to impossible.  On an individual level, splitting in adults stands almost always in the way of adult growth and self-improvement, as well as deep interpersonal relationships.  Splitting on a group level also stands in the way of political parties growing, learning from their mistakes, and fulfilling their potential to do good in the world.

Michael Hoexter
Michael Hoexter is a climate and energy policy analyst and marketing consultant for energy efficiency and renewable energy, serving individuals, organizations, governments and enterprises. In addition to writing for New Economic Perspectives, he blogs about climate change and energy transformations at www.greenthoughts.us. He is developing a combined climate/energy and full employment policy solution called “the Pedal-to-the-Metal Plan”. He received a Ph.D. in Psychology from University of Michigan and a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *