Politics Left and Right

I once read that the psychological profile of a policeman and an habitual criminal are remarkably similar. This says something important about policemen or about criminals — or about psychological profiling! It may be the latter, but I have always thought there is a  resemblance in so many ways between the types of persons who are attracted to either end of the political extremes — right or left. In reading about those on the far right recently, I was struck once again by their resemblance to those on the far left.

In an article he wrote to distinguish political conservatives from those on the far right of the political spectrum, Mike Lofgren paints a rather frightening picture of right-wing personality types. Those on the far right “lack compassion.” Further, they are single-minded to the point of blindness. As Lofgren notes, “their minds appear to have no more give and take than that of a terrier staring down a rat hole.” That is, their thinking (such as it is) tends toward what logicians call “bifurcation,” all issues are either black or white — and of course their own view is white. This, coincidentally, explains the popularity of such ideologues as Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh. In this regard, they are anti-intellectual to a fault, suspicious of anyone who uses their mind, and while many call for the dissolution of government in the name of “freedom,” they really want protection and, of course, laws that prohibit things they find distasteful. As Lofgren notes in this regard, “Freedom is his prerogative to rid himself of people who are different, or who unsettle him. [Ironically] freedom is merging into a like-minded herd. Right-wing alchemy transforms freedom into authoritarianism.”

We might tend to think attitude toward authority is one point that separates the anarchist from the right-winger, the former rejecting out of hand anyone who is in a position of authority, the right-winger clinging to those strong leaders who will protect them. But not so. Both exhibit what psychologists characterize as “the Fascist personality.”

The fascist personality was described by Wilhelm Reich in 1933 as one who “craves authority and rebels against it at the same time.” This could describe folks on either extreme of the political spectrum: they follow blindly any ideologue who seems willing to lead them where they want to go — wherever that might happen to be.  Most, if not all, of the personality traits attributed to right-wingers by Lofgren can be applied to those on the far left as well. While we tend to think of those on the far left as “loners,” psychologists such as Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman who have studied the anarchistic personality point out that these people exhibit “an inverted form of authoritarian personality.” They both crave and hate authority. One begins to see indications of the narcissistic personality here.

Most interesting is the consideration that while right-wingers are “joiners” and those on the far left tend to be loners, both are attracted to strong personality types and willingly follow orders unthinkingly. In fact, the word “unthinking” applies equally to both types of personality.

While those on the political left wing seem preoccupied with a single political issue, usually what they call the “right to bear arms,” those on the far right focus on one narrow political issue as well, namely abortion or what they call “the right to life” — while they cheer speeches that promote executions of those on death row or “the prospect of someone dying without health insurance.” Consistency is not a feature of the mindset on either political extreme. Once again, we are back to the fact that neither personality type thinks at all: they just follow their emotions wherever they lead, and attach themselves to the nearest authority figure who pledges to deliver them to the promised land.

Estimates vary as to how many of these types occupy the political stream, but those on the far right could be as high as 40% of those who identify themselves as “Republicans,” though “in some key political contests, such as the Iowa caucuses, the percentage is closer to 60%.” Whatever the percentage, they are very well-organized and have considerable political clout. Those on the far left are anything but organized and tend to withdraw from the political stream altogether and become reclusive, banding together in small, anti-social groups (but note, once again, the inconsistency. In this case the  tendency to reject social groups while becoming a member of a group).

In a word, the people at both ends of the political extremes of this country resemble one another more than they differ. And, despite the fact that we tend to use words like “conservative” and “liberal” without really knowing what they mean, we should not confuse those on the political extremes as belonging to either group. They are a breed apart — or together, if you prefer.