Monday, February 09, 2004

The President of Projection

This column---mmm, blog I mean--- usually defers politics to the gonzo literati at American Samizat these days, but in the process of making myself available for a backstage role as I usually do at presidential campaign time, I find myself thrust a bit forward, though on a very small stage. Partly because John Kerry's surge in the Democratic pre-nominating contests has been so swift and so complete, he's has no organization in this isolated corner of California. So when I showed for a John Kerry meet-up, I became part of a small core group, and on two occasions (one past, one coming up) the only one available and foolhardy enough to speak for the candidate in public.

Today I found myself on a platform with an actual presidential candidate, though he was a local but prominent candidate for the Green Party nomination. A Democrat like Kerry is more likely to get attacked from the left than the right in this neck of the woods (unless such a candidate actually went into the woods where logging was occurring.) So my remarks and rejoinders took a different trajectory than they normally would elsewhere, especially in this election year. My central argument hasn't changed much since 2000, actually: that I believe in progressive causes, long-term thinking, new ideas, demonstrations and other non-violent actions to advocate and to keep officeholders accountable, and I love the openness and the give and take of the Primary process, but when it comes election time, I become a member of the hiring committee looking at two resumes. One of these two is going to get the job of President. More often than not, I've found the Democratic candidate to represent my beliefs sufficiently, and I've trusted that candidate to be a decent President, while I've found the Republican candidate to be a mortal threat to civilization and (as the Klingons would say) without honor. As they have so often turned out to be, I might add.

This year is different only in the number of candidates in the primaries I could have cheerfully supported (even apart from their supreme virtue in not being G.W. Bush) and the fact that the one of them who is going to be the nominee, John Kerry, is so utterly right for the moment. So my support is definitely not "lesser-of-two-evilism" (as the Green candidate dubbed it.) Kerry's presidency could transform this country at the moment it needs it the most, and I frankly am astonished at our good luck so far.

But the point of this column (and by that of course I mean blog) is not to praise John Kerry or recapitulate my remarks of today (nor rehearse my remarks for next Sunday's county Democratic convention) but to offer a few meandering thoughts about how people seem to view the presidency, and how that might influence their voting behavior.

It's said that George Washington fled the presidency because he was afraid people were going to try to make him king. The pomp and circumstance of royalty is powerful even in a democracy (powerful enough that our chief teenage rite of passage is the prom, and we insist on royal treatment for our major transitions of marriage and funeral.) But there is also the deep history of kings as mystical figures. The king as personification of the nation is only part of it. Their blood gives them the divine right to rule because kings had direct connection to God, the first proof of which was that the crops grew. If they didn't, the king was killed. Later that practice was amended so the king could substitute a fool, a kind of scapegoat, in his place for the ritual sacrifice.

Later the one King became identified with the one God. And so as Alan Watts said, "In the United States we are in a serious social and political conflict because we think we ought to be living in a republic when the great majority of citizens believe the universe is a monarchy."

Today pomp and circumstance has been augmented by celebrity, and the mystical identification enhanced by the enormous power the president of the U.S. represents. So mix all this together and you've got a powerful if bewildering and contradictory set of expectations, on all kinds of levels.

I began to see all this is a particular way during the first days of the Clinton administration. Partly that had to do with it being Clinton, a Democrat who came along not a moment too soon after 12 years of Republican destruction; and especially that he was almost exactly my age (In fact, I am six weeks older) and roughly the age of my contemporaries. And partly it had to do with some new conceptual tools I acquired or let's say adapted from C.G. Jung, at about the same time.

That Clinton was our age made identifying with him to some degree pretty natural. It was interesting to note how differently it played out. I think it made all of us reevaluate our lives, and not too cheerfully, since he was President and we weren't. But it really bothered some men my age, including some far more successful than I. Some of them realized it, but I think a lot did not. They were hostile to Clinton without quite knowing why. But if you listened to them, you knew why, basically.

This comparison kind of identification is more broadly a kind of projection, which is one of those conceptual tools. Many people projected their expectations onto Clinton, not because he was our age but because he was our President. He was supposed to represent and fulfill our hopes and dreams, in every way, all the time. I began noticing it so much that I began calling him the President of Projection.

It seems true of any president. But why? Another tool came in handy to answer that. This part may be a bit offensive, though (if you aren't offended already.) I've been something of an amateur political junkie for many years. But I know that most people don't follow politics or statecraft, or what got to be called the "policy wonk" stuff (also in the Clinton years.) (In previous years we just called it "government" or "issues.") Yet everyone has opinions, and if they don't, they'll make one up when asked by an acquaintance or a pollster.

Jung's theory of functions says we each have predominant ways of perceiving things. Besides being more extraverted or more introverted, we primarily favor our thinking, feeling (or evaluating), sensation or intuition. During our lives we develop that function to be quite sophisticated and discriminating. Often we develop a second and sometimes a third function. But almost never the fourth. And that "inferior" function becomes our Achilles heel when it finally becomes activated, because we react very strongly, and even with great certainty, yet our perceptions aren't very sophisticated and we are prone to make huge errors. The classic example is the plot of "The Blue Angel." The professor (the thinking man) who falls in love with a beautiful woman (through his sensations) and makes a complete fool of himself, and destroys his life. Thanks to his powerful sensations, he can't think straight. He couldn't have been fooled by a weak argument, but he couldn't tell he was being used by a woman he felt was the love of his life. Another example is Daisy Buchanan's husband in The Great Gatsby, a former athlete, apparently a sensation type but definitely not a thinker, who talks enthusiastically about a book that "scientifically proves" the white race is superior. He is taken in through his inferior function of thinking.

How I applied this to politics is perhaps a little roundabout (since it doesn't apply to the functions directly) but it makes sense to me. The basic insight that does apply is that we're apt to get hooked and suddenly most strongly about subjects we aren't used to dealing with, that we aren't sophisticated about.

People feel very strongly, but their feelings lead them to indiscriminate conclusions, because they haven't developed their powers of perceiving the reality of political situations. Now that doesn't mean people who don't read political journals are therefore going to be wrong about a candidate or an issue. Nor does it mean that people who follow every Senate vote or blip in the polls are capable of seeing the forest for the trees. It just explains to me how people can have such strong feelings about things they admittedly don't know much about. It's a combination of this inferior function idea, and the idea of projection. The President is supposed to be perfect, and when he's not, we're devastated.

This possibly accounts for some of the predisposition of people to have the same knee-jerk reactions when their "hot buttons" are pushed. Republicans have made a living on this for over 20 years, by labeling every Democrat they don't like as liberal soft on crime perpetrators of class warfare, who hate America, don't share "our" values, and will leave America defenseless. Not to mention bleeding heart baby killers who won't let kids pray. Who want to raise your taxes (even though they say they just want to put back the taxes on the wealthy Bush took away.)

On the other side, at primary time some left of center voters in Democratic primaries have been ready to turn up their noses at anyone who doesn't emphasize the exact issue they care about the most, or who don't talk like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader on the stump. I think it's possible to support a candidate you don't agree with 100%, and even if you believe Chomsky and Nader, maybe a candidate who has been a Senator or Governor or both for a few decades and has talked to professional pols, scholars and scientists, and voters from every walk of life and leaders from other nations and cultures, might know a thing or two they don't.

Then of course sometimes people react to knowing they don't know much about what's going on by throwing up their hands and saying I guess those people know what they're doing. Which can be even worse. But the problem that Democrats usually face at primary time is the nitpicking demand for perfection, and the projection. Picking a candidate is not a bloodless process, of course. It requires some sort of emotional commitment, bond, even identification. But when it becomes unconscious projection, it can become dangerous.

But the early Clinton years also evoked another response from some of my contemporaries. Because they had similar jobs by then---in some sort of executive capacity, say, perhaps even in government, though on a different level and different scale---they understood that just like them, the President had 24 hours in a day, at least some of which had to be devoted to sleep, rest and family. He could not do things by magic. Like them, he had to deal with impossible demands, deadlines, subordinates who screwed up, intrigues, betrayals, bureaucratic bungling, incompetence, vicious rivalries, and ordinary human problems. Not to mention competing priorities, mixed messages, competing and conflicting interests, head colds, and muscle strains from exercising because of sudden weight gain. In other words, they were more forgiving, and less liable to project king-like expectations, because they identified with what they imagined was a similar situation, though worse (and of course in some ways, a lot better.)

We don't have to study the Congressional Record to develop some sophistication in judging our leaders. We're going to hear a lot in the coming campaign about this Kerry vote or that Kerry vote in the Senate, and out of context some of them are going to sound bad. Most will be distortions and lies, but let's say some aren't: Could they be seen as mistakes? Or will people judge them out of proportion, as huge failings? And will they judge proportionately to the enormity of taking a nation to war on false pretenses, or decimating the lives of millions to make some rich people richer? I guess we'll find out. My own sense is that this country may be turning a corner on a lot of nonsense it used to swallow, at the same time that projection is not so severe to be blinding.

I don't know if George Bush is evil or a bad man, and I don't care. I care if he uses evil means to deceive the public. I care if he's wrong. I care if the reigning Republicans are so cynical that they have utter contempt for the voters, which I believe they do. But I'm not looking to marry any of them anyway. I'm looking to hire a President to lead this country in the right direction, and do some things that badly need to be done, or there won't be much of a future for Democrats or (most) Republicans, and especially if we're including the climate crisis, for Christians, French, bears, dogs and cats, and possibly wildflowers.