Pathology of the Will: A Theory of the Contemporary Right Wing in America – Part 1

Posted on November 4, 2011


[This is the first of two parts of this post.  A full PDF version can be downloaded via this link.]

There are puzzling aspects of the contemporary American right wing which make it difficult for those on the progressive end of the spectrum to understand them.  The right-wing seems to be both incredibly stupid and short-sighted but at the same time clever enough to have gained towering political advantages.  When comparing politicians of the Right and the Center-Left, those on the Right seem to have a cunning and drive to win which has been lacking among those who would nominally be competing with them from the Democratic Party.  Some of this is the responsibility of the Left and the Democratic Party(which for the most part cannot be confused with the Left) but some of the success of the Right is due to a combination of its own strengths and weaknesses.

There is in the left-ward part of the public sphere in the United States a discourse of scornful dismissal of the Right that I believe underestimates the Right’s appeal and political power.  The pundits of the American Left point out the ludicrous and/or deceitful utterances and writings of the leaders and think tanks of the Right but, so far, hammering on these themes hasn’t seemed to have had a major effect on political discourse as a whole.  The Left’s “critique” of the Right hasn’t, in my mind, quite “hit home” yet in a way that will push the political discourse beyond its current state.  Luckily there are social movements now, like Occupy Wall Street, which seem to be pushing political discourse in a positive direction for progressives, though we don’t know how long their effects will last.

The Right’s access to its own media network, to the mainstream media, to wealthy patrons and corporate purses shouldn’t be discounted in this or any analysis.  It is not solely by virtue of its messages or appeal that the right-wing is able to win elections but also through its alliance with very powerful interests.  The Right can more easily flood media channels with its “spin” of current events, leading voters and the public to believe messages that go against their own interests.  There are also now ostensibly “neutral” media sources, like Politico, that subtly and not so subtly introduce a Right-wing “frame” into almost every story.  Even the supposedly liberal New York Times has numerous reporters that uncritically regurgitate the “frame” of the Right on economic issues, including agitating for fiscal austerity via seemingly factual arguments.

As well, there are powerful groups within the Democratic Party and the current Presidential Administration that validate some of the core messages and values of the Right without the Right’s more florid and eccentric touches.  These “centrist” or “Third Way” admirers of the Right appear to be in tacit agreement with aspects of right-wing philosophy while expressing distaste for its cruder expressions.  As Ari Berman points out, there is a bipartisan “austerity class” that now rules much of Washington, which reinforces a right-wing message on most economic issues and supports the image of a profligate government as the cause of our economic ills.  President Obama, in general, has attempted to show himself to be a better, though perhaps more moderate, Republican in much of his domestic policy as well as foreign policy:  unless forced by circumstance, Obama prefers to run for re-election as a fiscal conservative and a grim fighter of terrorists and others by military means.  Having committed himself and his party to fiscal contraction in August of this year, it appears as though we may be headed for another general economic contraction as well.  The current “pivot” to job creation seems forced upon Obama by circumstances rather than embraced as a mission.

The first two years of efforts at “one upping” the Republicans on the part of the Obama Administration has caused more damage to the Democrats in Congress than to Obama himself and led to lost opportunities to push economic recovery rather than to chase the virtues of a cost-cutter.  Using their substantial resources as well as the Tea Party movement, the Republican Right was able to turn the landslide election of Obama in 2008 after 8 years of an increasingly unpopular Republican Presidency into a rout in the 2010 midterm elections, effectively pinning down Obama and the Democrats.  I believe President Obama bears a large portion of the responsibility for the defeat of his fellow Democrats but nevertheless the Republicans and their Tea Party allies were able to make a credible-enough case for themselves that their shortcomings were not noticed by “protest” voters.

What is it, if not political power, if the roundly defeated Republicans of 2006 and 2008, whose President and agenda helped crash the world economy in 2007-8 can largely determine the economic and political agenda of government in 2011?

Some Existing Theories of the Contemporary American Right’s Ideology and Successes

I have found existing theories of the American Right’s thinking and successes helpful but not entirely satisfying, in part because they are missing a description of the motivational core for ideological commitment to the Right beyond narrow individual self-interest.  To use these valid analyses of non-motivational elements to effect political change, our portrait of the Right should provide opponents of the agenda of the right-wing with tools that can persuade those susceptible to the Right’s appeals that they ought to change some of their opinions, political actions, or voting behavior.  While some of the commonly-discussed ideas listed below I find to be partially or completely true, they do not yet characterize the differences between progressive Democrats or the independent Left and the Republican Right clearly enough in my opinion.

  1. Right-wing ownership of key media channels/favorable bias to the Right in mainstream media channels (contrary to assertions of the Right that they are disadvantaged in the mainstream media)
  2. Alliance with the most powerful and richest lobbies/industries/individuals
  3. The most comprehensive network of think tanks generating favorable and propagandistic analyses for right-wing causes.
  4. Strategy that plays on the resentments of lower and middle-income suburban and rural whites that have existed for the past half century regarding government’s attention or lack thereof to their concerns.
  5. Strategy that plays on latent (and open) racism in parts of the American electorate (not the same as “4”).
  6. Rightward trend in law and the social sciences centered upon the influence of neoclassical economics, with domination of economic policy by the related market fundamentalist creed.
  7. The Right can ally itself with other dissatisfied groups because it has always been overtly and covertly counter-revolutionary rather than conservative of the status quo.  While claiming conservatism, the counter-revolution the right-wing seeks is against the Enlightenment and Populist, Progressive, and New Deal Era reforms. (Corey Robin)
  8. The American political system is increasingly corruptible by large quantities of money, of which the Right has had more access to than the Left.
  9. The Right draws on durable libertarian, anti-government strains in American culture more effectively than the American Center and Left.
  10. The Right allies itself with Americans’ wish to deny climate change, signs of economic decline, and threats to America’s hegemony.
  11. The Right allies itself with American anti-intellectualism and takes advantage of the poor quality of factual information in the American media and education systems.
  12.  Those on the Right tend to have a more authoritarian personality, meaning a heightened preoccupation with threats and death while having an affinity for the narrative of crime and punishment, for hierarchy, and for order.

Many of these are interesting theories and together would explain more than enough of the Right’s success.  Still, from this list, I believe we don’t yet have a coherent picture of who the Right are as people and how these might fit together. I hope below to offer a picture that may organize our views of what unifies and motivates the Right.

A Pathology of the Will

Accepting many of the above factors as relevant, from my observations I believe that many leaders on the contemporary American Right and key segments of their constituency suffer from an excess of willfulness relative to their political rivals if not the general population.  This willfulness is pathological as it causes suffering and undermines their ability to reason both on an individual level and to participate in reasoned discourse on a public level more generally. Their “pathology of the will” is a product of deep misunderstandings that may or may not be the product of psychological disorder.  All of us have had episodes of or instances of willfulness in our lives, especially during our earlier years; the Right has created a political subculture within which willfulness has become normalized in adults yet creates a great deal of suffering.

Suffering from this pathology, their wishes as a political group overwhelm their perceptions of the external world and ability to act effectively as political leaders or opinion-leaders for society as a whole (which is perhaps not their goal).  The Right doesn’t necessarily have “more” wishes but it sees those wishes, falsely, as being always endangered by powerful others, against which they must assert their will as a counter-force.  The expression of their wishes is “willful” in that the Right claims to want things because other people (usually a real or imagined “Left”) want different things.  For them, politics is exclusively an interpersonal struggle between political factions with little or no reference to the world as it exists today or a shared world that can be perceived and worked upon constructively together.   The ultimate effect of this politics, is that like other willful people, the Right “threatens to cut off its own nose to spite its face”, as the act of defiance leads to destruction of the basis of the society from which they have handsomely benefited.

The label of “willfulness” is not often applied to adult behavior but as it turns out, it is, I believe, a central trait of the political Right and many of their allies.  The term willfulness has a more pejorative cast than related words like “stubbornness” or “strong-willed”; the willful would probably prefer to think of their willfulness as being “strong-willed” or “stubborn” because they can be construed more easily as positive traits.  “Willfulness” however emphasizes wanting as defiance of others as well as implies a certain pleasure in defiance more than “stubbornness” or “having a strong-will”.  To be willful means that the content of one’s wishes are reactive to what other people want.

Unfortunately the negative effects of willfulness are observed most and felt most by those who are around the willful rather than by willful people themselves.  Therefore those who suffer from excessive willfulness may inflict suffering more on others, at least temporarily, rather than directly on themselves. One fiction that willful people assume is that damage to other people (their opponents as well as those who disagree with them) is an unalloyed benefit to themselves, as we are all trapped, in their view, in a deadly and suffocating rivalry.

Despite the word’s pejorative cast, the tendency toward willfulness on the contemporary Right can yield personal and group benefit in certain aspects of life, though often on a temporary basis.  In zero-sum games, of which there are many in business, being willful, even excessively so, can lead to personal or “team” benefit, as you may be able to win the “prize” from others by being prepared to assert your will  more readily and with less focus on “distracting” factors exterior to the transaction itself.  Entrepreneurs and inventors can sometimes benefit from a degree of willfulness, as they are likely to receive criticism for being different and could via willful defiance gain energy from those criticisms (the more “naysayers” the better).  However in non zero-sum cooperative games that one often encounters as a politician, the excessively willful are largely at sea, as they do not perceive the overall benefit of cooperation, seeing in cooperation a ruse by a cunning competitor.  Politics during a systemic crisis, like the one we are experiencing now, is one of the non zero-sum games for which most on the Right, as well as those who emulate the Right, are abysmally ill-equipped.

Signs of the Pathology:

  1. Government as Pure Infringement on Individual Will – Portions of the Right are intently focused on the possibility now and in the future, even if highly unlikely, that government might impose on them a regulation that infringes upon their will to dispose of property in a certain way or that they must pay taxes, which by definition are a limitation on the will of taxpayers to expend money that comes into their accounts.  The contemporary Right has built its politics around the notion that our individual wishes, in particular as regards property or personal wishes “sanctioned” by social conservatives, should meet no impediment from society at large, as represented by government.  Thereby the Right ignores and denies the unavoidable compromises of individual will involved in people having to live in society with other people with conflicting wishes and agendas, as well as the shared, common tasks of a complex society.  In this, the Right start from the American ideal of individual freedom (i.e. that social condition which enables the exercise of will) and take it to an extreme:  any suggestion or hint that one’s will could be in the future infringed upon or imposed upon becomes a cause for outcry and insurrectionary fervor.  However, the Right’s sensitivity to infringements upon the individual will by government are hypocritically reversed to a prohibitive stance when individuals wish certain things of which they disapprove or which they perceive as against their interests (union membership, contraception, abortion, homosexuality).
  2. No Operative Definition of “Greed” — A correlate to “1” above, the contemporary Right has no operative definition of “greed” or another moral limit to pursuit of narrow material self-interest.  Greed is a sub-species of will/desire oriented toward the acquisition of and consumption of material goods without an upper limit.  The Right resists putting a limit on acquisitive interest in part because of its excess of willfulness and distorts the theory of Adam Smith among others to accord with this individual and cultural tendency.  The Right’s resistance to limits on acquisitiveness or appetite may or may not be due to any difference in appetite to acquire or consume but rather stem additionally from the fear that this drive will be shaped, curtailed or controlled by other people.  The examples of command economies like the Soviet Union’s or Cuba’s are trotted out by the Right to reinforce its view that having a definition of greed is tantamount to being a dictator who would deprive them of their ambition to acquire goods and assets.
  3. Reflexive Lying – While some accuse the Right of lying out of economic interest, this explanation “skips a few steps” and may not apply to some “true believers”.  Of course, many right-wing operatives are well-paid by powerful interests to “say anything” and are acutely aware of who are their wealthy “friends”.  But even if a representative of the Right may think, “my patrons will be mad if I tell the truth” or “my patrons will want me to lie for them”, it requires willfulness to openly and continually lie, flouting the basic social rule of discourse that one endeavors to tell the truth.  The philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s invention of the concept of “bullshit” to describe speech and writing that is produced without regard for its truthfulness is a retreat from holding speakers and writers to a standard of truthfulness.  The Right, individually and collectively, must be convinced that their own interests and views trump these standards of truthfulness in order to lie habitually.  It helps, of course, that these interests and views are shared by a right-wing political eco-system and constituency, so it is not simply an individual exertion of will to deny facts.
  4. Winning at All Costs/Sense of Entitlement to Hold Power – Again, in accord with habitual lying, the notion that one can and should bend the rules of “fair play” to one’s own advantage is almost a dictionary definition of “willfulness”.  The tactical brilliance of the Right can for the most part be accounted for by leading right-wing tacticians’ (Frank Luntz, Karl Rove, etc.) willingness to flout rules.  In the 2000 election, Bush’s team outmaneuvered the Gore team as they felt along with their allies that their will should prevail no matter what was fair.  Again there is a belief that one’s own interests trump those of society as a whole or alternatively that there is an identity between one’s own interests and those of society as a whole.
  5. Denial of Scientific Authority and Inconvenient Scientific Results – Denial of scientific authority and scientific fact, a close relative of habitual lying, stems directly from excessive willfulness or willful ignorance.  Science requires a continual checking of the connections between statements and reality as does telling the truth on a regular basis in non-scientific settings.  Many on the Right wish that scientific facts were different, in particular regarding climate change, depletion of fossil fuels, as well as the theory of evolution.  They feel that they can bend facts or hold out hope that climate change and fossil fuel depletion do not exist.  To accept unpleasant scientific facts like these means that one is accepting a limit to one’s will:  one cannot “will away” these uncomfortable “inconvenient” facts.   Furthermore, not being consistently anti-technological, the Right is only too happy to benefit from whatever scientific advances are convenient or gratifying to them.  Thus the Right hopes to willfully structure science according to its own convenience and worldview.
  6. Preference for Closure of Cognitive Schemas ( Mental “Stories”) –  Related to lying and denial of science, the contemporary Right seems to be particularly prone to the closure of cognitive schemas (i.e the underlying plot of typical stories that we tell about the world) against the complexity of the world.   Some people have called this “epistemic closure”.  Everybody relies on schemas, i.e. mental frameworks inherited from our culture and language, to organize their perception of the world and create narratives about how the world works.  In politics these schemas are the operative structure of political ideologies.  Some people are constitutionally more “Open to Experience” and able to change their minds and modify their stories based on experience.  Both Right and Left tend to rely on ideological schemas but the contemporary Right seems to be particularly anti-empirical in its approach to reality even though empiricism itself is neither Left nor Right.  As schemas are in part, self-chosen and more amenable to one’s own will, the Right’s preference for asserting the dominance of their preferred cognitive schemas over perceptual and empirical reality is in part an act of will.
  7. Disbelief in Social Cooperation – Fundamental to the political program of the Right is a competition-only view of social interactions, in particular transactions involving economic stakes of any kind.  The choice of competition is based in part on neoclassical economic theory, which erroneously provides justification for a competition-only view.  A plausible explanation for individual preferences for competition-only theories is explained by the excessive willfulness hypothesis:  seeing the social world as constituted only by competition means there is a projection of their own excessive willfulness onto others in daily transactions.  If everybody is assumed to be as willful as the Right, competition will always be fierce and the dominant principle of social interaction.   The willful are at least in the beginning of many contests at an advantage, as they are more likely to start fighting harder for their own advantage from the start or even before a formal competition starts.
  8. Willful Defiance of Harmonizing/Beatific Morality – While some right-wingers claim a strict adherence to religious teaching and virtues, there is a substantial portion of the Right that focuses on skewering the good intentions of the Left and others who hope to change the world for the better through moral persuasion and advocacy of peace over war.  While it may be that the Right is rejecting these moral principles as “foreign” or “wrong” on intellectual grounds, most on the Right in the US declare themselves to be Christians, a religion with strong elements of harmonizing, beatific morality.   Given the energetic, seemingly personally motivated nature of the attacks on an often trivial basis, it seems likely that many on the Right are attempting to inoculate themselves against feeling shamed by what they semi-consciously recognize as legitimate moral claims.  The mocking of good intentions of the left, a staple of right-wing radio talk shows, for instance, has the character of a willful defiance, similar to what one might find in some school-age children or adolescents.  While understandable in young people trying to differentiate from elders, in the adults on the Right it has a regressive quality, as it appears that they do not want to deal seriously with the issues raised by moral claims regarding, for instance, the desirability of human equality or peace.  Philosophically they may have a personal preference for war or human inequality but are not willing, are not able or do not have the courage to make reasoned arguments in favor of what they believe is “right” or at least right for them.
  9. Making a Fetish of Markets – In addition to being a site of competition between sellers and buyers, markets are known to harness the wishes, the will, of consumers, and sometimes this harnessing of the will produces surprising and pleasing outcomes for consumers.  However markets are not magic and do not produce all required goods and services for a functioning society.  More than anyone else the very rich have the most “magical” experience in markets as they have more means to purchase goods.  The contemporary Right however speaks of markets as if they are magical wish-fulfillment mechanisms for all, willfully disregarding or ignoring the need for government to supply public goods and protections for the general welfare.  So the Right engages in willful disregard of the limits of markets while worshiping their ability to conform to the individual will, at least in theory, though in practice working most “magically” for the well-to-do.
  10. Identification with the Wealthiest -  One of the functions of wealth, in particular great wealth, is that one has the experience of seeing one’s will realized more than the average person via paying money for various goods, services, and assets or using one’s economic position to gain various favors of non-monetary value.  Thus great wealth enables one to achieve, at least in terms of the fantasy of many, a private “paradise”, designed according to one’s own will.  The Right’s identification with the wealthiest is in part due to the patronage of some wealthy people but additionally great wealth provides the non-wealthy Right with a fantasy world of life lived “willfully”.
  11. Worship of Displays of Will in Leaders – Most political constituencies are looking for strong leaders but particularly on the contemporary Right, the ideal leader must be a caricature of willful strength, demonstrated often via various “toughness” displays.  To appear to comply with the rules of others too studiously, as it appears that both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama do, is considered to be a sign of weakness.  Strength of will as a trait is more important than cleverness or intelligence for the Right; stubbornly ignoring reality and knowledge is a positive sign for many Right wing voters.  The adoration directed at Chris Christie, despite indications that his social views were to the left of many in the Republican base, was in part a worship of his willful disregard for the appearance of being considerate or “nice”.  Hermann Cain, despite indications that he would lose in a Presidential election, has been given a wide berth from the Right in part because of his displays of willfulness with regard to his handling by the media.

I believe the above characteristics accurately describe individually or in aggregate tendencies in the behavior of the contemporary Right leadership as well as the constituency of the Right.

An Individual or Group Pathology?  Or both?

Categorizing individuals is a risky business, especially using words that might have a connection to a psychiatric diagnosis, some form of “deviance” from social norms, and/or recommendation for mental health treatment.   “Excessive willfulness” alone is not intended here as the diagnosis of a mental disorder but rather a personality characteristic along a continuum that may or may not be related to a mental disorder in any given individual.

Excessive willfulness is an attribute that has some helpful but also many troubling aspects that are not well acknowledged or recognized.  In the next section, I will show how it itself is connected as symptom to established diagnoses which we know can lead to some benefits but also social and personal difficulties for individuals.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, there is a facilitating environment on the Right which encourages willfulness, so we see a cultural phenomenon that may either off-load or reinforce individual tendencies or preferences for willfulness.  People are more likely to do things if they feel others in their social group will agree with them or even applaud them.  As an example, Rep. Joe Wilson’s outcry of “You lie!” during Obama’s 2009 address to Congress can be viewed as a product of an environment on the Right where such an outcry (it was itself a lie as well as being disrespectful to the office of the Presidency) would receive approval.  Additionally that outcry is a sign of an excessive willfulness on the part of Joe Wilson himself as such an utterance would probably not be planned or coordinated by the group; he had it within himself to fabricate this offensive manner of speaking, re-defining what Obama was saying and his own right to speak at that point in an entirely willful manner.  Furthermore, the Right is not a homogenous group, so there may be individuals who emphatically do not display the Right’s willfulness but nevertheless identify with the willful strength of leaders in the Right.

So the excessive willfulness of the Right is then not just an individual psychological but a psychosocial phenomenon:   it is a culture of excessive willfulness with both individual and broadly social roots.  Most troubling though are the magnification of the destructive effects of individual willfulness via the political vehicles and organizations of the Right.  The function of the Right’s political organizations, while it may be unintentionally “therapeutic” for individuals within it, is massively destructive to the future well-being of those individuals, their children, and the society and physical environment in which they live.