Pathology of the Will: A Theory of the Contemporary Right-Wing in America Part 2

Posted on November 6, 2011


In the first part of this post, I made the case that the contemporary American Right suffers an excess of willfulness, which I described via 11 “signs” or behavioral trends.  In this part I continue by exploring connections between an excess of will and established diagnoses of mental suffering.   A full PDF version can be downloaded here.

Extremes of Willfulness in Individuals

Many on the Right will probably not qualify for a diagnosis of a mental disorder more than other segments of the population but many on the Right share the characteristic of excessive willfulness with a few of psychiatric diagnoses and syndromes in children and adults.

ODD, Conduct Disorder and Sociopathy

While the American mental health system “Bible” the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-Text Revision (DSM IV-TR) lists an “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” (ODD) for young children, there is no equivalent for adults, as open behavioral defiance as a rigid pattern can be an outgrowth of early childhood dependence on adults and early environment.  However, ODD can develop into “Conduct Disorder”, which involves continual defiance of social rules, law-breaking, sometimes cruelty to animals, and often physical harm inflicted on others.  Finally, some with Conduct Disorder, “graduate” to “Anti-Social Personality Disorder” (ASPD)which is the current technical name for sociopathy/psychopathy, i.e. people who engage in ruthless and criminal behavior with no seeming compunction.   There are sociopaths in politics, in boardrooms, and in the general public as well as engaged in common criminality. Some believe sociopaths or psychopaths are more severe forms of ASPD.

While sociopathy is not confined to the Right, the culture of the Right would provide a mask for some symptoms of sociopathy and thereby also facilitate certain types of criminality and legal anti-social behavior:  there is an almost unlimited allowance on the Right for lying, for “will to power”, and there is a standing “excuse” for greed and unlimited self-enrichment.  The Right believes in an atomized society of independent, quasi-isolated individuals and families where what lies or falls between these social “islands” is either “waste” to be cut away or a target for domination or exploitation.  These cultural/philosophical tenets make it actually more difficult to expose the Right’s sociopathic tendencies as the Right’s economic philosophy normalizes sociopathic traits, like lack of empathy and ruthless disregard for others.   For instance, the belief in unregulated markets normalizes caveat emptor as deceitfulness and manipulation by market actors can be written off as “the way of the world”.  Fraud, especially white collar fraud, is normalized.

Those confronted with criminal psychology are faced often with the question whether a certain criminal is a complete sociopath with no feeling for others or expresses anti-social traits facilitated by an organized criminal milieu.  The fictional crime families like “The Sopranos” or “the Corleones” one sees depicted in film and for which one feels some sympathy usually are depicted as the latter group intermixed with some real sociopaths.  If we take seriously Corey Robin’s contention that those on the Right have always been counterrevolutionaries targeting the Enlightenment and modernity itself, anti-social attitudes and defiance of social norms would then also be considered normal and moral by the Right within its milieu.  Expressed recently by conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza is the attitude that conservatives must destroy our current society from the root level, and be “temperamentally radical”.   So while a few on the Right may be of the “lone sociopath” variety, far more are likely to show “anti-social traits” shared with a like-minded group, directed often at those on the outside of that organization who viewed as the equivalent of  a rival gang, “marks” or the “Feds”.

Paranoia and Paranoid Personality

Another diagnosis within which willfulness plays a critical role is Paranoid Personality Disorder as well as the variety of more disturbed mental states within which paranoia is a central experience.   Those with a paranoid tendency or personality are in a constant struggle in their minds for power and control, seeing life as a contest of wills between them and powerful others, some of whom are real and, in those who are more disturbed, some who are imagined.  Suspiciousness and an ongoing sense of personal slight, an expansive sense of personal rights continually under attack, and victimhood characterize PPD.  Willful behavior and contrariness can be a central characteristic of paranoid people, who seek to oppose others as a means of gaining control.   Those who are paranoid may feel that they are weak in comparison to others and justified in “lashing out” either verbally or physically to maintain their own integrity and ward off the attack of their seemingly highly organized and more powerful “opposition”.

Paranoia is one of the mental and cultural “home-bases” of the Right, though on the radical Left there can also be paranoid tendencies.  The Right’s evocation of a continual marginalization and victimization by what it believes to be an all-powerful Left establishment and by government is consonant with the general paranoid tendency within the Right. Government is anyway an object of paranoid worry and fantasy in the general population.  Even when the Right is in control of government, many on the Right continue to harp on what they feel to be the power of their opposition or the “liberal elite”.  Just as paranoid people are prone to lash out unexpectedly, the political Right in power is more likely to engage in spasms of warlike aggression directed towards other nations, often based on slim or no provocation.

Projection of one’s own hostility onto others is one theory of paranoia.  The Right’s tendency towards projection, or at least imputing its own failings onto its opponents preemptively has actually been a powerful weapon, calling for instance, its opponents “fascists”, when the actions and ideology of the Right are generally closer to Fascism than its opponents.   Portraying President Obama as Hitler has been a staple of far Right discourse over the last two years.

Passive-Aggressive Personality

Under debate for decades as a formal personality disorder in psychiatric nomenclature, most clinicians recognize a set of traits that are not very amenable to treatment that they call “passive-aggressive”.  Characterized by willful resistance to the wishes of others or social conventions in ways that are for the most part “passive” or relatively covert, people with passive aggressive personalities seem to enjoy or at least have a habit of interrupting the plans of others, disrupting their own successes seemingly out of spite, or sincere efforts by others to help them.

In general, one doesn’t think of the contemporary Right has having an affinity for Passive Aggressive personality, as the current right-wing encourages and celebrates a culture of open aggression rather than its suppression.  Passive aggression is more likely in individuals who, are subject to cultural or social expectations to suppress open displays of will or aggression.

Sadistic Personality and Sado-Masochistic Dynamics

There are two relatively distinct phenomena surrounding sado-masochism:  a sexual fetish of pain and control (considered a disorder if it “causes significant distress or dysfunction” or is done with non-consenting partners) and a much more common set of personality dynamics centered on inflicting pain and exertion of control over others with or without the sexual fetish.  While the fetish with, in some cases, peculiar associated preferences in clothing etc. evokes much prurient interest and humor, it is the latter, not specifically sexual, personality dynamic that is more interesting for this discussion.  While Sadistic Personality was highly controversial when labeled as a formal personality disorder in older psychiatric diagnostic manuals, many clinicians recognize that there are people who are locked into relationships where emotional and/or physical pain are an emotional compulsion for one or both partners in the relationship.  The controversy surrounding the development of a formal label of Sadistic Personality Disorder (in DSM-III) and its counterpart, Masochistic (Self-Defeating) Personality Disorder (DSM-IIIR appendix) regarded their potential use to exonerate domestic abusers via an insanity defense or to impugn the validity of accusations by the abused.

Despite its current absence from formal diagnoses, in real life and in clinical settings people will encounter individuals who perpetrate emotional or physical cruelty on others seemingly with pleasure or at least comfort.  This can be observed as a passing or context-specific phenomenon or a more generalized pattern of personality.  For instance, the motivation for bullying is in many cases difficult to understand without something like pleasure at causing harm.

As contrasted with anti-social personality which is typified by sometimes impulsive acts of disregard for others or cruelty usually involving some effort at personal gain, the characterological sadist is a controlled willful personality who seeks others perceived to be weaker to impose his or her will upon them.  Selecting his or her targets carefully so as to avoid retribution in kind, the sadist sees in the pain inflicted evidence of the other’s “submission” to their will.

While not necessarily enacting the suffocating or obsessive relationship dynamic associated with sado-masochism, the Right places a high premium on inflicting of pain or displays of cruelty as a sign of strength and toughness.  Verbal cruelty is celebrated by many on the Right as a sign of strength with a reflex-like spitting out of invective and disparagement at a host of targets that are seen as inferior or left-wing.  Physical and capital punishment are celebrated as signs of strength.  With a belief in the “law of the jungle” as being determinative of social rank, bullying is considered to be normal behavior on the Right.  We then see a clear relationship between the willfulness of the right and behavioral tendencies that willingly and in some cases eagerly embrace cruelty.

Narcissistic Dynamics and Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Narcissism has become the clinical concept to describe variations in self-regard both healthy and disordered, with some elements of willfulness involved.  Narcissism is a complex phenomenon with at least three “poles”.  There is healthy self regard and self-confidence, that, in participant-observer studies by Paul Wink were characterized as an expression of an “Autonomy” factor within narcissism.  In more pathological narcissism there is the typical arrogant, notably self-centered person with an exaggerated sense of self-worth which many people recognize as narcissistic, which some call “grandiose” or “phallic narcissism”; observers in Wink’s study characterized these people as “willful”.   Finally there is a vulnerable sub-group or tendency within narcissism where people have a tendency to focus on the minor “bumps” in life which are viewed as “slights” to an often inflated self-regard.   The clinical syndrome, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), is characterized by some mixture of the grandiose and the vulnerable aspects, though these people would only be likely to seek treatment due to feelings of vulnerability rather than the effects of inflated self-esteem.

On a somewhat more subtle level than those with Paranoid or Anti-Social Personality, those with NPD can be categorized as willful, often attempting to turn social situations into occasions that reinforce or boost their inflated sense of themselves.  Willfulness in narcissism expresses itself most obviously in the sense of entitlement to attention, praise, and the finer things in life which is often associated with narcissistic personality disorder; the narcissist frequently structures social interactions to serve their own internal needs with little sense of empathy for others.  Narcissists think of themselves as “superior sorts of people” though appear to be not entirely convinced of this as they recruit most people around them to support this sense of self.  In classing themselves as superior, narcissists feel entitled to a greater room for exercise of will than the average person.  At extremes, those with narcissistic personalities shade into anti-social personality disorder, as they lack empathy with others and their exploitation of others to boost their self-image and social impression overall leads into anti-social behavior and sometimes law-breaking.

There are some with narcissistic tendencies on the political Right as there are on the Left, with elements of willfulness manifest in some of them.  Like many with narcissistic disturbance, the American Right is struggling with threats to self-esteem surrounding American decline via willful denial of the facts.  Many leaders on the contemporary American right, like Rick Perry and Ronald Reagan, present themselves as somewhat bowdlerized versions of the (“macho” or “macha” in the case of women like Sarah Palin) “phallic narcissistic” ideal, a character type that values displays of willful assertion, defiance and resolve over openness to compromise, the appearance of work, and relationship building.  There is in many constituencies on the Right a selfishness and self-centeredness that reminds one of the egocentrism and lack of empathy in disordered narcissism.  There is also the Right’s sense of entitlement to rule and identification with the wealthiest which have a narcissistic element to them.  In his Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin maintains that the Right identifies with and supports the rule of “superior sort of person” that has roots in belief in a feudal or neo-feudal aristocracy though he points out that not all on the Right believe themselves to be that “superior sort of person”.

Mania, Hypomania, and Manic Defense

Willfulness often characterizes the social interactions of people in manic and hypomanic states.  Mania and hypomania are states of mind that have to do with an acceleration of psycho-motor “speed”, increased self-esteem, elevated mood and increased energy, leading to, at extremes, racing thoughts and delusions of grandeur.  In these states, people generate many plans of action and undertake some of them, often, when in full-blown mania, with disastrous results.  Mania and hypomania can lead to increased irritableness, especially when the manic or hypomanic person is confronted with ordinary social interactions and the constraints of the real world that seem to them to be mere encumbrances on their lofty plans and ideas.  Mania and hypomania are usually associated with a two-pole mood disorder that involves a cycling between highs and lows, leading someone to be “moody” and potentially lapsing into severe depression.    There is thought to be a strong genetic component to susceptibility to these mood disorders.

Aside from or in addition to mood disturbances associated with full manic-depression/bipolar disorder with its biological bases, some believe that people deploy hypomanic levels of activity as a form of defense against depression, i.e. a manic defense.  A strained sense of optimism, heightened activity levels for their own sake, and “looking on the bright side”, can be considered part of the “manic defense” and can observed not infrequently in daily life.  The manic defense has the character of a willful and/or willed resistance to negative emotions.   The “manic defense” is also typical of those parts of American culture that are the homebase of the current American Right, in particular in the Sun Belt.  The forced optimism of the manic defense is closely linked to the denial of real negative or uncomfortable events typical of the Right’s political and policy approach to negative events in society at large.

Autistic Spectrum

Those with characteristics that fall into the autistic spectrum, from the somewhat disengaged to those with severe difficulties functioning in everyday life, can sometimes be characterized by extremes of what seems like willfulness.  Those with ASDs’ experience of the social world is often quite different from those people who are “neurotypical” and some redefine their own autistic-spectrum propensities not as a disorder but as part of a “neurodiverse” spectrum.  If we accord that we are dealing with another “neuro-culture”, to judge idiosyncratic behavior as necessarily “willful” is unfair at least in the context of a community of responsible adults living separate lives.  The application of this judgement implies a defiance of some shared value of comity within people who may not have the same sense of a need for such common ground in the first place.  If, on the other hand, if the “neurotypical” and the “neurodiverse” are to work together in a family or in a community on shared tasks, the application of such a judgment may be appropriate, in those situations where there is stubborn insistence on one’s own way rather than some critically important common good.

As our picture of the autistic spectrum is still in flux, it is difficult to draw a link between it and political tendencies.  Certainly the Right’s utopia of supposedly autonomous families and corporations disjoined from government, recalls the vision of the social world of the autistic spectrum where each occupies and gets to define their own personal “culture” or social island.  However the personalities of at least the leadership of the American Right are generally very different than the sometimes socially awkward presentation of high functioning people in the autistic spectrum.  The more intellectual libertarian element of the Right’s ideology may be more attractive to high functioning people in the autistic spectrum with its emphasis on individual autonomy and the separateness of individuals.

Contemporary “Right-wing-ness”: Not a Mental Disorder But a Cause of Great Harm

The diagnosis of a mental disorder is supposed to help physicians, healthcare and mental health professionals to treat and ameliorate psychological/mental conditions that are causing a person or the people around that person serious harm.  However these labels are of general interest because they may help people understand other people’s puzzling behavior or attitudes and are related to power dynamics in society regarding acceptable and desirable personal attributes.  Being on the contemporary Right is not a formal mental disorder but one can learn a good deal about how the Right operates politically and how it hopes to appeal to its base by looking at affinities it has with certain mental conditions.

We can say definitively that the contemporary Right in degrading the ability of the US government to solve social, economic and environmental problems, is causing great harm to society and ultimately to themselves.  Thus I believe there is justification in examining the relationship between the Right’s discourse and behavior and what we know about patterns of human mental suffering, destructiveness and self-destructiveness more generally.

Predatory Leaders and Gullible Followers: Social Glue of the Right

If I am correct regarding the diagnosis of excessive willfulness of the Right, there is still a mystery associated with this abundance of willfulness:  how does the Right maintain cohesion in its own ranks?  Those who are at the extremes of willfulness would be unable to cooperate with others: it would be like “herding cats”.  How is the Right able to hang together?

The political psychologist Bob Altemeyer offers a solution to this problem resulting from decades of empirical study of the psychological construct of Authoritarianism in college students, their parents, and groups of politicians.  Authoritarians, a construct pioneered by Theodor Adorno that sought an explanation for the success of Nazism in Germany, are typically obedient followers prone to irrationalism and a herd mentality who have considerable repressed aggression that is vented typically at out-groups in society or via warlike adventures.  This typical portrait of authoritarianism doesn’t account for many of the willful elements that I have highlighted in my analysis above.  By contrast, the excessive willfulness theory seems to contradict the particular the obedient and rigidly conventional aspects of  the typical authoritarian personality.  Contrary to the idea that the Right is a homogenous group, Altemeyer sees the contemporary Right as divided into two groups:  authoritarian followers and leaders. Authoritarian followers are conventional, obedient, narrow-minded, and often religious fundamentalists and score high on a psychological construct he calls Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA).   One of the characteristics of those high on RWA is a seemingly willful compartmentalization of reality that is often hypocritical and self-serving.   Meanwhile there is another right-wing sub-group that scores high on a construct that Altemeyer calls Social Dominance Orientation that does not correlate with RWA.  This group shows many anti-social traits, including a propensity to lie, a strong will to power, and lower levels of conventionalism.  The group high in Social Dominance Orientation, Altemeyer believes are authoritarian leaders.  Altemeyer’s distinction also maps onto the main political fault-line on the Right between social conservatives (authoritarians) and more secular economic libertarians, who have been largely in agreement on economic issues.

In Altemeyer’s descriptions of authoritarian leaders and followers there seem to be, in my perhaps biased view, elements of willfulness in both groups but he more importantly offers a solution to the problem of right-wing cohesion:  typical authoritarian followers, as the name suggests, seem to be extremely obedient to leaders who claim to represent a core set of “conservative” social institutions.  Meanwhile, right-wing authoritarian leaders opportunistically exploit the obedience of these followers while mouthing support for conservative values.   In Altemeyer’s observations from surveys and experiments, authoritarian followers are extremely forgiving of faults in their chosen leaders and others in their “camp”.  There is then a complementarity between the nearly sociopathic leadership of the Right and its gullible and obedient followers. So the splintering effects of willfulness on the Right is to some degree contained within  the movement.

Corey Robin’s portrait of the Right as neo-feudal counter-revolutionaries makes sense in this context, as the Right are looking to submit to a “superior individual”  who by some “natural right” will lead them.  There may be clashes and fierce competition between potential leaders but at some point group cohesion is achieved.  The Party discipline of the American Right relative to the Left becomes then more understandable even as the Right worships the individual will.

Will and the World:  Beyond Willful Destruction

In discussing excessive and extremes of willfulness, I may have left readers with a general sense of concern about the negatives associated with the human will and desire.  Certainly my approach here uses a different language and approach than those who speak often and loudly of Freedom and little else.  The focus of this piece and its language is dealing with a similar topic by discussing what is present rather than what is absent:  liberty or freedom means absence of barriers to the expression of human will.

As societies that care about the basis for human life and the lives of co-evolved species, we must recognize that discussions of boundless freedom removed from other concerns takes us away from some of the most important decisions now facing us.   We are confronted with formidable challenges in our societies related to our abilities to choose between various wishes with often great differences in social and environmental impact when multiplied by many consumers.   There are a growing number of people who inhabit the earth (now 7 billion) whose wills must be considered and registered in what we hope will be a global democratic society.   We are living on a globe that is not infinitely large in which we are pushing towards a variety of tipping points in terms of physical resources and the favorability of the climate system towards our species.

The vision I would like to advance here is that our wills and their expression must eventually engage with real people, objects, and workable entities in the world, and not let a profusion of wishes cloud our perception of those resting places for our will.   We will need to exert ourselves to change the world in a balance between our own satisfaction and the betterment of humankind overall.  An overdevelopment of willfulness in parts of our culture has clouded our vision of the real and real potential goals of our wanting and will.  An overabundance of willfulness implies that the will has grown out of control and out of proportion to our reality and more generally the reality of the world.

The willfulness of the Right distorts the reality of the social and the natural world, it appears out of a combination of personal preference, constitutional weaknesses, and desire for revenge upon a world over which they do not have the influence to which they feel entitled.  To spite others, the Right is willing to destroy a lot, perhaps even themselves and the lives of their children because of the fear of this loss and an inability to put their own wishes and habits in context.  The Right has hijacked the American discourse of freedom, via a variety of intermediaries, including neoclassical economic orthodoxy, to endanger the entire world by clouding our view of what are the real objects and entities in the world to which we need to apply our very real wills and selves.  Rather than delude ourselves or entertain their delusion, the Right’s “game” needs to be displayed to the world for the vengeful and childish exercise that it is.