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Two Versions of Self-Infantilism in political life. Yet again, where are the passionate pragmatists?

August 2, 2016


The first cohort of self-infantilised wounded people I can think of are easy to spot.  They are Trump supporters.  The recent EU referendum in Britain and the current Trump campaign in the USA shows how easily people can reject the responsibilities of adulthood, out of either laziness or (more plausibly) fear.  The idea of having to exercise the responsibilities of an adult citizen becomes too burdensome, and so people regress. Instead of having to do joined up thinking, people prefer slogans, imperative demands, which represent primal drives rather than anything structured into a compatible programme.  It’s ego weakness on a national scale.

But you can also see a version of self infantilism among Bernie supporters as well.  Bernie has failed to secure the Democratic nomination.  Maybe he should have secured it.  Maybe Hillary didn’t play fair.  But the truth is, that at this point, there is no process whatsoever that makes Bernie a real challenger to Trump this year.  Bernie (perhaps a little belatedly) knows this.  The choices on the menu are Trump and Clinton.  There won’t be anything else on the menu before November.  That’s how it is.  As an adult, you have to learn to choose between real alternatives.

Freud of course explained all of this in terms of the pleasure principle and the reality principle.  We are not coherent selves as infants but a mess of competing drives.  Ids have not yet been encrusted by and organised by coherent egos.   When we learn that not all appetites can be gratified instantly, a reality principle overtakes the pleasure principle.  Now repression can lead to trauma, but a society in which the reality principle never develops and the pleasure principle is never modified in impossible.  If you want to call yourself an adult you can no longer kick over the table in the restaurant when you don’t like today’s specials.  You need to read and think and choose.  If you refuse to choose and demand food that isn’t there – then you’re exhibiting ego weakness.

The reality principle doesn’t mean you’re not idealistic.  It doesn’t prevent you seeking out someone far better than Hillary Clinton in four, or eight years time.  It doesn’t prevent you from being that person yourself.  But it does mean being able to defer gratification and act in the here and now from a limited range of alternatives.

Of course, nearly all Clinton supporters have embraced the “reality principle”.  She’s a known quantity.  She comes with a past.  Hardly anybody regards her as a messiah.  And the real problem with a Clinton Trump battle.   There may be a passion deficit, based on the fact that passion is all Trump can offer.  People who have regressed to the point of supporting a race-baiting misogynist who can offer nothing more than bumper stickers of hatred and stupidity have given up on joined up thinking altogether.  Such people have deliberately rejected the idea of critical thinking.  When you prostrate yourself in front of Trump, there’s not point in being half hearted about it.  Nobody takes a critical view of Trump’s “ideas” and makes a balanced rational decision to vote for him.  You “decide” to switch off rationality and trust him completely.  He is your God and you are his creature.

Clinton voters are, by comparison, toilet trained.  They may vote for her for a variety of reasons, but they don’t worship her.  And nor should they.  So the problem of a passion deficit is that by November we have a battle between “Trump will save me” versus “Clinton is clearly the preferred alternative given what’s on offer”.

This passion deficit was part of the problem with Britain’s EU referendum.  It became a battle between “Leaving the EU will solve everything” and “The EU has many problems, economic and structural, but leaving the EU would create more problems than it solves and so it is better to stay in it so as to work hard to make Europe work better.”  Jeremy Corbyn was incapable of faking a passion for the EU that he did not somehow “feel” and so was unable to communicate the urgency of the decision.  The Leavers and their lies were just louder.

No matter how disappointed rational people might feel about Clinton, it is neither adult nor reasonable to say that she is the “same” as Trump.  Nobody is the same as Trump.  There are two possible outcomes in November and an adult who isn’t suffering from crippling ego weakness has a civic responsibility to decide that one of these alternatives is better than the other.  A Hillary Clinton presidency could be a big disappointment.  Probably will be.  But the alternative is despair.  Choose then between disappointment and despair.  Choose disappointment.  As They Might Be Giants once sang – “if it wasn’t for disappointments – I wouldn’t have any appointments”.

But what’s really needed are passionate pragmatists.   People who make 60-40 calculations and then really get behind the result of those calculations.  People who make the least worst choice that’s actually on the menu the basis of real energy and enthusiasm.

People like Edmund Burke.  Or Karl Marx.



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