A Psychoanalyst Interviews Unaffiliated Voters

It was 1995 and the presidential election was coming. I was hired by the Center for National Policy to study voter apathy through interviews of “unaffiliated voters”. People were chosen randomly from voter lists around the country and paid $200 to talk with me. I travelled to meet them in interview sites near their homes and explore, in extended semi-structured interviews, the issues that organized their lives, their basic values, the barriers they felt to social and political involvement, and the potential bridges they saw that might improve their lives.

The ninety-minute interviews were fascinating. I met with people from all aspects of society with lives, families, jobs and ideas. I was using a different lens than psychoanalysts customarily use; the focus of learning was different.

Frank was a thirty-eight-year-old black single waiter. He was interested in “diversifying his skill set”. He knew there was no job security in waiting tables.

“In restaurants, if a black man represents the restaurant, the customer gets scared. They say they are committed to you, but you can’t trust it. My business is to take care of me. I’ve been burned. They treat you like a prostitute. It’s a cold world. If you can manage your emotions and deal with it, it’s OK, it’s reality. Talent is not seen. You are seen as black first. White males are hung up on power; if they can’t control you, they diminish you.”

At home, Frank volunteered for AIDS, Meals on Wheels, and Senior Citizens, and was active in his church. His thoughts on politics and society:

“In this country, Presidents are not in charge. No one is in charge – it is just happening. Something big will have to happen before things can change, like a revolution. People are fighting back now. Either they just manage their emotions like me or get broken down through their anger – like vagrants and the homeless. Parents are working; the streets are raising the kids. Teachers are not paid enough to teach, so they don’t care what kind of values they teach.”

Peter was a forty-four-year-old Hispanic comptroller, a college graduate:

“Sermons are more relevant to my life now. The preacher says, “The gift of emptiness is a place for Christ to be…;” America is destroying its youth. There is no parental authority to provide clear discipline and direction. Society overcompensated for a few incidents of abuse and took away parental authority, so when kids become adolescents, they have no internal guides. Now if the father spanks a child, he can lose the right to father. Children use this against their parents.”

Peter felt he had no voice in politics. He calls his representative, his senator, and reads what they send out. He demands return calls – and gets them. He appreciated Republicans’ tax cuts for private schools but agreed with Democratic support for Medicare. In the choice between security and opportunity, he’d choose security: “The more you try to help people, the worse it gets.”

No Vision or Direction

Most of the interviewees were optimistic about their lives, though they felt disconnected from community and from the larger society. Their focus was on coping with their immediate stresses, feeling a loss of shared values. They felt that “life was not as it should be,” and talked passionately of the loss of a sense of community, a breakdown of rules, and a view of America as rudderless, without clear goals, direction, or a sense of vision.

Though they could find themselves in the context of their families, they talked of the difficulty in joining others in passionate, meaningful commitments. They could not link their individual values to larger social and national values. Their grasp of the larger social scene was obscured by social turbulence, economic insecurity, gender and racial tensions, political disenfranchisement, and disaffection. They spoke of a “loss of authority” in the country and resultant anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Women felt apathetic about the isolation and surrender embedded in the maternal role. They carried smoldering rage at men and male-oriented politics. Neither men nor women could find their way to a larger sense of community beyond their families.

In response to ungraspable social pressures, these voters managed their anxiety and insecurity in different ways One defense was protective withdrawal, where they closed in on themselves and devoted attention and energy to themselves and their families. This was often accompanied by projection, blaming others for the stress. The combination both eroded their sense of connection to others and imparted a temporary sense of control, since blaming provided the illusion that at least someone was in charge. A second response was dependent regression. Uncertainty, loss of a sense of competence, and isolation evoked dependent longing and a wish for empathic leaders with answers.

Strikingly, voters found each defense to be characteristic of the two political parties. They saw Republicans as invoking the defenses of isolation and blame in focusing on the individual and in categorizing government and “welfare cheats” as the enemy. They identified Democrats with the outdated social dynamic of gratifying dependency. Democrats offered “vague reassurances”, “feeling their pain”, and promises to take care of people. Neither solution was satisfactory. Blaming provided no relief and attempts to gratify dependency were unsustainable in a world with limited resources. Neither party spoke effectively to the reality of these voters’ experience; neither party provided the world view and support that would allow citizens to mobilize their own competence.

These voters needed a creative synthesis. They agreed with Republicans that individuals needed to mobilize their own capacities, and they agreed with Democrats that there was strength in diversity. The saw that a dependency-based model was unsustainable and they longed for leaders who could recognize limitations in themselves and the world. They grasped that individualism without community leads to a deadening isolation and that gratifying dependency runs the risk of undercutting people’s competence. They were irritated that government couldn’t find this synthesis and saw politicians as dominated by self-interest, corruption and hypocrisy.

Needing Integration and Affirmation

Despite the interviewees’ shared anxiety, cynicism, alienation and loss of faith in the system, I found these voters inspiring in their thoughtfulness, passion and basic optimism. They knew that they needed to renegotiate their connections with others and with changing work environments in order to respond adequately to the turbulence and change of the international economy. They needed the government to help them organize their efforts.

Through my psychoanalytic lens, I could see that they were longing for a government (with its larger perspective) to provide an interpretation of the changing world that would affirm their experience and articulate the reasons for rapid social change. This integrating interpretation, plus resources to connect with others, might allow them to escape their experience as isolated individuals and find new ways to work with others to successfully change their world.

They needed the partially correct Democratic view (strength in diversity and community) in combination with the Republican outlook (the failure of the dependency model, recognition of the limitations of resources, and the need to mobilize individual competence). They wanted help in learning how people could work together to integrate their differences into a coherent whole. They wanted an affirmation of an American identity with recognizable values that would allow them to join with others. They saw that these values must include recognizing individual competence and community strength.

Although I had worked as an organizational consultant prior to my taking up the role of CEO at the Austen Riggs Center, I had not previous participated in a political study. The experience demonstrated the power of psychoanalytically informed listening, even with such a strikingly different framework.

There is a lot for us to learn.

Finding a Place to Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders and Citizens
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