Political Ideology as Mental Illness

A couple of months ago one of my most loyal readers and political opponents introduced into the comments section of this blog the ideas of one Lyle H. Rossiter Jr., M.D.. Dr. Rossiter, a psychiatrist, published a book in 2005 entitled, “THE LIBERAL MIND: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness” in which he went to great lengths to “prove” that liberals are clinically, mentally ill.

Being very stingy with my time and money, I was not going to invest either fully in this book. Fortunately, Dr. Rossiter gave me a wealth of excerpts on his website from which to draw conclusions. Even with that said, I could only bear to read a small portion without regurgitating the turkey sandwich I had for lunch. Dr. Rossiter gets off on the wrong foot by misappropriating a term from his own profession. He claims, humans are by nature, bipolar. Now, anyone who has watched a week’s worth of Dr. Phil knows that bipolar disorder is synonymous with manic-depression, a condition characterized by alternating states of heightened euphoria and desperately dangerous depression. Dr. Rossiter tosses this definition to the wind and replaces it with the notion that humans are at once autonomous and socially cooperative. The fact that a psychiatrist writing about mental illness would come out of the chute misusing his specialty’s own jargon is a harbinger of things to come. In fact, Dr. Rossiter begins the book by defining things. Well of course. How else can he pull an argument out of his butt unless he first sets up all the parameters that justify his argument.

From the Table of Contents, one gets the impression that Rossiter is going to talk in human developmental terms and be pretty strict about keeping his “diagnosis” of the problem with liberalism clinical. But Rossiter just engages in the same heightened rhetoric of your average card-carrying conservative. An example:

Like all other human beings, the modern liberal reveals his true character, including his madness, in what he values and devalues, in what he articulates with passion. Of special interest, however, are the many values about which the modern liberal mind is not passionate: his agenda does not insist that the individual is the ultimate economic, social and political unit; it does not idealize individual liberty and the structure of law and order essential to it; it does not defend the basic rights of property and contract; it does not aspire to ideals of authentic autonomy and mutuality; it does not preach an ethic of self-reliance and self-determination; it does not praise courage, forbearance or resilience; it does not celebrate the ethics of consent or the blessings of voluntary cooperation. It does not advocate moral rectitude or understand the critical role of morality in human relating. The liberal agenda does not comprehend an identity of competence, appreciate its importance, or analyze the developmental conditions and social institutions that promote its achievement. The liberal agenda does not understand or recognize personal sovereignty or impose strict limits on coercion by the state. It does not celebrate the genuine altruism of private charity. It does not learn history’s lessons on the evils of collectivism.

What the liberal mind is passionate about is a world filled with pity, sorrow, neediness, misfortune, poverty, suspicion, mistrust, anger, exploitation, discrimination, victimization, alienation and injustice. Those who occupy this world are “workers,” “minorities,” “the little guy,” “women,” and the “unemployed.” They are poor, weak, sick, wronged, cheated, oppressed, disenfranchised, exploited and victimized. They bear no responsibility for their problems. None of their agonies are attributable to faults or failings of their own: not to poor choices, bad habits, faulty judgment, wishful thinking, lack of ambition, low frustration tolerance, mental illness or defects in character. None of the victims’ plight is caused by failure to plan for the future or learn from experience. Instead, the “root causes” of all this pain lie in faulty social conditions: poverty, disease, war, ignorance, unemployment, racial prejudice, ethnic and gender discrimination, modern technology, capitalism, globalization and imperialism. In the radical liberal mind, this suffering is inflicted on the innocent by various predators and persecutors: “Big Business,” “Big Corporations,” “greedy capitalists,” U.S. Imperialists,” “the oppressors,” “the rich,” “the wealthy,” “the powerful” and “the selfish.”

The liberal cure for this endless malaise is a very large authoritarian government that regulates and manages society through a cradle to grave agenda of redistributive caretaking. It is a government everywhere doing everything for everyone. The liberal motto is “In Government We Trust.” To rescue the people from their troubled lives, the agenda recommends denial of personal responsibility, encourages self-pity and other-pity, fosters government dependency, promotes sexual indulgence, rationalizes violence, excuses financial obligation, justifies theft, ignores rudeness, prescribes complaining and blaming, denigrates marriage and the family, legalizes all abortion, defies religious and social tradition, declares inequality unjust, and rebels against the duties of citizenship. Through multiple entitlements to unearned goods, services and social status, the liberal politician promises to ensure everyone’s material welfare, provide for everyone’s healthcare, protect everyone’s self-esteem, correct everyone’s social and political disadvantage, educate every citizen, and eliminate all class distinctions. With liberal intellectuals sharing the glory, the liberal politician is the hero in this melodrama. He takes credit for providing his constituents with whatever they want or need even though he has not produced by his own effort any of the goods, services or status transferred to them but has instead taken them from others by force.

I’ve bold-faced the more incredible parts of this drivel. Notice the references to redistribution and collectivism. Oh yes, liberals are socialists. Notice the accusations of no moral core. We are rude, scapegoating, anti-family, baby killing non-citizens. And to top it off, we actually think poverty and prejudice might play a role in social inequities. How insane of us! If we accept as fact all of Rossiter’s characterizations, perhaps liberals are crazy? A rude, scapegoating baby killer sounds pretty pathological to me. Unfortunately, at least in the excerpts I read, Rossiter simply engages in name calling with no facts to back him up, much less any real clinical analysis from a psychiatric perspective.

This book has argued that with good enough childrearing in a culture committed to ordered liberty, the natural thrust of human development produces an individual who is at once autonomous and mutual, a self-reliant source of initiative and voluntary collaboration in the activities of everyday life.

With this quote, we get to the core of Dr. Rossiter’s theme, as best I can find one. The only reason we have criminals is lousy parents. The only reason we have poor children is lousy parents. In a culture committed to “ordered liberty” all of society’s ills are cured. Rossiter’s view of “ordered liberty” is pretty much the “people must be forced to be free” idea except he is very careful to draw the line on how much order to enforce. Order can only be enforced to the extent that it does not piss off the “haves”. In Rossiter’s world, order exists to preserve success, not to give everyone an opportunity for success. Anyone lacking this special balance of autonomy and mutuality just got the bad luck of the draw in the child rearing department. Tough tittie. And don’t dare complain about it you immoral whiner. And in particular, don’t expect help from the perfectly balanced. They are not your parents. Your parents sucked and you are screwed.

Rossiter spends more than 400 pages advancing his theory of liberal insanity. Well two can play at that game and psychology professor Jonathan Haidt does a far fairer job of it. Haidt advances the theory that we all are born with five pre-programmed categories of moral values and these values are influenced throughout our lives. These values have political ideological correspondents. Of the five, Caring and Fairness are important to both conservatives and liberals, liberals slightly more so. However the other three values are much more important to conservatives. They are Loyalty, Respect and Purity. Liberals are open and therefore comfortable with change. Conservatives are closed and more comfortable with tradition and the status quo. These are deep-seated values found within these groups. The inability of the two groups to communicate with each other can be tied to these very different value systems. Another way to summarize the difference, says Haidt, is:

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed; want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos.

Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions; want order even at cost to those at the bottom.

And so there we have a perfect assessment of Rossiter’s perspective and why he nauseates me. The prioritization of order over the welfare of those less fortunate is simply incompatible with my wiring. And Haidt says we are wired with our particular mix of the five moral values. He presented his views in 2008 at the annual TED idea exchange gathering.

But notice where Haidt concludes his argument. Unlike Rossiter who condemns liberals to a diagnosis of pathology, Haidt suggests that we need both forms of mental wiring (not illness) for a successful society. He claims, I think correctly, that conservatives and liberals form the Yin and Yang and are in fact symbiotic even though we so often think of them as at cross purposes.

The only value I see from Lyle Rossiter’s argument once you strip away the insults is that political ideology is not completely a choice made by weighing the pros and cons of the different positions. Our political preferences stem from deep-seated views of the world and morality. Optimal solutions can only be arrived at when we work together to strike a balance between social activism and respect for tradition. The answer is not for one side to label the other mentally ill. Sadly, Rossiter had the potential to write a significant work on how our nature effects our politics and he wasted it on overblown partisan rhetoric.


Update: I took the questionnaire that Haidt mentions in his video. These were my results. (The first bar in each cluster is me, the second bar is liberals and the third bar is conservatives.)

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