The Government as Parent: A Bit of Political Psychology


People often regard governments, and their leaders, as symbolic parents. This idea is not new, but since the shift onto the government of feelings that are more fundamentally related to parents usually happens unconsciously, the process seldom gets the attention it deserves.

People want the government (or its agencies) to take care of them, just as they want parents to do, and they also deny these wishes, just as they often do with their parents. People also get angry at governmental rules and restrictions, just as they do with their parents, and often find it much more comfortable to express their anger at the government than toward their parents.

And people often idealize their country (and at times its government) just as small children do with their parents. The problem is that the government and the country are not parents, so as common and perhaps natural as this is, and as powerful as the feelings are, none of this is realistic or rational.

This irrationality of everyday life makes political psychology an essential field. Despite its importance, political psychology remains a small subcategory of political science, and psychoanalytic political psychology, which utilizes concepts such as those mentioned above, remains a small subsection of political psychology.

Although there are longstanding methodological questions about the use of concepts originally developed to describe individual psychology when they are employed in attempts to understand large group processes, some of the concepts have bridged the gap well.

A group may not have its own unconscious, but concepts such as regression, projection, and transference have been enormously helpful in understanding large group and political processes. Their utility in this context has been exemplified, for example, in the remarkable psychoanalytic contributions to diplomacy by figures such as John Alderdice and Vamik Volkan.

Political psychology was in the news itself a few years ago when Dr. Bandy Lee and colleagues published The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, a collection of essays by numerous mental health professionals noting reasons for concern about Trump’s emotional suitability for public office.

The endeavor was attacked as politically biased, and Lee was later fired by Yale University for alleged violation of the “Goldwater Rule” against psychiatrists commenting about public figures.

All of the information about Trump, however, was in the public record and none of it from any sort of private consultation, and I agree with the authors who felt it was their moral obligation to speak out.

There is always a question of bias in political psychology (as in anything else), but that is not sufficient reason to abandon a discipline that has the potential to make helpful contributions. There are many aspects of political psychology that would benefit from additional psychoanalytic consideration.

Here is one small example. In an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer on the second anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, uprising and storming of the Capitol, I illustrate the idealization of our nation as a symbolic parent and discuss how that has had a deleterious effect on our educational system as well as on our politics.

In my estimation, the United States has a history of idealizing itself in a way that most other countries have not indulged (think of our “manifest destiny”), and this has compromised our ability to usefully assess our country. Gaining a realistic view of one’s parents is an essential part of growing up, although it is not always fully accomplished.

Similarly, we do not always achieve a realistic, non-idealized view of our nation. I think that the unrecognized idealization of our country, and the related unwillingness to accept reality, contributed to the Jan. 6 uprising. You can read the op-ed here.

People are not especially rational beings. We don’t make rational economic decisions, but the idea of rational decision-making dominated economics for a long time. Likewise, we don’t make rational political decisions, but the assumption that we do is broadly assumed.

While aspects of political psychology remain controversial, recognition of the full extent of our irrationality, and study of the ways in which our irrational wishes and worries influence us politically, is an area in which the psychological sciences have an important contribution to make to our nation.

Democracy requires a degree of rationality, and the only way to secure that is to reckon with our irrationality.

Lawrence D. Blum, MD is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Philadelphia, PA. He is Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.