Tea Party Thinking (Part 1)

Dan Liechty | October 19, 2011

"Normal Dan" Dan Liechty

Many people are quite confused about the thought processes of our fellow citizens of the Tea Party. They seem to support very contradictory ideas and policies, for example, sticking up for the Little Guy against increasing and pervasive social control of Wall Street, but they want to do that through policies that reduce economic regulations on Wall Street bankers. They voice support for Main Street and small business as America’s job creators, but they want to do that through policies that reduce taxes on large corporations, even those special tax breaks that encourage large corporations to lay off America workers and replace their jobs with workers in other countries.

We all have our contradictions, I suppose, but those of this Tea Party crowd are so blatant it is confusing to outside observers.

In thinking about this the other day, it struck me that in Ernest Becker’s synthesis of psychodynamic maturation processes with a sociological perspective on human development (outlined most clearly in his 1964 book, The Revolution in Psychiatry) we gain a significant handle on understanding both the Tea Party and the Progressive mentality. I am not saying this analysis is exhaustive, but I do think it points us in some useful directions. See what you think – and I will try to keep the dry jargon to a minimum!

Throughout life, we all regularly experience conflicts between what we want and what is socially acceptable and socially beneficial. In other words, what is good for me and what is good for the group do not always line up so neatly, and navigating this conflict is at the root of both the core personality of each of us as well as the core of our competing political philosophies.

Socialization (growing up) is the process of becoming a social person, a person fit to live in society with others. Obviously, a person who always acted according to personal gain with no regard for the good of others would not be able to function well in society, and society itself would crumble if it contained too many such people.  From the first struggles with potty training onward, childhood is a process of learning to navigate the lines between what I want as an individual and what society expects of me as a socially fit person and citizen.

We consider someone to be grown up, mature and responsible (adequately socialized, in the dry jargon) when in the inner dialogue of daily living (do I choose to act this way, or that?) the person is self-disciplined enough to submit individual wants and desires to what is beneficial for and acceptable to the society as a whole. A person who mostly acts according to self-benefit, without regard to what is beneficial for and acceptable to society as a whole we think of as childish, immature and irresponsible (inadequately socialized.)

When we consider how strongly self-centered we naturally are at birth (an infant, after all, has no conception of society and its needs) it is easy to see that learning this balance between personal wants and social benefit is both ongoing and absolutely central to who we are as human beings. To master this conflict in our internal dialogue, we eventually internalize and take on as our own the voice that was initially the external voice of society, of law, of civilization.

Once internalized, we own it as the voice of “our conscience,” and claim it not as an external voice at all but rather our own true voice, the voice of our own authentic self. Earlier we chose social benefit over personal gain mainly because we feared external force and punishment, and our decisions in each successive situation were likely based on a rather intricate analysis of the likelihood of being caught, of the type and magnitude of the punishment we might expect if caught, and all of this weighed against the benefit of what we gain by barging ahead to act on personal gain alone in this situation. But as we grow and mature, we increasingly choose social beneficence over personal gain as a free expression of our true self. I certainly continue to have angry and even fleetingly murderous feelings when my wants and desires are thwarted by others, for example, but I don’t act on that because “I” am not a murderer (robber, rapist, sneak-thief, liar, adulterer, etc.)

A healthy internal dialogue between personal desires and social beneficence continues on day by day, hour by hour, even minute by minute, but we learn ways of sublimate the most antisocial of these personal desires such that our actions always remain at least within the law, our basic social code, and maybe sometimes even “above” the law.

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