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All Votes
Have Been Cast

Natalia J. Garland

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All votes have been cast and most have been counted on this first day after the 2008 presidential election. What has transpired? My analysis will focus on three points. (1) The impact of young voters in shifting American politics from right of center to left of center (although we cannot know if the new President will translate his leftist principles into actual governing policies). (2) The granting of and attraction to the celebrity status of people heretofore unknown or relatively unknown, thereby creating a sort of conformist mentality among celebrity admirers. (3) The unchecked impact of narcissism on American culture and politics.

In order to support my own thoughts, feelings, and observations, I will turn to some of history's insightful thinkers: Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, and Christopher Lasch. The quotations I have chosen will take us back to the 1960's and 1970's, a time when some psychotherapists and social critics examined the connection between political authority and personality, as well as the dynamics of a society that voluntarily submits to oppressive government.

First, I will turn to Erich Fromm, author of Escape From Freedom which was published in 1965. Although American society was quite different in the 1960's, it is easy to transpose Fromm's vein of thought to post-9/11 America. Is a certain and perhaps now dominant segment of society becoming still another type of automaton? Is a new fixed order being built by people who will then submit to the political machine built by their own hands?

The particular difficulty in recognizing to what extent our wishes--and our thoughts and feelings as well--are not really our own but put into us from the outside, is closely linked up with the problem of authority and freedom. In the course of modern history the authority of the Church has been replaced by that of the State, that of the State by that of the conscience, and in our era, the latter has been replaced by the anonymous authority of common sense and public opinion as instruments of conformity. Because we have freed ourselves of the older overt forms of authority, we do not see that we have become the prey of a new kind of authority. We have become automatons who live under the illusion of being self-willing individuals. This illusion helps the individual to remain unaware of his insecurity, but this is all the help such an illusion can give. Basically, the self of the individual is weakened, so that he feels powerless and extremely insecure. He lives in a world to which he has lost genuine relatedness and in which everybody and everything has become instrumentalized, where he has become a part of the machine that his hands have built. He thinks, feels, and wills what he believes he is supposed to think, feel, and will; in this very process he loses his self upon which all genuine security of a free individual must be built.

The loss of the self has increased the necessity to conform, for it results in a profound doubt of one's own identity. If I am nothing but what I believe I am supposed to be--who am "I"? We have seen how the doubt about one's own self started with the breakdown of the medieval order in which the individual had had an unquestionable place in a fixed order. The identity of the individual has been a major problem of modern philosophy since Descartes. Today we take for granted that we are we. Yet the doubt about ourselves still exists, or has even grown. In his plays, Pirandello has given expression to this feeling of modern man. He starts with the question: Who am I? What proof have I for my own identity other than the continuation of my physical self? His answer is not like Descartes'--the affirmation of the individual self--but its denial: I have no identity, there is no self excepting the one which is the reflex of what others expect me to be: I am "as you desire me."

This loss of identity then makes it still more imperative to conform; it means that one can be sure of oneself only if one lives up to the expectations of others. If we do not live up to this picture we not only risk disapproval and increased isolation, but we risk losing the identity of our personality, which means jeopardizing sanity.
[End of quote.]

Second, I will quote Carl Rogers, author of On Personal Power which was first published in 1977, because of his remarks about the possible power of young voters. Contrary to Rogers' view of their potential for meaningful participation, did the young voters of 2008 (and some older voters having similar emotional needs) elect someone with authoritarian or oppressive tendencies? Or, will a combined Democratic President and Democratic Congress have this effect? Has the world become so increasingly stressful and dangerous since the days of Rogers that our youth feel unprepared to cope?

While reading the quotation below, some people might quickly replace the name Richard Nixon with George W. Bush. Allow me to suggest an exercise in critical thinking. Replace the words apathy and cynicism with economic stress and post-9/11 denial. Next, imagine these people formed a majority and they were the ones who utilized the power of the vote. Finally, see if the name Richard Nixon can now be replaced with Barack Obama.

The nation was shocked, not too long ago, by the massive efforts of President Richard Nixon and his colleagues to subvert the Constitution and take control into their own hands. Yet we cannot avoid responsibility for this. It was the will of the people. A steady drift toward increasing the power of the Presidency had been evident for years. Not only that, Mr. Nixon's past record was clear. He believed--and acted on that belief time and and again--that any means could and should be used to gather power into his own hands. The use of lies and subtler forms of deceit and the employment of aides who were expert at building an "image" with no resemblance to reality had been the the basis of his political life. A large sign in the offices of the Committee to Reelect the President in 1972 summed up the philosophy: "Winning in Politics Isn't Everything. It's the Only Thing!" Yet we elected him with an overwhelming vote. The fact that later we couldn't stomach his lies and forced his resignation is of importance, but it is of no more importance than the fact that we knowingly chose him, not once but twice. And there is no reason to suppose that we have rid ourselves of our desire for a strong, oppressive leader. It is doubtful that our people really desire the participatory democracy that was envisioned by the framers of our Constitution. It seems probable that a majority would vote for a powerful leader who could impose his will on the people. Or if they would not vote for this, the overwhelming apathy and cynicism of the majority indicates their permission for it to happen. In a recent California election 80 percent of the eligible voters age eighteen to twenty-one--the young people whose futures are at stake--failed to vote. Undoubtedly their attitude is "What's the use?" They have no belief that they can participate in government in any meaningful way. This is the perfect soil for developing a dictatorship.
[End of quote.]

Third, I will offer some remarks by the controversial social critic, Christopher Lasch. He is probably most famous for his book, The Culture of Narcissism, in which he applies the psychiatric diagnosis of narcissism to a process of decadence in American culture and government. While reading the quotations below, some people might be able to imagine a globetrotting politician who seeks the company of the famous and the admiration of the public--someone who has never contributed anything to the successful functioning of government but who is regarded as an inspirational and visionary leader.

In a society in which the dream of success has been drained of any meaning beyond itself, men have nothing against which to measure their achievements except the achievements of others. Self-approval depends on public recognition and acclaim, and the quality of this approval has undergone important changes in its own right. The good opinion of friends and neighbors, which formerly informed a man that he had lived a useful life, rested on appreciation of his accomplishments. Today men seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions but their personal attributes. They wish to be not so much esteemed as admired. They crave not fame but the glamour and excitement of celebrity. They want to be envied rather than respected. Pride and acquisitiveness, the sins of an ascendant capitalism, have given way to vanity. Most Americans could still define success as riches, fame, and power, but their actions show that they have little interest in the substance of these attainments. What a man does matters less than the fact that he has "made it." Whereas fame depends on the performance of notable deeds acclaimed in biography and works of history, celebrity--the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves--is acclaimed in the news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to "personalities." Accordingly, it is evanescent, like news itself, which loses its interest when it loses its novelty. Worldly success has always carried with it a certain poignancy, an awareness that "you can't take it with you;" but in our time, when success is so largely a function of youth, glamour, and novelty, glory is more fleeting than ever, and those who win the attention of the public worry incessantly about losing it.

Our society is narcissistic, then, in a double sense. People with narcissistic personalities, although not necessarily more numerous than before, play a conspicuous part in contemporary life, often rising to positions of eminence. Thriving on the adulation of the masses, these celebrities set the tone of public life and of private life as well, since the machinery of celebrity recognizes no boundaries between the public and the private realm. The beautiful people--to use this revealing expression to include not merely wealthy globetrotters but all those who bask, however briefly, in the full glare of the cameras--live out the fantasy of narcissistic success, which consists of nothing more substantial than a wish to be vastly admired, not for one's accomplishments but simply for oneself, uncritically and without reservation.

Modern capitalist society not only elevates narcissists to prominence, it elicits and reinforces narcissistic traits in everyone. It does this in many ways: by displaying narcissism so prominently and in such attractive forms; by undermining parental authority and thus making it hard for children to grow up; but above all by creating so many varieties of bureaucratic dependence. This dependence, increasingly widespread in a society that is not merely paternalistic but maternalistic as well, makes it increasingly difficult for people to lay to rest the terrors of infancy or to enjoy the consolations of adulthood.
[End of quotes.]

Today's essay expresses my immediate reactions to the presidential election voting results. It is an exploration of some possible dynamics which led to today's outcome. It is an attempt to include and discuss dynamics other than race: dynamics which have been obscured by the historic importance of the racial component.

The next four years will make extremely difficult demands on the President of the United States and on the citizenry. For example, see the cartoon that appeared in the Arab News today. Nevertheless, we must have high expectations of those entrusted to serve and protect the American people, and hold them accountable for their actions. No excuses. The new President must keep his promise to hear everyone's voice and to serve all Americans. Yes, the votes have been cast--for now. But the votes will be cast again in 2012. (Written 11/05/08: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland