During election season, we sometimes give ourselves permission to regress. Not so often, perhaps, when times are good. But in bad times, we frequently suspend what we know about politics—most crucially, how difficult change is—and choose to believe that this time, by pulling a lever or touching a screen, the choice we make will have a magical effect.
In 2008, the magical thinking was primarily happening in the minds of those on the left, or the center-left, and in this election they are suffering the consequences. Progressives who pinned extravagantly high hopes on Barack Obama to marshal the powers of government are now devastated to discover that he is far from perfect. The decisive figure who seemed to radiate adult authority—he’d play fair, keep his cool, provide—couldn’t deliver, so now it’s back to the old Democratic intra-family squabbling. The president has been called a “sellout” for his uncomfortably close ties to Wall Street; he is accused of “fecklessness” for escalating the war in Afghanistan. Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, went so far as to say that he’d vote to kill the health-care bill if he were in the Senate.
During the 2010 cycle, meanwhile, the magical thinking has belonged to the right. The tea party, and those who share its values, think the solution is to destroy as much of government as possible, like a sullen teenager who believes that all would be fine if his parents simply dropped dead, and it has punished anyone in the GOP who may have seen a role for Washington, apart from waging war. The Delaware Republican Mike Castle, who’s served in public office for the better part of 35 years, was called “the King RINO”—Republican in Name Only—by his Senate primary opponent, Christine O’Donnell, for supporting TARP, and she became the nominee. Bob Bennett was cast out of office in Utah, Charlie Crist was run out of the GOP primary in Florida. In the words of Rand Paul, the Kentucky tea-party candidate who bested a far more reasonable choice in the GOP Senate primary: “Government is the servant, not the master.” It was an unfortunate comment from a man who’s expressed disdain for the Civil Rights Act. But also quite representative of where we are generally. We are thinking in fanciful, binary choices. Obama and his government must save us; he and his government must disappear. Neither option is especially real.
Politicians have always recognized and exploited these fantasies. This is, among many things, what the Obama movement of 2008 and the tea-party movement of 2010 have in common: Their candidates ran grassroots campaigns that made participants feel like they were empowered to enact those dreams, whether they were about electing a superhero or destroying one. Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, a center for psychiatric research and clinical care in Manhattan, remembers watching Obama at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Fund Dinner in 2008, when the then-senator was a candidate. “It was truly extraordinary how much we expected Obama to do,” he says. “He was going to end war, end the recession, improve education, improve our image to the world, and provide universal health care. Whether or not he could actually do it wasn’t important. It was the belief in him that was.” Obama at least knew to joke about our mythmaking, while still profiting from it. “Contrary to the rumors you have heard,” he told the crowd, “I was not born in a manger.” Beat. “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.”
While catering to this kind of thinking is as old as the country, the country has been especially receptive to it lately. The question is why. “As a child psychiatrist, I do wonder, after watching what’s going on, Can I write a prescription for this?” says Koplewicz. “Unfortunately, you can’t. These feelings aren’t logical.”
Anger in politics is not always infantile. But whenever political rage has an overtly fantastical quality—i.e., Obama is a Kenyan socialist whose sinister regime must be destroyed—and whenever adults’ laments are not entirely rational—i.e., I would like to win two wars on terror and collect every nickel of my Social Security and Medicare … all while balancing the budget and preserving my tax cuts—it’s worth at least considering these responses in a context. Often, it’s happening for a reason.
In children, and in toddlers and adolescents in particular, acts of rebellion are the result of two conflicting forces: a sense that they are in total control, and a sense that they aren’t. Toddlers revel in their newfound mastery over their bodies, yet promptly discover they’re not always allowed to come and go as they please; adolescents revel in their newfound adult bodies and aborning intellectual maturity, yet promptly discover they can’t vote, drive, or legally determine anything for themselves. “And when a child or adolescent’s need for independence collides with a parent’s need for safety, control, and conformity,” Koplewicz explains, “those conditions are a recipe for a revolt.” This may help explain why there’s been such a proliferation of tantrum metaphors to describe the electorate these days. (Typified, say, by Eugene Robinson’s observation in the Washington Post this fall: “Americans are in a mood to hold their breath until they turn blue.”)