In 1964, Fact magazine published a survey of psychiatrists that claimed to show that Barry Goldwater was psychologically unfit to serve as president. The article set off a major controversy. Goldwater sued for libel and won. And the American Psychiatric Association (APA) adopted an new ethical principle that quickly became known as the Goldwater Rule: “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion [on a candidate for public office] unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorization for such a statement.”
The Goldwater Rule is still among the APA’s ethical principles, but it only binds psychiatrists. This year, a number of psychologists have offered professional opinions on Donald Trump, whose candidacy and political personality have struck many observers as unusual. For example, in the June issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Dan P. McAdams, Chair of the Psychology Department at Northwestern University, published a long piece on “The Mind of Donald Trump.” Such articles have in turn led to articles, such as this one from Tuesday’s New York Times, recalling the Goldwater Rule and musing on what limits psychologists and others with apparent professional expertise should place on diagnoses-from-afar of candidates.
The chief concern that led to the Goldwater Rule in 1964 was that psychiatrists should not claim to be able to diagnose people from afar. These days there is a further concern: that even if one could diagnose a candidate, the notion that a psychiatric disability ought to be seen as disqualifying one from office is the sort of ableist stigmatization of mental illness that we have worked hard to avoid in other areas of our culture. Medieval historian and disability rights journalist David Perry – who blogs at How Did We Get Into This Mess? – has been among the most prominent voices making this point, though as he points out, he is far from alone. Kim Sauder, who blogs at crippledscholar, has argued:
People are using mental health speculation as a way to discredit Trump and make him appear incompetent. This is deeply stigmatizing to people with mental health diagnoses.
If the logic is that by framing Trump as having a mental illness makes him unfit for the presidency then the message is that mental illness is equated with incompetence and that is a dangerous thing to not only assert but to advocate which is exactly what anyone saying “Trump is [insert usually bigoted term for mental illness here] are doing.
Bigotry, Sauder argues, is not a mental illness and shouldn’t be confused with one.
If Goldwater is seen as the paradigmatic case of psychiatric diagnostic overreach in politics, Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton is the figure most often referred to by those concerned with the stigmatization of mental illness in our political life. Eagleton was McGovern’s initial running mate in 1972 until, shortly after the Democratic Convention, it was revealed that he suffered from depression and had undergone electroshock therapy. After days of public criticism and pressure on the campaign, Eagleton left the ticket only eighteen days after he was nominated.
Earlier this summer, a group of psychotherapists attempted to get around these objections by issuing a “public manifesto” entitled “Citizen Therapists Against Trumpism.” They were not, they insisted, trying to psychologize a person, but rather a movement. Although speaking as therapists, the authors of the manifesto were, in effect, writing about social psychology. The heyday of understanding politics through social psychology was the mid twentieth century. Before, during, and immediately after World War II, scholars like Erich Fromm, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer and mental health professionals like Richard Brickner tried to explain fascism in social psychological terms. These theories were easily adapted to explain Communism. In The Vital Center, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., understood “Doughface progressives” – his term for fellow travelers – as driven principally by psychological weakness:
[T]he Doughface really does not want power or responsibility. For him the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where lie can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world. Politics becomes, not a means of getting things done, but an outlet for private grievances and frustrations. The progressive once disciplined by the responsibilities of power is often the most useful of all public servants; but he, alas, ceases to be a progressive and is regarded by all true Doughfaces as a cynical New Dealer or a tired Social Democrat.
Having renounced power, the Doughface seeks compensation in emotion.
These social psychological understandings of politics never entirely went away. Indeed, one mid-20th-century social psychological concept — the “authoritarian personality” – has enjoyed a tremendous revival in the last decade or so. John Dean’s critique of the George W. Bush administration Conservatives Without Conscious (2006) drew extensively on the work of Bob Altemeyer, a University of Manitoba political scientist who had been working on right-wing authoritarianism since the 1980s. Since the middle of the last decade, the idea that authoritarianism as a social type explains the recent history of the American right has had a strong presence in popular political discourse. A Politico Magazine piece from January of this year, for example, argued that authoritarianism was “The One Weird Trait That Predicts Whether You’re A Trump Supporter.”
On a more mundane level, Americans often turn to psychological explanations for voting behavior, though usually of those with whom we disagree. Clinton supporters in the primaries frequently accused Sanders supporters of being motivated by misogyny. Now many accuse those thinking of voting for third party candidates of immaturity or narcissism.
And while psychologically diagnosing political candidates from afar remains controversial and distasteful to many, discussions about candidates’ “temperament,” a term used to describe someone’s mental and emotional make-up, are nearly universally seen as fair game.
The widespread use of psychological concepts in our political talk points to a deeper fact: psychology and politics are deeply bound up with each other in our culture in ways that go far beyond what psychiatrists and psychologists might have to say about candidates or voters. Notions of psychological normality are intertwined with ideas of individualism. Happiness is both a core goal of psychological practice and an important touchstone in our nation’s founding document. There is much to be gained by understanding the deeper links between political and psychological ideas in America, both today and in the past.