Psychology of Democracy

Donald Winnicott, the great psychologist of early infancy, studied democracy from the psychological point of view. He said, among many other things, that the erosion of national boundaries, the idea of unchecked global flows, and the concept of a world government create extreme anxiety in psychologically healthy individuals. Boundaries are extremely important to a healthy psyche. The incapacity to tolerate boundaries is indicative of a whole host of psychopathologies. He wrote this back in 1949, or around that date, by the way. 

Also, he said that the idea of a woman in the highest position of political power in democratic societies is perceived as disturbing by many psychologically healthy individuals. It subconsciously returns them to the earliest memories of when the mother was the all-powerful entity in their lives, holding the power of life and death over them. (The awareness of the father as a separate being from the mother develops at a later stage). The desire to judge female politicians at the highest level by a different standard is neither malicious nor malignant. It’s simply a reflection of the journey that a human psyche makes in the process of its formation. 

To develop Winnicott’s idea, berating people for having these feelings reinforces the perception of their being in the presence of a scolding, disapproving mother. This is clearly counterproductive for a female politician. There is a whole field of study here waiting to be discovered that would come up with strategies to work with this reality instead of denouncing it. 

Another thing he said is that societies with a great number of healthy, normal, happy families are better at democracy than societies where unhealthy family dynamics are prevalent. 

These are just a few tiny observations on what is a complex and important work of a great psychologist.

20 thoughts on “Psychology of Democracy”

    1. He started developing these ideas in 1949 in an article (I don’t remember the title), then wrote about them throughout the 1950s and in 1965 dedicated a chapter to the issue in the book titled The Family and Individual Development. I think it’s Chapter 7, if I’m not mistaken.


        1. Do I look like I’m in the mood for anybody’s pouting right now?

          I have explained close to a thousand times that I’m an academic in the field of Spanish literature. This is a blog. I don’t publish my scholarly articles here. I don’t provide bibliographies created according to the MLA handbook here. All of the book notes I publish here are not scholarly reviews but my musings on the subject of the books I choose to read for fun.

          And I already said all this many times before.


    1. I never heard about Lakoff.

      Merkel offers a great case study in what I discussed in this post. I’m personally not very interested in her but somebody should do the analysis.


      1. Lakoff believes that people respond to political figures and parties based on a strict father/nuturant mother framework of families. Democrats are the “Mommy” party and Republicans are the “Daddy” party and people vote based on which framework appeals most to them.
        I’m vastly oversimplifying.
        Understanding Trump

        Lakoff is big on frames — if you just frame it right, people will listen. Well, maybe.


          1. \ I’m happy to look at anything that departs from the supremely boring shrieks about “racistsexists.”

            I liked his advice to “not to repeat false conservative claims and then rebut them with the facts. Instead, go positive.”

            Another proposal is more controversial, but at least partly correct:

            “Give up identity politics. No more women’s issues, black issues, Latino issues. Their issues are all real, and need public discussion. But they all fall under freedom issues, human issues. And address poor whites! Appalachian and rust belt whites deserve your attention as much as anyone else. Don’t surrender their fate to Trump, who will just increase their suffering.”

            Also, while I was reading Tuvia’s book, I noticed the similarity between black, Latino and poor whites issues. All of them live in horrible environments without normal chance to find a decent job, without hope for something better.

            As an aside, Tuvia checked how the poor faired in the Obama’s former district, and the poor people there don’t think Obama helped them. Only one small boy (<10 years old) told life is better now than more than a decade ago because there are more food stamps.


      2. The oddest thing about Merkel in this regard is that everyone in Germany seems to be completely conscious of the fact she is a mother figure. People regularly and only sort of jokingly refer to her as Mutti (Mommy), it’s been going on for many years, and it’s wide spread and comfortable enough that other parties use it in their add campaigns (I have an anti-Merkel “Tschüss Mutti!” sticker from the Green Party somewhere in my office), and it regularly gets used in headlines by the less serious newspapers. As someone who follows German news but hasn’t lived in Germany for a very long time, I find the whole thing totally bizarre.


        1. “People regularly and only sort of jokingly refer to her as Mutti (Mommy)”

          Around ten or twelve years ago a Polish magazine famously called Merkel “Europe’s Step-mother” with a very tasteless picture on the cover.


    2. I’m not sure how much these decisions are driven by deep indications of psychological health. I am not someone’s mother or therapist so the projections of everyone’s mommy issues onto me whenever I try to assume authority annoys me.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well, for whatever reason, motherly (or grandmotherly) women “in the highest position of political power in democratic societies” aren’t doing so well lately. Theresa May, Merkel, and Hillary come to mind…


    1. Hey, it’s not like men are doing much better. Putin, Maduro, Kim Jong-un, or whatever his name, Modi, the list is endless. Democracy stinks. But everything else, etc, etc.


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