Note: Lyle H. Rossiter Jr., M.D., is a forensic psychiatrist and author of “The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness.”
Charismatic, brilliant, mesmerizing. These and other glowing attributions have been assigned to President-elect Barack Obama in a wave of electoral celebration. As he bounds up steps and strides across platforms to roars of approval, tears of joy on ecstatic faces, even swoons, greet his eminence. A harsh political critic, formerly intent on altering his anatomy, now weeps in his presence. A woman widely known for her wisdom dubs him “The One.” The Phenomenon himself modestly declares: “We are the ones we have been waiting for,” though he really means “I am The One you have been waiting for.” With his dazzling debut on the world’s political stage, even foreigners have suspended their fashionable contempt for all things American. Millions now acknowledge a new Idol.
Of course, there is nothing new about the human tendency to create idealized personas, especially in politics. In fact, idealizing others is part of normal human development. The toddler-age child believes his mother is the most wonderful person in the world. Overlooking her flaws, he expects her to protect him (even if she doesn’t), to meet all his needs and desires (even if she doesn’t) and to relieve his pain (even if she doesn’t). By age 4 or 5, his bond with her will include something akin to worship. In those same preschool years, he will likely idealize his father for real or imagined powers, again, with something akin to worship.
By their late grade school years, children idealize rock stars and sports heroes. “Overestimation of the object,” as we psychiatrists sometimes call it, is surely present when we fall in love: the newly struck lover invariably idealizes his beloved. In our adult spiritual lives, our reverence for the deity is defined in part by its inherent idealism and by our expectations of salvation. In the normal course of development, we idealize certain ethical and moral principles, and at the core of our patriotism lies a deep reverence for the political ideals that define our country. Idealizing is in our genes.
If idealizing other persons and things is indeed normal in our human nature, we may then ask whether this tendency can go awry. That is, if we pervert this process, can we unwittingly cause ourselves serious problems? The answer is: “Yes, we can!” In fact, we have already begun.
When a child’s development proceeds well enough, his tendency to overvalue others is gradually neutralized to become a mature capacity for realistic admiration. Instead of starry-eyed worship of grand illusions, the mature citizen admires and idealizes proven values. He reveres, among other things, certain time-honored virtues and the people who practice them, especially the personal ideals of honesty, integrity, self-reliance, courage, persistence and dependability; the political ideals of individual liberty, the rights of property and contract, and the rule of law; and the ethical ideals of mutuality, decency and charity, among others.
When development does not proceed well enough, the longing of the child for a benevolent parent with superhuman powers persists into adulthood. The search for an Idealized Other easily contaminates the immature citizen’s judgment on political matters, with grave implications for societal sanity. His wish for a loving caretaker in the flesh aborts his moral commitment to the abstract principles essential to civilized freedom. Instead of seeking through limited government those protections that allow him to make a good life for himself, the immature adult seeks an omnipotent leader and benevolent government to provide it for him. In his fondest fantasy, The Modern Parental State will meet his needs and desires, rescue him from his mistakes and quiet his existential angst; The Modern Permissive Culture will indulge his appetites and rationalize his sins. The Idealized Leader who brings “Change We Can Believe In” will make us all, as Jacquez Barzun observed in “From Dawn to Decadence,” “safe and at ease in a hundred ways.”
There is more. As Critical Review’s Jeffrey Friedman has systematically observed for years, and Fox News and Jay Leno and have informally recorded on the street, very large numbers of the American electorate are profoundly ignorant about how societies work. Our government-run school systems have committed educational malpractice for decades in failing to teach children the responsibilities of citizenship in a free society, the fundamentals of economics in free markets, the political foundations of ordered liberty and the dynamics of voluntary social cooperation. The uneducated citizen expects government to run his life with myriad regulations, pay his bills with other people’s money and force others to “cooperate” with him for his benefit. Like a dependent child, he seeks freedom from want and risk, not freedom to live responsibly as he chooses.
Ignorance combined with immaturity can be politically devastating. On Nov. 4, 2008, massive numbers of immature and ignorant American voters failed to understand the ominous implications of Barack Obama’s personal history: his adolescent tutelage with Communist activist Frank Marshall Davis, his 20-year filial relationship with hate-filled Jeremiah Wright, his political and business dealings with terrorist William Ayers, his real estate transactions with felon Tony Rezko, his Fannie Mae connections to the sub-prime mortgage debacle, his vote in the Illinois Senate against medical care of aborted-live babies and his radically liberal voting record in the U.S. Senate. On Nov. 4, 2008, millions of immature and ignorant American voters saw Obama as a loving father of two little girls but ignored his choice to send them every Sunday to hear the vile racist and socialist rants of a mad preacher.
More generally, the combined immaturity and ignorance of the American electorate has produced millions of voters who understand almost nothing of substance in a candidate’s policy proposals but eagerly welcome him as an adoptive parent. The natural result of this process is a population increasingly seduced by the utopian promises of collectivism. Norman Thomas’ fondest dream, that America will embrace European socialism with all of its Marxist delusions, is becoming a reality. All of this has been brilliantly exploited by President-elect Obama, who has kept his message of change wonderfully vague and ambiguous, for the most part, while presenting himself as an unusually articulate and charming man ready to help everyone in need. With a few exceptions, he has been as evasive about his real economic, social and political intentions as he has been secretive about the political influence of his education at Columbia and Harvard. Having not defined himself clearly to America’s voters, he has made himself into an ideal target on which they can project whatever idealized traits they wish for.
Mr. Obama’s vagueness has not been complete, however. He told Joe the Plumber about his intent “to spread the wealth around,” and he told Bill O’Reilly that taking money from rich people and giving it to a struggling waitress was “the neighborly thing to do.” But spreading the wealth around Obama-style is classical redistributionist socialism. There is nothing neighborly about the IRS taking one citizen’s money at gunpoint and giving it to someone else, even if she is struggling. In fact, in a May 2001 National Public Radio interview, Obama lamented the U.S. Constitution’s “blind spot” regarding “redistributive change” and the fact that the Supreme Court had “never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and [into] more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society.” These statements reveal the fundamentally collectivist philosophy of our president-to-be and his intent to use the power of government to bring about a drastic change in America. Furthermore, it is virtually certain that he will consolidate a liberal Supreme Court for decades to come. What Mr. Obama has in mind is change that no lover of liberty can ever believe in.
The prognosis for freedom in America is guarded at best. If a man’s character can be judged by the company he keeps, and if what he says is any indication of what he intends, then a large number of immature and ignorant voters have just elected a very dangerous man to the most powerful office in the world.