A Review of The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness

Liberals Are Misguided, Not Mentally Ill

By Aaron Goldstein—— Bio and Archives--May 23, 2008

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A Review of The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness by Lyle H. Rossiter, Jr. M.D.


Conservatives were justly aghast when in 2003 a study came to light arguing their political beliefs were a form of mental illness.  The study, titled Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition was led by Dr. John T. Jost, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford University (who is now at New York University).  (www.sulloway.org/PoliticalConservatism(2003).pdf) Jost’s homepage at NYU states that he and his colleagues are:

(C)arrying out studies to determine whether certain epistemic and existential variables (such as uncertainty avoidance, need for cognitive closure, and death anxiety) are associated more with conservative or right-wing political orientations than with other political orientations. (www.psych.nyu.edu/jost/)

In layman’s terms, Jost and company associate conservative beliefs with fear, anger, depression, pessimism, disgust and contempt as well as mental rigidity, closed-mindedness and fear of death. 

Aside from caricaturizing conservatives, the ire over this study was raised on two other grounds.  First, that the authors lumped together Ronald Reagan, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Rush Limbaugh “because they all preached a return to an idealized past and favored or condoned inequality in some form.”  Second, it was also learned the authors received $1.2 million in grants from the federal government through the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation to conduct the study.  (www.nationalreview.com/york/york080103.asp

Dr. Shawn Smith, a licensed psychologist who practices in Denver, does a nice job of debunking the study on his blog.  (www.ironshrink.com/articles.php?ID=070116_jost_conservative_study_methodology)

Dr. Smith criticizes Jost and company for their questionable definition of conservatism, an unrepresentative description of the conservative population (that’s where the Reagan/Hitler analogy comes into play) and for their confirmation bias. 

While Dr. Jost and his colleagues might hide behind a sophisticated artifice to show their contempt for conservatives their behavior has much in common with the attitudes of many liberals towards conservatives.  If a liberal cannot or will not engage a conservative in a political discussion that liberal will call the conservative a fascist or question his or her mental state altogether.  By dismissing conservatives as being out of their minds, liberals rationalize the only political discussions worth having are with those of like mind.  While such discussions can serve some useful purpose when one is in an environment where everyone agrees to agree it causes atrophy and stagnates critical thought.  It is also a sure fire recipe for boredom. 

Unfortunately, conservatives are just as guilty of this behavior as liberals.  This brings me to the book The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness by Lyle Rossiter, Jr. M.D.  Dr. Rossiter, a forensic psychologist based in Chicago, argues the “modern liberal agenda” is incompatible with both human nature and the human condition.  Utilizing Erik Erikson’s dichotomies of development as his framework, Rossiter theorizes the modern liberal agenda impedes people from developing personal autonomy and entering into voluntary co-operation with others.  These impediments are driven by liberal politicians through the “Modern Parental State” rendering autonomous adults into a child like dependency thus undermining “ordered liberty.”  Rossiter writes, “Under the creed of modern liberalism, he is not called to maturity but is instead invited to begin a second childhood.” (p.252)  Now Rossiter isn’t the first conservative or libertarian to argue that modern liberalism, their social policies in particular, promote dependence and rob initiative.  But Rossiter goes further and describes this dependency as pathological in its nature.  Even if one strongly disagrees with modern liberal philosophy, platform and policy (as I do) describing modern liberalism as pathological is a stretch.

There are four problems with Dr. Rossiter’s arguments against modern liberalism.  First, Rossiter never properly defines what exactly a modern liberal is.  Second, Rossiter occasionally uses crude and unprofessional language which has the effect of undermining the academic underpinnings of his argument.  Third, Rossiter makes statements that he has not taken care to verify.  Fourth, his prescription to “eradicate” modern liberalism is impractical at best and at worst an invitation to down the path of totalitarianism.

If one is going to define modern liberalism as pathological it would be useful to clearly define modern liberalism itself.  Dr. Rossiter does state modern liberal policies “are fundamentally socialist in their effects” and “committed to collectivism.”  But this isn’t a substitute for an actual definition.  Dr. Rossiter’s discussion of major liberal principles doesn’t shed much light either.  To be sure, by reading Rossiter one can infer that he doesn’t think much of liberalism in the 2000s nor the Great Society of the 1960s or for that matter the New Deal of the 1930s.  But where does “modern liberalism” begin for Dr. Rossiter?  At one point, Rossiter complains about the ascent of the liberal agenda over the past century.  At another, he laments the “political mischief” of liberal intellectuals over the past two centuries.  Does Dr. Rossiter trace “modern liberalism” all the way back to the early 1800s.  Does Dr. Rossiter see Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama as one in the same?  The good doctor also has a habit of using the terms modern liberal, liberal and radical liberal interchangeably.  This lack of consistency in usage of terms does little to help Dr. Rossiter’s case.

For the most part, however, Dr. Rossiter’s language is clinical in its tone.  This is especially true when he discusses Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.  At times, however, The Liberal Mind becomes a polemic.  Not that being a polemicist is a bad thing unto itself.  Unfortunately, when Dr. Rossiter writes in that manner he goes way over the top and crash lands.  For instance, Dr. Rossiter likens the liberal politician to a child molester who “grooms his constituents until their natural cautions against yielding power in exchange for favors dissolves in reassurance.” (p. 30)  Where does one begin?  One might dislike the agenda of the liberal politician as well as his or her methods.  However, pedophilia is a violent criminal act that traumatizes its victims for life.  Its victims often require lifelong counseling.  One would think that someone with Dr. Rossiter’s medical and psychological training would utilize more professional language.  By likening the liberal politician to the child molester all Dr. Rossiter has done is trivialize pedophilia.  This is a disservice and he ought to know better.

Towards the end of The Liberal Mind, Dr. Rossiter spends about twenty pages writing from a first person narrative portraying the “confession” of a radical liberal (again it appears that he views radical liberals and modern liberals as one in the same).  It has to be actually read to be believed.  The language he employs is so overwrought one can hardly take his argument seriously.  One might be very tempted to characterize this language as a prolonged act of projection:

Seeing myself as an innocent victim of injustice and seeing others as cruel villains who are greedy and withholding gives me a way of relating to the world.  I can bond with others who feel as I do, and this kind of relatedness fills some of the emptiness and quiets some of the insecurity that remains from my childhood.  It is especially important that in this bond I can feel attached to something and someone.  Being attached in this manner makes me feel safe and secure and reduces my anxieties about vulnerability, helplessness, separation and abandonment left over from my childhood.  I can also get sympathy and pity for my suffering; that helps to make up for the lack of tenderness that I experienced as a child.  Indeed, my bond with other victims against villains creates a family of sufferers, a confederacy of victims, with whom I can identify. (p.p. 353-4)

Not surprisingly, Dr. Rossiter occasionally makes statements that he has not or cannot verify.  He claims that people whose initiative has been somehow inhibited “will often assume a childlike role in relation to government, voting for those who promise material security through collective obligation rather than for those committed to protection of individual liberty.” (p.191) Dr. Rossiter also claims that people diagnosed with dependant personality disorder are “especially likely to find the liberal agenda’s invitation to the welfare state appealing” and people diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder “may also accept the collectivists’ invitation to government welfare programs.”  (p.p.230-1).  How does he know this to be true?  He cites no empirical data to back up those statements.  If Dr. Rossiter had offered information concerning the voting behavior of people diagnosed with mental illnesses or studies examining their political attitudes such an observation might be worth something.  Indeed, this might be something for a graduate student with interests in both political science and psychology to investigate further.  Of course, as with any inquiry there are also other factors that must be taken into consideration such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, religious affiliation, geography (urban/rural) when examining such matters.  But a responsible inquiry would take such things into account.  Unfortunately, Dr. Rossiter is content to have the reader accept his statements at their face value. 

This isn’t to say that Dr. Rossiter doesn’t have legitimate quibbles with liberal thought and action.  In using the example of ending hunger in a third world country he raises several logistical questions.  Has this country ever been self-sufficient?  How is such a program to be funded and administered?  How does one obtain the support of those to whom the program is targeted?  Sometimes liberals don’t think these things through.  At other times, liberals pay too much attention to one set of problems while paying little heed to others.  Yet the same thing could be said of conservatives concerning the planning and execution of their programs.  But Dr. Rossiter believes liberals do not concern themselves with such questions at all and that these programs are little more than a feel good exercise for the liberal politician and the liberal vote.  This might be true in some instances but Dr. Rossiter once again does not provide examples to back up his assertions.  Now one could argue that liberals are often misguided with regard to their ideas and the implementation of those ideas.  But being misguided is not the same thing as being mentally ill.  If everyone who was ever misguided about anything at some point in their life was construed to be mentally ill, I doubt there would be any well adjusted people around.

This brings me to my final criticism of The Liberal Mind.  Dr. Rossiter views liberalism not as a legitimate, competing political philosophy but rather as a neurosis which originated out of an early childhood trauma that requires treatment and ought to be eradicated altogether.  He goes as far as to declare that “the neurosis of the liberal mind is an enduring maladaptive and harmful pattern of thinking, emoting, behaving and relating and this strongly resembles a personality disorder.” (p.403)  If Dr. Rossiter could get, for lack of a better term, modern liberal neurosis included as a personality disorder in the forthcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – V), which is expected to come out in 2011, he most certainly would.  Dr. Rossiter writes, “Once the liberal neurosis is no longer disguised as a rational political philosophy, it can be analyzed and treated in whatever manner is necessary (italics mine) to overcome symptomatic distress and functional impairment.” (p. 405)

Dr. Rossiter goes on to recommend a regime of “educational programs” focusing on free market economics and constitutional democracy amongst other things to cure the modern liberal mind.  Such a program conjures up images of Malcolm McDowell undergoing the Ludovico Technique watching films with his eyes pried open in A Clockwork Orange.  Would Dr. Rossiter compel those he has diagnosed with modern liberal neurosis to watch films featuring Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy and Nancy Pelosi while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement until they became physically ill?  I’m sure Dr. Rossiter would arrange for his patients to receive soothing dosages of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell.

But what if the modern liberal were not to consent to such a program?  Would Dr. Rossiter use the state to compel his patient to undergo treatment in whatever manner necessary?  Now I know full well such a state of affairs is highly unlikely to come to pass.  However, by viewing liberalism (modern or otherwise) as a mental illness that requires treatment rather than as a legitimate set of political beliefs with which one is perfectly free to disagree in an open society, Dr. Rossiter has taken the first step on a journey towards totalitarianism. 

If any solace can be found from The Liberal Mind, one can take comfort in knowing that Dr. Rossiter’s research wasn’t paid for at taxpayer expense.

Aaron Goldstein was a card carrying member of the socialist New Democratic Party of Canada (NDP). Since 09/11, Aaron has reconsidered his ideological inclinations and has become a Republican.  Aaron lives and works in Boston.

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