Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sanders punditry, and some armchair psychoanalysis

Over the past few weeks, two distinct genres of takes have emerged among the punditry about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. The first is exemplified by headlines like this:


Here, we find the odd, repeated fixation on the virility of young Sanders supporters. Their politics are propelled by their powerful sex drive, and their sex life is so active that it gets turns on by something as banal as a presidential debate. In both cases, the pundits are relatively old: Luntz is in his 50s, and Steinem is in her 80s.

The second genre of take has a different but related focus:


Here, there is a singular echo of the first take: Sanders politics are angry and ambitious, just as they are virile. But in contrast to that, in the voice of the older establishment, one can hear a distinct anxiety about our democratic impotence: revolution is unrealistic, and reversing mass incarceration is impossible.


The wisdom of youth

Predictably, older pundits are inclined to explain this generational disagreement among Democrats as a matter of youthful naivete clashing with the wisdom and experience of age. Krugman, for example, brags that "I was writing about the damaging rise of the 1 percent back when many of today's Sanders supporters were in elementary school."

There may be something to this, though it's not entirely clear why age would translate into a superior understanding of national politics. No one pretends that age implies some kind of wisdom about macroeconomics, for example, and it's pretty clear that if anything, one's political judgment tends to deteriorate with age:


That said, since armchair psychoanalysis of voter intentions has become so popular these days, I'll offer some of my own. 

The anxieties of aging

Freud largely ignored psychosexual development after one reached adulthood, but he did make a few stray observations, and his successors elaborated and refined them into a theoretical framework still in use to this very day. In Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex, he invokes in passing an old German adage "junge hure, alte betschwester" - which translates roughly into "promiscuous in youth, a prude in old age". This doesn't map well onto our modern understanding of the relatively active sex lives of the elderly, but it does point to a psychological change in the sex drive that he noted in the same essay:
Finally, it is evident that mental application or concentration of attention on an intellectual accomplishment will result, especially in youthful persons...in a simultaneous sexual excitement.
As in so much of Freud, this is a primarily clinical observation that he then tried to understand theoretically - with varying degrees of success - but here, it corresponds well with our intuitive experience. Young people are physically more vigorous and energetic than older people; they have higher aspirations and ambitions in part because they feel they have the ability to pursue them. The ageing may rationalize their caution as a kind of "pragmatism" born of wisdom, but it would be surprising if their literal physical and mental deterioration didn't play a role here as well.

This dynamic has become most explicit, I think, in a curious bit of rhetoric that has become a standard line in Hillary Clinton's argument against single payer:
I do not want to see the Republicans repeal [Obamacare], and I don't want to see us start over again with a contentious debate.
Would Clinton be okay with a contentious debate that Republicans do not win? This reads awfully like explicit conflict aversion. If you already have Medicare or health insurance from your job, and your biggest problem in life is the inconvenience of going to town hall meetings or getting in arguments at cocktail parties, you might find this line attractive. But if you are young and poor, and you have a high tolerance for political struggle, you might find Clinton's position cowardly and selfish.

"Youthful longing...for the attainment of high hopes and distant goals," Carl Jung wrote,
changes into fear of life, neurotic resistances, depressions, and phobias if at some point it remains caught in the past, or shrinks from risks without which the unseen goal cannot be attained. (The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche)
This, he adds in The Soul and Death, is primarily an affliction of aging:
How different does the meaning of life seem to us when we see a young person striving for distant goals and shaping the future, and compare this...with an old man who is sinking reluctantly and impotently into the grave! 
Which is all to say something neither obscure nor even particularly controversial: old people get tired of fighting and become increasingly conservative. This is a point the boomers leaned on repeatedly during their own days of relevance, and their fixation on the active sex lives of Sander supporters suggests that they're well aware of where the youth and energy lies. Even Freud found his own regressive views challenged by his successors, and he complained about it ruefully: "Jung," he wrote, "insists on the cultural historical rights of youth to throw off any fetters that tyrannical old age with ossified view would forge for it."

After decades out of power, what we see now is that the young are beginning to insist on that right. This election is the last gasp of the boomers, and even if they manage one last victory before the demographic door closes, their time is almost up.