Are conservatives mentally disordered?

  • Posted on: 23 June 2017
  • By: benfell

It's a question I intentionally evaded in my dissertation, writing instead that in that work, I wanted to specifically address conservative arguments.1 But having done all that, if you ask me if I think on some level that conservatives are mentally ill or disordered, my answer would be yes.

And the question gains urgency as Donald Trump, who might merely have been repulsively quirky as a reality show host, has risen to the presidency, provoking a number of mental health professionals to question his mental health and suitability for office.2 The question of context appears important as some psychiatrists cite a "duty to warn" against Trump as a threat to others.3 More might speak up but feel constrained by the "Goldwater Rule," which apparently only strictly applies to psychiatrists4 but has been widely (and I think generally correctly) embraced by mental health professionals5:

As for the Goldwater Rule itself, it is essentially a gag order, part of the code of ethics of the American Psychiatric Association. It was created in the years after the 1964 presidential election, when the fiery conservative Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. (Goldwater ran on anti-communist rhetoric suggesting that he just might start a nuclear war, on the slogan “In Your Heart You Know He’s Right”; Lyndon Johnson’s counter-slogan was “In Your Guts You Know He’s Nuts.”) Press outlets, notably a magazine called Fact, asked psychiatrists and psychologists to diagnose Goldwater, and they did, enthusiastically and damningly.6
Fact magazine called this “the most intensive character analysis ever made of a living human being.” What it was: a complete embarrassment to the field of psychiatry and the beginning of the end for Fact. After his election loss, Goldwater successfully sued the magazine for libel; the $75,000 settlement put the small publication out of business.7

But then there is that "duty to warn" and, apparently, some 800 mental health professionals have banded together to assert that the Goldwater Rule cannot be absolute8:

“Duty to Warn” is a term with some history. In 1974, a trial known as the Tarasoff case established the law — now in force in 38 states — saying that if a patient is in imminent danger of physically hurting someone, his or her doctor may break confidentiality and alert the likely victim or call the police.9

The question I'm meaning to take up here is what it would take to put some scholarly weight behind that suspicion that conservatives are disordered.

First, we have to settle the question of what constitutes a disorder. Some mental health professionals, I think including all the ones I respect, disdain labels and categorizations entirely. They seem to feel that such are at best a distraction from the individual cases that come into their offices and will employ 'diagnoses' only when necessary to satisfy a bureaucratic requirement, be it insurance, disability, or something else. And the organizational history, here involving two separate groups, the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association, is not pretty:

Only in 1968 was the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders rewritten, for its second edition, to drop the grievous classification of nonconformists, such as homosexuals, under “sociopathic personality disorder.” Two contract psychologists devised the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, acknowledged by President George W. Bush. The American Psychological Association has admitted that key officials secretly “colluded with Department of Defense officials to loosen ethical guidelines” motivated by the wish to “curry favor with DoD.” Only in 2006 did the APA strictly prohibit psychiatrists from participating in “enhanced interrogations.”10

As I look at the foregoing, a second question jumps out at me. Whose suffering? Are we narrowly construing as significant, as some seem to do, the suffering of the individual? Or can we consider, for example, the prospect of thermonuclear war and the widespread suffering that that would entail?

We should remember that early in the Cold War, anti-communists in the United States advocated a first strike on the Soviet Union, not on any evidence, not even on an assurance, but rather on a slender hope that enough of 'us' would survive to found a new 'American' society from the ashes.11 Nuclear deterrance was gained through a doctrine of "mutually assured destruction," in which each side knew that if it launched a first strike, the other side would retain sufficient capacity to launch a devastating counterstrike. Humanity lived with that fear for decades, which was its own harm.

But there are also questions of how we decide which suffering counts and to what degree. Yes, I think anti-communists were stark raving mad to contemplate destroying the world as they did. They, however, lived in fear of what they saw as intolerable tyranny. Adjusting how we weigh these fears could produce a conclusion that I am stark raving mad for agreeing with the anti-anti-Communist slogan, "Better Red than dead."

This draws in a third question. The experience of the Cold War implicated entire political classes and entire military-industrial complexes in both the Soviet Union and the U.S. as all were complicit in preserving that fear and as Russia and the U.S. retain considerable stockpiles of nuclear weapons today. Are we to count all participants in those groups as insane? And not many political leaders would escape harsh scrutiny for an almost certainly even more deadly failure to come to grips with climate change.12 Will we now count nearly all politicians all around the world as insane? (I'm not saying we shouldn't.) If not, how and where do we draw the line? (It might be worth remembering Erich Fromm's take on our entire society as profoundly harmful.13)

Of these questions, only the first seems to me reasonably resolvable. We can decide that, regardless of how it is rationalized, choices that would or in fact do inflict unnecessary suffering, whether on the self, others, or both, indicate a disorder. Some might reductionalistically object to allowing context to weigh on whether a condition should be described as a 'disorder,' but the potential to harm oneself or others, and thus to produce suffering, seems to me entirely context-dependent. Others may question what suffering is necessary, but a humanistic starting point would suggest that society has a reciprocal duty to all its members.

On the second question, I think any notion that to count a condition as a disorder only if it produces suffering in the self seems calculated to exclude the likes of Donald Trump. We must extend the remit to include suffering in others. But conflicts over what counts and what counts more as suffering seem intractable.

Finally, on the third question, I would be willing to accept as disordered any desire to impose authority, and thus suffering, over others, thus including nearly all politicians everywhere. But I also understand as an anarchist that my anarchist proclivities just might have something to do with this assessment. And I'm not seeing how we settle that.