The extremism, factual distortion and downright absurdity of the US Republican Party is both baffling and alarming. How, conceivably, can Romney, Paul, Backmann and Palin actually believe what they say? Are they joking when they suggest Obama is a Muslim, not American, a communist, a fascist? Are they lying, dissembling or simply insane? Given their immense political power, and the possibility that they will once again occupy the White House, the Republican claim to sanity is of some importance, not only in America but across the globe.
Of the many forms of insanity, our main concern with the Republican Party is with the possible psychosis of its more extreme adherents. Psychosis entails an inability to separate fantasy from reality. So, for example, when a sufferer declares the Georgian mafia is addressing him directly through the fillings on his teeth, we would be concerned for his mental health. Neurosis, anxiety, depression and the like, though painful, retain a connection with reality. Psychosis is a state of far more profound distortion, and may even turn on a failure to adequately separate subjective feeling (the strong sensation of Georgian voices emanating from the teeth) from the scientific impossibility of so intrusive a form of communication.
Psychosis, as conceived by contemporary medical psychiatry, is a post-Enlightenment phenomenon. It turns on a general, and quintessentially modern, differentiation between the subjective world of feeling and the objective world of fact. When, for example, the ancient Athenians had no conception of luck, and so imagined the rain that resulted in the loss of a battle was the result of a character weakness in their General – and therefore executed their General – we would say that they failed (were unable, unwilling) to distinguish the physical phenomenon of the weather from the personal characteristics of their commander. Similarly, it makes no sense to suggest that those who hung witches in medieval Europe were psychotic, as they were immersed in a culture that did not distinguish between the subjective world of value and that of the objective world. Witches were seen to express their personal concerns in the external physical world, and it was this that so frightened their accusers.
The gradual and ineluctable differentiation of value spheres was, according to Max Weber, one of the defining characteristics of modernity. Following Kant, he described a cognitive and psychological separation of distinct domains of reason. It is this cognitive differentiation that seems to evade the Republican extremists, and to render them open to the charge of utter insanity.
Observe, for example, the interaction between an anti-health care bill activist and the Democratic Representative from Massachusetts, Barney Frank. Here, in despair at the bald absurdity of accuser’s position, Frank compares the debater’s cognitive capacity to that of “a dining room table.” It is a shocking moment, as within it, we find the fundamentally primitive, pre-modern and perceptually distorted psychosis evinced by extremist Republicanism today. How can one argue with madness? There can be no falsification, no disenchantment and no overcoming of the gut-chosen bigotry and scapegoating so evident in their views. If Romney is right, and half of America is of little consequence, then we must also conclude that his own half are functionally insane. On their lack of reason turns the future of the world.
Lievin, A. America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, London: Harper, (2005).
Wolin, S. Democracy Incorporated, Princeton: Princeton University Press, (2010).
Weber, M. ‘Science as a Vocation’, in H. Gerth & C. Wright Mills (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, (London: Routledge): (1948), pp.129-56.
Jürgen Habermas, Knowledge and Human Interests, London: Heinemann, 1973.