Election and Projection

Having introduced Erich Fromm into the discussion last night, I think the following quote says so much about the way this election is unfolding and how Americans relate to one another:

Still another form of neurotic love lies in the use of projective mechanisms for the purpose of avoiding one’s own problems, and being concerned with the defects and frailties of the “loved” person instead. Individuals behave in this respect very much as groups, nations or religions do. They have a fine appreciation for even the minor shortcomings of the other person, and go blissfully ahead ignoring their own—always busy trying to accuse or to reform the other person. If two people both do it—as is so often the case—the relationship of love becomes transformed into one of mutual projection. If I am domineering or indecisive, or greedy, I accuse my partner of it, and depending on my character, I either want to cure him or to punish him. The other person does the same—and both thus succeed in ignoring their own problems and hence fail to undertake any steps which would help them in their own development.

By quoting this and raising the point of mutuality. I’m certainly not claiming any level of equivalence between the Democrats and Republicans at this point — Trump’s level of projection onto Democrats is staggering and limitless. But it’s no doubt true that Democrats project their own political weaknesses onto the other side, especially when it comes to inconvenient issues, such as urban Democrats inability to effectively tackle racial injustice issues in policing, over many decades.

Also, for anyone uncomfortable looking at politics in the frame of love, may I remind you how often our politics demands us to make displays of how much we love our country while never examining what that real love means.

What I find especially useful in this construction is the term “neurotic marriage” which is a very apt phrase for the state of our two party democracy. The country is locked into this endless tit-for-tat battle between two political parties, one of them being especially aggressive and abusive, inevitably pulling the other into this horrific war of self denying. After awhile, it makes you wonder if the Civil War might have been settled wrongly, not in the way slavery was correctly abolished, but for the forced return of the South to a nation they continue to fit within poorly. Fromm likens the way our polity has been trapped in this schism as akin to children who have had parental woes projected onto them:

Another form of projection is the projection of one’s own problems on the children. First of all such projection takes place not infrequently in the wish for children. In such cases the wish for children is primarily determined by projecting one’s own problem of existence on that of the children. When a person feels that he has not been able to make sense of his own life, he tries to make sense of it in terms of the life of his children. But one is bound to fail within oneself and for the children. The former because the problem of existence can be solved by each one only for himself, and not by proxy; the latter because one lacks in the very qualities which one needs to guide the children in their own search for an answer. Children serve for projective purposes also when the question arises of dissolving an unhappy marriage. The stock argument of parents in such a situation is that they cannot separate in order not to deprive the children of the blessings of a unified home. Any detailed study would show, however, that the atmosphere of tension and unhappiness within the “unified family” is more harmful to the children than an open break would be—which teaches them at least that man is able to end an intolerable situation by a courageous decision.

Perhaps we’ll discover in this election that my pessimism about America’s ability to stay together is unwarranted and that faced with a pull towards authoritarianism, we can become a more unified nation. The alternative, however, is that we might determine that this nation is incapable of standing united only when it becomes too late and that we will allow the aggressor to claim its own unity and victory before we had the courage to admit that this country probably stopped working as one long ago.

It is on this point where Fromm is most eloquent. Whether in democracy or loving relationship, conflict is never the problem — conflict is healthy and endemic to the human condition. But it can only serve that clarifying purpose when both sides of the relationship approach the inevitable battles with centered, open hearts:

One other frequent error must be mentioned here. The illusion, namely, that love means necessarily the absence of conflict. Just as it is customary for people to believe that pain and sadness should be avoided under all circumstances, they believe that love means the absence of any conflict. And they find good reasons for this idea in the fact that the struggles around them seem only to be destructive interchanges which bring no good to either one of those concerned. But the reason for this lies in the fact that the “conflicts” of most people are actually attempts to avoid the real conflicts. They are disagreements on minor or superficial matters which by their very nature do not lend themselves to clarification or solution. Real conflicts between two people, those which do not serve to cover up or to project, but which are experienced on the deep level of inner reality to which they belong, are not destructive. They lead to clarification, they produce a catharsis from which both persons emerge with more knowledge and more strength. This leads us to emphasize again something said above.

Love is possible only if two persons communicate with each other from the center of their existence, hence if each one of them experiences himself from the center of his existence. Only in this “central experience” is human reality, only here is aliveness, only here is the basis for love. Love, experienced thus, is a constant challenge; it is not a resting place, but a moving, growing, working together; even whether there is harmony or conflict, joy or sadness, is secondary to the fundamental fact that two people experience themselves from the essence of their existence, that they are one with each other by being one with themselves, rather than by fleeing from themselves. There is only one proof for the presence of love: the depth of the relationship, and the aliveness and strength in each person concerned; this is the fruit by which love is recognized.

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