American Psychological Association

120th Annual Convention
Orlando, Florida, August 2-5 2012

The Psychology of Dysfunctional Democracy: Where's Franklin Roosevelt When you Need Him?


DREW WESTEN - Harvard professor, consultant to media (CNN, etc.), caucuses, and politicians, author of "The Psychology of Dysfunctional Democracy"

Plenary Session
Saturday, 4 August 2012

Drew Westen - APA 2012

"The Psychology of Dysfunctional Democracy: Where's Franklin Roosevelt When you Need Him?"
Drew Westen, Ph.D.

Now here is a man of many facts and soundbytes! Historical, political, and psychological. Drew Westen is someone who lives and breathes what might be called "the psychology of politics".

Dr. Westen forewarns that he will be sharp but equally critical in his comments about candidates, parties, and even a quasi-3rd party: 'tea'. ("You can't put lead in your teapot without brain damage.")

Westen began with an FDR quote which he likened to his tea-party characterization:

"No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By living wages I mean more than a bare subsistence level - I mean the wages of decent living." - FDR

Dr. Westen noted that over the past 50 years we've gone from the popular perception that Government is benevolent and trustworthy to the opposite view.

"The government is actually not working that badly in many ways", Westen said. For example Medicaid and Social Security still exist, our troops are coming home... "So, how do we get back to Kansas?"

Actually, speaking of Wizard of Oz metaphors, some new variations were offered up in terms of the choices before Americans. Prevalent impressions:

- Tea Partiers: If I only had a brain

- "Fiscal Conservatives": If I only had a heart

- Democrats: If I only had courage

- The most popular political figure and institution in America today is "none of the above".

"The Presidential Contest: A Hobson's Choice"

Anyone of you ever given a Rorschach?
That's Romney.

We don't know what's in his heart - is it an empty vessel waiting to be filled? Even Romney seems not to know. You're for guns, gun control...immigration reform and self-deportation. He never said these things as Governor. So... 'he's either a bat or an insect' (his Rorschach profile).

[Those familiar with the concept of 'primary process' might enjoy the Westen version of the 'GOP primary process' - 'unintelligent design, naturally selecting for inbreeding of ignorance and intolerance'.] And his sponsors: "No concern for a)truth b)common decency, or c)what you'd said before."

Like McCain, he comes in 'twisted like a pretzel' to make it, and 'flip-flopping all over'. Soul of a lizard, all stripped away...except for the aggression. And preaching the Gospel of St. George [Bush:] In 8 years he destroyed the world economy.

And now...

Anyone ever given a Rorschach?
Obama. First year.

He never gave any indication of what he felt... did surveys on attitudes towards gays but consistently opposed 'gay marriage'.
His first morning as president he played golf with the president of JP Morgan. His 'peeps'? "I guess if that's popularism, CEO's are his 'peeps' "

He had both houses, super-majorities, and people rooting for him. Yet he "chose not to take bold action and has proven himself unable to create jobs, the top agenda of voters".

2010 - The stimulus is gutted. Hopefully Obama will learn why people hate him, and how to talk about jobs in a motivational way.

If Obama is elected: 4 more years of gridlock? "Where his empathy circuits have been firing during his first 3 years, I have no idea." But if there is 4 more years of gridlock in a dysfunctional House, bottom line: "Which do you prefer: A Depression or another Lost Decade?"

So, perhaps dysfunction is the problem. What are the causes?

Causes of Dysfunction:

1. "Money can't buy me love. But it can buy me Washington." ('How much to talk with you - for a minute? Two minutes?')

2. The end of the two political paradigms of the 20th century

3. The pollster-driven life [And: "their answers are invariably wrong."]

Some additional factors to consider, beginning with cause #1- Money

-- The cost of the average Senate seat in 2010 was $10 million
-- If you stick rotten apples into a barrel the whole barrel gets rotten. "If I could name 15 Senators who are not bought, I'd be lucky".
-- Corruption is in the eye of the beholder.
-- Why has no major player been prosecuted on Wall Street? Americans are angry about this!

Returning to FDR, Westen again quoted him as saying (paraphrasing) 'Never have the forces of money been so strongly aligned against one candidate, and I welcome their hatred.' Today, candidates might change that to ...'and I welcome their bundled money', and bank bailouts, and toxic assets.

Echoing a major theme espoused by Philip Zimbardo, Westen commented that in the end "a corrupt system corrupts even good people."

And the dominant thinking is so changed. Why not tell the banks, you ARE going to cut your rates for underwater mortgages? But our system is "owned and operated by Wall Street". Why do we extend subsidies and tax breaks for the super-prosperous oil companies while pushing to cut the meager entitlements of people who depend on them to have even a decent human existence such as described by FDR? Why are tax rates on the rich down 2/3 since Eisenhower? Under Eisenhower the rich payed 90%! Why did GE pay no taxes last year despite $14Billion in profits? (" Hey, for even 1 Billion I'd be happy to pay 30%!")

Cause #2: Demise of the Political Paradigms

We may think of some paradigms in moral or practical terms: What's fair? What leads to prosperity? We might consider the analogy of paradigms in science - normal science, and revolutionary science. In the case of Obama in 2008, he was empowered to challenge the system and then chose to play the system, something Westen finds 'repugnant' when he considers how Obama had "promised hope and change and delivered neither". Yet equally revulsive policy shifts have come from the GOP as well, for example in terms of the all-out war on unions. "Roosevelt built the middle class with the help of unions."

We have the 'natural science' paradigms, followed by Presidents as diverse as Nixon (who launched the EPA) and Eisenhower (building a highway system, not promoting fracking). And then there was the Reagan 'Revolution' and the launch of a movement to 'return to the 14th Century' via a social agenda. Alongside that was a declared 'culture war', as described by Reagan's speechwriter, Pat Buchanan. Domestic issues, gender roles, gender equality. A half century past the 1960's, we've still not passed the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). [How would these play today?] And there is/was the morality debate as context for divisions - 'purity' versus sexuality, for example. And mantras of the day: Reagan spoke of 'love of country', Bush cheered to 'support our troops'. Reagan actually stoked the 'us versus them' divisiveness, racial and otherwise. His legacy? Reagan tripled the national debt while running as a fiscal conservative: "true genius". In the end he polarized the nation ("You're either with us or against us") so that 'no successor could bring together the incoherent strands of Reaganism'. Bush (2) tried, and doubled the national debt while beginning his term with a huge surplus. ("To be fair, Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House at the time".)

And finally there is Obama: 'The Uncertain President', as illustrated by a lengthy quote (2011) by Obama explaining why he is for environmental protection but overriding the EPA due to "the importance of reducing regulatory burdens and regulatory uncertainty...". Whose paradigm is this? As Dr. Westen described it, this reads like a greatest hits list of Republican talking points. Why, he wonders, is the President not standing up and taking on those who would ruin our fragile environment? "Thank you very much, Mr. President, for poisoning my children."

And yet it could actually be worse if a pure-blood corporatist like Romney got to assert a new paradigm to his liking. There is plenty of blame, disappointment, and skepticism to go around, and ultimately, 'the system' and 'We the People' (of the human variety) will be victims or change agents to bring about a new and functional democracy.

In conclusion:

-- The Great American Middle Class was built brick by brick, and it is being dismantled brick by brick.

-- No one even knows how many people are out of work or holding down two, three, or four jobs just to get by.

-- The jobs that are coming back pay half the wages of the jobs we've lost and lack the benefits

-- 400 families have more wealth than half of the families in the U.S. combined (150 million people)

"We face an election between the Tin man and Oz - I'll let you decide which is which. What we need from our leaders is courage. Courage to take on vested interests, and to work on behalf of the American middle class."


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2008 Convention Highlights:
Grand Theft Childhood | Opening | Malcolm Gladwell | College Success, Love, Hate, More | My Life With Asperger's
My Space, You Tube, Psychotherapy, Relationships... | Aaron T. Beck - 2008 | The Mind and Brain of Voters

2009 Convention Highlights:
Internet: Pathway for Networking, Connecting, and Addiction | Opening | Virtual Psychology & Therapy | Q&A with Zimbardo
Seligman: Positive Education | Future of Internet Media | Sex, Love, & Psychology | How Dogs Think

2010 Convention Highlights:
Online Support Groups & Applications | Evidence & Ethical Practice | Opening Ceremony | Sir Michael Rutter: Resilience
Group Memory | Psychology in the Digital Age | Steven Hayes: What Psychotherapists Have that the World Needs Now

2011 Convention Highlights:
2011: eHealth Odyssey | Googling, Twittering, Poking | Zimbardo: Reflections + Enduring Lessons from 40 Years Ago: Stanford Prison Experiment
Opening | Avatar-based Therapy | Canine Cognition: Chaser | Aaron T. Beck @90 | Cavanagh: Computerized CBT | Seligman: Flourish
PsychTech: Virtual & Augmented Reality | Relationships 3.0 | POKE ME: Social Networks & Kids | Telehealth & Telepsychology Licensure - Barriers and Possible Solutions

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