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Psychological Immaturity Threatens Our Democracy

Democracy requires psychological maturity, which appears to be in short supply.

Key points

  • Democracy requires psychological maturity.
  • America's culture is young, and can often seem childish, a bit too loud, self-centered, distractible, and cheerful.
  • America losing its psychological maturity also loses the necessary psychological tools for keeping democracy functional.

Scanning our politi-cultural landscape, one may notice several troubling phenomena in the media: Stories abound about adults throwing tantrums on airplanes; political leaders and pundits disregarding facts and insisting on the realness of election fantasies; rabid we-good-they-evil tribalism; the persisting denial of catastrophic climate change; the recurring spectacle of grown-ups either discombobulating over so-called offensive speech or vulgarizing the public discourse into incoherence.

Each cultural phenomenon is complex and shaped by multiple determinants. Alcohol, crowded flights, and pandemic stress may all contribute to unruly flight behavior. Ratings-driven media, cynical political operatives, economic fears, and racism may contribute to the increased vulgarity, tribalism, and flight from reality. And so on.

Yet from a psychological perspective, these disparate phenomena also appear to be linked by a common thread: They all manifest a lack of psychological maturity. The drunken passenger who threw a punch in frustration and self-righteous rage; the distractible ex-president who confabulates wildly and revels in bullying and humiliating others; the incessant media chatter over trivial matters all embody our culture at this moment in history—a time when you look around and realize that the adults are not in the room. They have left the building.

Source: amarpreet25/Pixabay

American culture is young. To some non-native observers, myself included, it can often seem childish—a bit too loud, self-centered, distractible, and cheerful. Granted, childishness has its charms: the playful fantasies, the liberating absence of self-awareness, the shiny toys. No wonder adults often look back fondly at their childhood years, secretly wishing that they could go back to that place of immediacy, of innocence, of fantasy.

Yet, it appears we have entered a new epoch of American immaturity, one that threatens American culture itself. This is because democracy requires psychological maturity.

Democracy is neither intuitive nor easy for humans to grasp, let alone maintain. For example, the democratic principles–the obligation to defend speech that we hate and the notion that rules are more powerful than rulers–contradict our basic intuitions.

Democracy requires us to tame gnawing primal impulses—an eye for an eye revenge, asserting dominance through violence; silencing the opposition; circling the tribal wagons. In other words, democracy is hard work, unglamorous, inherently frustrating, and fatiguing.

This is one reason our myths and canonical fables, from the bible through Game of Thrones, never traffic in democratic currency. God is king, not a committee chair. Heroes slay dragons; they don’t push compromise legislation through a divided legislature.

Democracy maintenance is effortful, far more so than democracy destruction, which, like most any destruction, can happen quickly and with little effort. Moreover, once we’ve dwelled inside democracy a while, its shortcomings become too glaring, while other ways of organizing society—monarchy, autocracy, theocracy, anarchy—become ever more alluring, greener pastures.

Additionally, counter-democratic impulses and habits are never fully eradicated within a democracy. This is because new learning and change typically do not involve annihilating old ways, habits, and memories. Rather, they involve a process of inhibitory learning, by which new habits overtake and inhibit the old ones rather than erasing them.

A society that decides to condemn racism and introduce laws and norms against it has neither forgotten racism nor eradicated racists. It just removed them from power.

Likewise, when we mature, the habits of maturity do not eliminate our childish impulses but rather remove them from the controls. The impulsive, egocentric, hedonistic, shortsighted, tantrum-prone, suggestive infant is always there underneath. And the call of infantile immaturity is alluring. It promises a release from the bondage of responsibility, from the burden of thinking ahead and the work of managing emotions, from the frustrations of playing by rules and the taxing labor of separating appearance from reality and wish from fact; from the sorrow that attends self-knowledge.

This is, then, the tragedy of our American time—that we have lost our commitment to, and facility with, psychological maturity, and with that, the necessary psychological tools for keeping our democracy functional.

America these days resembles increasingly a distracted and frightened child that turns petulant and irritable, volatile and sullen, blithely irrational and confidently ignorant. We want the candy now; we want to stick our fingers in our ears and yell, “I can’t hear you” to bad news bearing reality; we want to pretend that tomorrow won’t come, our lunch is free, wishes are worldly facts, and worldly facts are dreams. We are pleased to regard mind events as world events and vice versa, blurring the difference, as if the word lion can eat us. As if the actual lion will vanish if we just close our eyes.

And we may get our infantile wishes granted, at least for a while, because the wealth, energy, and insularity of American culture—its sheer momentum—will initially protect us. But not for long. In the absence of maturity, of an ethos of mature institutional and public spheres, of maturity-cultivating education, of a maturity-rewarding cultural conversation, of a psychologically mature populace –democracy cannot survive.

Without maturity, we may easily mistake generic life hardship for trauma, shatter at hearing opposing views, fly off the emotional handle at petty provocations, and respond to the necessary discomfort of the democratic marketplace of ideas by retreating into safe spaces and echo chambers where the harsh clatter of the world is muffled into a soothing hum–a symbolic return to the womb.

In the absence of maturity, innovative postmodern thought from the left, originally used to expose the subjective political agendas hiding behind purported objective universal truths, can devolve into an “everything is opinion and opinion is everything” banality. Without maturity, healthy and necessary skepticism of government from the right devolves into “conspiracy is everything and everything is conspiracy” lunacy.

Psychological maturity is one of those psychological constructs, like love or intelligence, about which we have clear intuitions even in the absence of formal, universally agreed-upon definition. We intuit it in observing certain behaviors: Mandela’s ability to forgive his torturers; MLK’s eyes-on-the-prize long-term vision and restraint amidst violence and provocation; the tradition of an election loser calling their rival to concede and wish them well.

We observe maturity in those important abilities associated uniquely with adulthood: the ability to reflect with objectivity on our processes; to self-regulate, to marshal our resources strategically in the service of chosen long-term goals; to see beyond self-interest and into the common good without incurring a loss of self; a facility with inter-dependence, with complexity, with empathy. We know maturity quite readily by its absence in those adults who are impulsive, attention-demanding, bullying, petulant, self-centered, and easily fooled by appearances.

Harvard psychologist George Vaillant, who studied the coping that predicts happiness, health, and longevity, developed a useful framework to assess psychological maturity. Vaillant found several coping strategies, “mature defenses,” which predict psychological thriving into old age. They are:

Sublimation: Converting nervous or destructive energy into constructive, socially useful projects.

Suppression: Managing negative emotions to prevent them from becoming destructive to the pursuit of your goals and values.

Anticipation: Investing in preparation and planning as a way to reduce anxiety and stress.

Altruism: Deriving satisfaction, perspective, and meaning from employing your resources and talents to help others.

Humor: The ability to see the funny, comical, or ironic aspects of a stressful or potentially upsetting situation.

In other words, mature people use their fire to warm the house rather than burn it down, refrain from assaulting flight attendants, help old ladies cross the street, pack a sandwich for the long road trip, and can take a joke.

Our current cultural climate trends in the opposite direction. Instead of constructive sublimation, we celebrate raw destructive aggression; instead of suppressing dark emotions, we revel in them; instead of preparing for the future, we’re busy destroying it; instead of laughing at ourselves and our shared humanity, we either laugh at the weak or foreswear humor altogether.

In America today, the delicate and complex machinery of democracy is placed in infantile hands. You don’t need a child’s imagination to foresee trouble ahead.