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The sociopathic style in American politics


The hysterical reaction on the right to Joe Biden’s eminently moderate vaccine mandates provides a kind of textbook example of what I will call the sociopathic style in American politics.

I’m alluding here to Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay on the paranoid style, and, following his usage, I don’t pretend to be making some sort of formal clinical diagnosis. In any event, sociopathy isn’t, strictly speaking, a formal concept in contemporary psychology; rather it is a variety of what psychologists call anti-social personality disorder.

And that is exactly what American right wing thought, and its avatar the contemporary Republican party, have both become: an elaborately rationalized form of anti-social personality disorder. Take for example this reaction from rising Republican star Dan Crenshaw:

People who haven’t given themselves over to the sociopathic style will find it difficult to understand what Crenshaw is even arguing for here. This is because, to people who haven’t fetishized individual liberty as being the one moral value that always trumps all other moral and practical considerations (important caveat: note that this commitment only holds when this value is being exercised by the right sorts of people), arguing against these sorts of mandates must seem inexplicable.

And it is inexplicable, from any reasonable — which in this context simply means non-sociopathic — point of view.

The position of the Republican party is that individual liberty is always and everywhere (again, note the caveat above) of such overwhelming importance that people should suffer no negative consequences whatsoever for refusing a free, safe, and highly effective vaccine, in the midst of a global pandemic that has killed millions around the world, and that by the end of this year will have, directly and indirectly, killed more than one million Americans.

This is merely a particularly vivid example of how contemporary right wing ideology in America consists of defending the indefensible, via arguments that no reasonable (again, non-sociopathic) person could possibly accept.

It’s also an example of, when you state a core right wing political belief in straightforward terms, it sounds like some sort parody. I mean surely they’re not arguing for that, are they? Surely some nuance, some complexity, is being omitted by the hostile polemicist here.

No: this is quite literally their position. People should be free to acquire and transmit to others a deadly and extremely communicable virus, that is causing a catastrophic pandemic, even though this catastrophe could be avoided completely if people chose to take a free and safe vaccine. Furthermore, it’s morally wrong for the government to engage in even the mildest coercion to nudge people toward getting vaccinated, because such coercion interferes with individual liberty, which is always the highest social value in every circumstance.

This is the sociopathic style in action. In contemporary conservative thought, anti-social personality disorder is, via the magic of ideology, transformed into an all-purpose political doctrine. In its cruder forms, as illustrated 24/7 by the workings of the nation’s massive right wing mass media propaganda complex, this ideology manifests itself as a kind of oppositional defiant disorder, as millions of chronological adults are encouraged to behave like cranky toddlers, whenever they are asked by the Liberal Conspiracy to perform the political equivalent of picking up their toys and going to bed on time.

In the tonier regions of the right wing ideological bubble, emotionally stunted sociopathy is tarted up constantly with ponderous (and highly selective) citations to Burke, Hayek, Orwell, Milton Friedman etc. But in both the Limbaughverse or the Buckleyverse the idea is the same: the invocation of the word “freedom” is supposed to cut off all higher cognitive function, just as surely as the word “God” is supposed to do in some adjacent ideological zip codes.

Thus the sacral status of Individual Liberty requires allowing countless individual choices to wreck the ecosphere via what economists refer to primly as the failure to take into account unpriced externalities, while elementary schools are shot up by semi-automatic weapons, and millions of Americans have no income other than food stamps, even as multi-billionaires rig the tax code ever-more in the favor, because that what Freedom means, according to the Constitution or the Bible or possibly both.

Of course the dictum You’re Not the Boss of Me is not a sustainable basis for even the most tenuous society. The concept of a sociopathic society is an oxymoron on its face, as the right wing is more than happy to acknowledge implicitly when it undertakes all sorts of vigorous steps to make sure that Individual Liberty means the Individual Liberty to live in an authoritarian ethno-state. Yet the apparent contradiction between the sociopathic style and the authoritarian personality is resolved easily enough when we remember that, to those who long to make America great again, freedom means freedom for me and not for you.

But perhaps the most crucial aspect of the sociopathic style is that it’s dedicated to not remembering that — which is easy enough to do when an ideology has no allegiance whatsoever to rational discourse, intellectual consistency, or any other form of honest argumentation. Expecting such things from the sociopathic style represents a fundamental failure to understand what that style is all about, which of course doesn’t stop plenty liberals, centrists, and delusional center-right conservatives to continue to expect them.

At this point in American history, sincere engagement with the nation’s right wing in general and the Republican party in particular is about as advisable as going on a blind date with Ted Bundy. And the otherwise inexplicably bizarre reaction of these people to even the mildest vaccine mandates makes perfect sense when we remember who we are actually dealing with.

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