If the US Democratic party had chosen Bernie Sanders as their presidential candidate – which of course they didn’t, but that’s another subject – there seems little doubt that he would be on course for a landslide in today’s presidential election. Instead, we might wake up tomorrow and find that it is Donald Trump: despite his displaying an abundance of characteristics any one of which would classically have sunk the chances of any previous presidential contender. The world could very easily, therefore, have been very different from how it will now be even if Clinton wins. And yet surely any voter who would have voted for Sanders would rationally prefer Clinton to Trump. What explains the dynamics of this process?
Decades ago, it was common wisdom to assert that people voted for parties, not individuals. The charisma or otherwise of a particular candidate could sway only a limited group of swing voters between candidates, or between the choice of getting out to vote or staying at home. In more recent years, political consultants have operated on the basis that personality had become more important than policies. We now seem to have moved into a third phase – one which is not about personalities but about projections. Of course, personalities were always media creations, but in the past they were driven to a much larger extent by their protagonists or at least negotiated between these protagonists and the traditional media. Now it seems they are driven by other factors which are more protean and more difficult to control. One might call these forces presently at work in the construction of political personalities “shadowy”, though without it being my intention to claim they are organized or that there is some form of conspiracy at work. Such an unnecessary, and to my mind implausible, hypothesis would blind us to the emergent nature of these social forces and their transmission through social and not only corporate media, which is surely the key factor differentiating the present period from earlier ones. If the traditional media continue to play a role and possibly even to drive the process, it must be by virtue of mechanisms different from those at play in the past. This difference is what accounts for the depersonalization of political personality.
The current political discourse surrounding the US presidential elections illustrates this process. The assessment of the two candidates by many voters seems not to be driven by their objective personalities, but rather by attributes projected on to them. Thus Trump stands in for anger at the establishment, his personality assumes messianic characteristics for some, and he certainly also appeals to a constituency disposed to patriarchal values, even if it would be taboo for many within this constituency publicly to voice similar sentiments. Clinton becomes a surrogate figure for “the establishment” (whatever that is), for the banks, and for a certain, albeit very limited resistance to patriarchy, the latter largely provoking a reaction of opposition to her and unable to procure her much support given that it is in direct conflict with the other pro-establishment values imputed to her. This fact makes her strangely neutered in the race and unable to positively inspire the vote of those concerned to deconstruct power and move towards a more collaborative social order. This, however, hardly matters as the vote of this constituency is a strong vote against Trump, who is the obvious incarnation of patriarchal continuity. If I had more time and better ability, I do not doubt I could dig deeper into the archetypal factors behind these constructions of personality and discover factors I have not yet perceived. The point is that there is no longer a compact group of influencers with which a deal can be struck. Personality is now constructed in a much more public space where interest and rationality can scarcely be appealed to. It is therefore driven by more fundamental factors within the collective unconscious. It is considerably less reflective, and the protagonists themselves are in a much more reactive mode towards it than in the past.
Other than pointing this out – inviting people to become conscious of the fact that they have an emotional reaction to the candidates which is not based on who they really are and instead to replace this reaction with a more reflective one – I am not sure what can be done about it. It would seem that the terrain of political choice has shifted irremediably towards the unconscious: the space of protean battles between archetypes, not informed, reasonable and pragmatic debate about what policies are needed to optimize social, or even group, welfare. It feels somewhat like an eschatological showdown is underway (although it is much too multifaceted and complex to frame in the simple dualistic terms of a conflict between good and evil).
In the longer run, we will only successfully manage the complexity of post-modernity if we manage to devise structures of governance which hard-wire reflection into policy choices whilst ensuring that these structures cannot be hijacked by groupthink or corporate interest. Such an appeal, of course, has no value as a revolutionary slogan at all. We will only move forward – indeed avoid slipping backwards – if we can grow up and heal our collective traumas very quickly indeed.