Why Do Liberals Keep Blowing It?

Guilt and Self Sabotage

If liberal parties were people, and they came to see me at my little coaching practice, I’d probably listen sympathetically for a while, and then say firmly: “your problem is that you are self sabotaging personalities.”

Let’s think as clearly as we can about it. The widely panned “Better Deal” slogan. Gore giving up a contested election. Hillary refusing to listen to every expert telling her the message (let alone policy) just wasn’t resonating enough to drive turnout. The Democrats — I bet you didn’t know this —already having a universal healthcare bill in Congress, but not pushing for it, fighting for it, shouting about it, even telling people about it, while the nation is furious about a lack of healthcare.

The dots almost connect themselves, don’t they? At every turn, liberal leaders seem to be engaging in ruinous, almost mythological acts of self-sabotage. It’s a layup: the political world as it is should easily be ruled by liberals — 70% of Americans want public healthcare, education, transport, and so on, levels of approval we almost never outside wartime — yet conservatives control all three branches of government, the judiciary, and most states. How can that be? It is self-sabotage on an epic scale. Liberals around the world — not only the Democrats — seem to lack courage, wisdom, bravery, passion, and instead glumly set themselves up for the failures they and now we are resigned to, and that is a perfect description of the traits that viciously self-sabotaging personalities have.

Of course there are institutional factors. Money, lobbyists, a corrupt and broken political system. But these are only proximate causes. In the end, at the moment of truth, there must be something in leaders themselves that causes them to give up on the act of leadership at the moment when it is needed most. When people can win, succeed, flourish, there must be something in people to cause them to forego the gains that are almost so painfully in their hands.

So what gives? How do people develop self-sabotaging tendencies? There are a number of routes, but it seems to me that this wave of self-sabotaging leaders are paralyzed by guilt. When you feel guilty, you don’t feel worthy of success, accomplishment, love, admiration — and the result is that you stop yourself at the critical moment, over and over again. You don’t go on that date. You don’t go to that job interview. You don’t publicize the very healthcare bill people are crying out for. You don’t fight, struggle, endure, persist.

Guilt over what? Of course, liberals always feel guilty — but there is healthy, constructive guilt and there is paralyzing, extreme guilt. I don’t know — I’d have to get to know them as people to really say. Yet guilt is what I see because Democrats (and frankly, most liberal parties worldwide) appear to be punishing themselves. They don’t cripple themselves at the outset, refuse to compete at all — they get to the critical moment, and then, almost deliberately, predictably, consistently, fall apart, simply blow it all up and walk away. That is self-punishment, and when you know what it is, it’s easy to see. Self-punishment is one of the most damaging and destructive forms of self-sabotage there is — precisely because you allow yourself to get within shouting distance of the prize. Then the cycle of guilt and self-punishment intensifies: you are all the more worthless because you came so close.

Feeling a sense of guilt gives you the satisfaction of moral superiority. Don’t we see that in the Dems, too? They are defeated, and they cry: “but we are the ones who want the best for you!”. So the reward of self-punishment is moral satisfaction, superiority, a kind of smugness right in the soul. But it is a small reward, because nothing ever changes. That is why it’s adaptive, in a sense, to feel guilt, and self-sabotage: it is easier than the alternative. The alternative for people who self-sabotage with self-punishment is to face the source of their guilt, and genuinely try to make amends for it — or to let it go. How much more comfortable to cherish one’s moral superiority and wallow in the pitying luxury of self-sabotage than do the work of understanding one’s wounded self.

Maybe it’s all bullshit. Maybe there’s no reason to think any of the above. Perhaps some will say: what’s the point of psychoanalyzing leaders? I think that the world is on the cusp these days. Mass extinction, climate change, inequality, rising authoritarianism. Unless we develop radically more humane leaders, those problems threaten to overwhelm us. Tomorrow’s leaders — and tomorrow’s citizens — need to feel their wounds, see their broken parts, and learn to become wholer, fuller, people, rising into their possibility. Then maybe there is healing for this troubled world.

July 2017


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