American Conservatism and the Discourse of the Hysteric

John Hibbing, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, claims he has discovered a "negatively bias" in conservatives, prompting a bristling, defensive response from Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who takes umbrage at Hibbing's suggestion that conservatism is somehow deviant.

Is conservatism inherently deviant? Of course not. Is it genetic, as Hibbing suggests? Perhaps there are a set of inherited personality traits that fit some current definitions of conservatism, but conservatism isn't a stable, unchanging political philosophy, or a set of fixed personality traits. Conservatism is a broad range of discursive practices that are grouped together under the label "conservative."

Conservatism doesn't have a negativity bias. As currently practiced, it has a hysteria bias.

Like a lot of liberals, I think Thomas Frank's theory about the rhetorical strategy of the Republican Party explains a lot of conservative practices now–although not all of them. Frank argues that the Republican Party only has one real goal: to lower taxes on the wealthy. The Party's social agenda is a sop to middle and working class voters to get them to support an agenda that doesn't support their interests. The Pro-Life movement has long been critical to the Republicans' electoral fortunes, but anti-abortion measures have never been on top of the Party's legislative agenda.

It follows, I think, that it is in the conservative establishment's interest to encourage hysterical behavior in order to ensure Kansas remains red. It's in the best interests of conservatives to foster a hysteric discourse.

Jacques Lacan divides psychoanalysis into four discourses, one of which is the discourse of the hysteric. The hysteric, who can be either a man or a woman, continually demands to know what's wrong with him or herself. Even when a diagnosis is offered, the hysteric always wants to know more about his or her affliction. No matter what he has been told, the hysteric believes there must be something more to his troubles, something that he's not being told. The hysteric never compromises. He is paranoid and delusional. The hysteric is a pain in the ass.

Lacan opposed the discourse of the hysteric to the discourse of the university, which Lacan described as "a sort of legitimation or rationalization of the master’s will." In conservative American politics the discourse of the university is practiced by the so-called liberal establishment. The university invokes reason, but the hysteric sees reason as something a dead end, as something that brings the hysteric's discourse to a halt.

The Republican Party practices what Lacan called the analyst's discourse, but with an important difference. In psychoanalysis the analyst re-animates the hysteric's discourse. The healing begins when the analyst gets the hysteric to realize that he is divided. The hysteric comes to learn that he speaks about his own desires as well as someone else's desires, and that hysteria is that fascination with the other's desire. The Party, by contrast, invokes incommensurate discourses–the sanctity of the unborn and the evils of the progressive tax structure–while insisting on the unity of the self. This is why conservatives value consistency so highly. Without it, the hysteric structure of conservative discourse stands revealed.

What better way to ensure a steady stream of donations to conservative organizations than encouraging the hysteric's constant search for one more grievance? How else does a wealthy conservative get poor whites in Kansas to vote for his tax cuts other than by turning the liberal establishment into a repressive force? Without hysterics as a voting block, the Republican Party would have to search for entirely new explanations for their policies.

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