Political theorist Kody Cooper and therapist Brandon Wall have teamed up for a Public Discourse essay applying the insights of Internal Family Systems (IFS) psychology to our current political situation. Now, this is the first time I have ever encountered the IFS mode of analyzing the psyche, and there may be something to it. The idea that a well-integrated self contains “exiles,” “firefighers,” and “managers” all in harmony with one another has a certain appeal. I will let the professionals in family therapy, psychology, and psychiatry hash out the question whether this is a particularly helpful framework for counseling troubled souls.
But when the authors shift to using the IFS framework to understand our politics, the Trump phenomenon in particular, the results strike me as completely cockeyed. Trump’s loyal voters are “exiles.” They reject the “manager” style of Clinton (or so I infer). Trump is a firefighter!
Oh boy. Where to begin? The IFS terminology is entirely metaphorical, employing imagined roles or functions in the psyche in order to help a patient or client arrive at some positive outcome where a soul disturbed and at odds with itself becomes more tranquil. But carrying those metaphors from the context of the single psyche over to the multiplicity of persons in the body politic simply doesn’t work. It robs both Trump and his followers of any authentic agency as whole persons. Trump’s supporters are infantilized as “exiles” who need rescuing, and he becomes a cardboard “firefighter” whose appeal is emotional and superficial.
Cooper and Wall remind us of the famous parallel of the city and the soul in Plato’s Republic, suggesting that the analogy of the single person to the body politic has a venerable pedigree. And indeed it does. Socrates, in the Republic, constructs a “city in speech” whose three classes are then understood to parallel three elements in the soul: reason, spiritedness, and the passions.
But one misses one of the larger lessons of the Republic if one fails to notice how the parallel breaks down (a lesson that Plato no doubt intended). The city in speech is built in order to understand the soul, not in order to understand politics. And the politics that results from the dialogue is ghastly indeed, because the integration of a single soul calls for much more sacrifice of the parts to the whole than can ever be expected of individual human persons in a city. (I discuss this matter further in this essay about the Republic and Huxley’s Brave New World.) What may be health in the soul is a horror show in political life.
The invocation of Hobbes and Aquinas as thinkers who employed an analogy of the body politic to the human body (or the human person) doesn’t help matters, either. Aquinas knew enough not to push this idea to the ironic extent to which Plato pushed it (he was Aristotle’s best student, after all). And Hobbes, the frontispiece of whose book Leviathan famously depicted a great sovereign whose constituent parts were tiny individual humans subsumed in his vast might, either did not know not to push it or didn’t care. But in any event the result was the politics of absolutism, which was rejected by the liberal tradition that Hobbes himself helped to usher in.
So while it is all well and good to imagine that each of us has managers, exiles, and firefighters struggling to get along within ourselves, the transfer of those metaphors back again to the actual human population from which the metaphorical functions were borrowed in the first place only distorts reality rather than helping to explain it.
Trump is not a firefighter. He is a deeply flawed human being running for president of the United States. And the voters drawn to him are not exiles in need of succor. They are, as we all are, complicated human beings responding in part rationally and in part emotionally to what they see and hear Trump doing and saying. It adds nothing to our understanding of contemporary politics to rob these complete human persons of their full dignity as actors responsible for their words and deeds, and to reduce them to the role-playing fractions of human personhood imagined by IFS or any other mode of psychology. Politics is not the scene where we seek therapeutic wholeness and integration. It is the scene of conflict and cooperation meriting praise and blame.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center for Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute, professor emeritus of political science at Radford University, and visiting lecturer in politics at Princeton University.