The National Elections:
As seen through the Paranoid Schizoid and Depressive Positions

Submitted by:
Jamie L. Loveland

            Understanding that our presidential election has come and gone does little to assuage strong feelings of paranoia associated with the entirety of the event. While the American public appeared, at times, to welcome differences in discourse between the major parties, for the most part they seemed caught up in projections of frustration, helplessness or anxiety resulting in fear or paranoia of one of the key players. It seemed difficult and indeed impossible at times, to see each candidate as both good and bad, great yet flawed, sincere but duplicitous. To make the candidates feel safe and less worrisome, we idealized them. President Obama was depicted as the great statesman and mediator; Mitt Romney as the economic genius who was going to turn the troubled economy around. But in this idealization there followed a denigration of “the other” who was perceived as evil, manipulating, hateful and/or corrupt. We were, as British Object Relationist Melanie Klein might posit, stuck in the paranoid schizoid position whereby our abilities to see each political side clearly and entirely was influenced by our need to manage internal threats and anxieties.

            Klein’s paranoid schizoid and depressive positions are not hierarchical. While she held that a persecutory or paranoid phase preceded the depressive position, she also stated “no clear division between the two stages of development can be drawn, because modification is a gradual process and the phenomena of the two positions remain for some time to some extent intermingled and interacting” (1946, p. 105). This comingling, so to speak, was alive and well in America throughout the electoral process. At times voters reduced the candidates, and parties, down to part objects; concerned only with what they could or could not do for them in moving forward. They were valued for what they could bring to the table, no more, no less. Their candidate was pitched as the solution to everything: the economic crisis, unemployment, health care, foreign policy and social welfare. The opposition was presented as an elitist, non-American, too Black, too White, Muslim, Mormon, racist and/or out of touch.

            But occasionally, we were reminded that the candidates were human. Mitt Romney shared the struggle he and his wife, Anne, had faced when she was initially diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, while President Obama shared what it was like growing up without his father and losing his mother to ovarian cancer. Throughout the campaign there were multiple occasions whereby both Obama and Romney were experienced, however briefly, as whole objects.  The evil capitalist depicted as a caring spouse, the silver-tongued charlatan as having strong family values. In viewing their humanness, voters found themselves experiencing conflictual feelings of destruction and care that were difficult to coalesce. In those painful moments voters realized that their hated objects were also loved, “and in addition to this that the real objects and the imaginary figures, both external and internal, [were] bound up in each other” (Klein, 1935, p.171).

            The recognition that those we love are also those we hate puts us in touch with our own terrifying sense of destructiveness, and an intense anxiety based on the fear that we will destroy or lose the loved object (Klein, 1935). How can we hate the one we love? If we are able to make sense of the fact that indeed we can feel angry, yet caring or loving towards the same object, we develop a certain ambivalence to the process that negates the need for splitting and protects us from our aggressive and destructive selves (Klein). Perhaps one candidate is recognized as talented in the area of economics, but poor in international relations. Or another candidate is seen as extremely charismatic but lacking in experience. We become less insistent, or rigid, in our support and instead recognize that it is not so easy to pick one candidate that represents the ideal. As Klein writes in Envy and Gratitude (1957):

When the infant reaches the depressive position, and becomes more able to face his psychic reality, he also feels that the object’s badness is largely due to his own aggressiveness and the ensuring projection. This insight … gives rise to great mental pain and guilt when the depressive position is at its height. But it also brings about feelings of relief and hope, which in turn make it less difficult to reunite the two aspects of the object and of the self and to work through the depressive position (p. 195).

            In working through the depressive position we feel a need, according to object relations theory, to make reparation and apologize for what we have done. We saw exactly this after the initial round of debates when Newt Gingrich publicly apologized to Romney for attacking his record at Bain Capital, an investment firm Romney established and governed for several years. But if we are caught up in our own sense of guilt, the central anxiety in the depressive position, this becomes much more difficult to achieve and we can put into motion a series of infantile defenses that soothe this angst, including a regression back to the paranoid schizoid position whereby the guilt is projected onto someone else. As Guntrip (1962) proposed, the paranoid schizoid position can be much preferred over the depressive position as we have a “universal preference for feeling bad but strong, rather than feeling weak and afraid” (p. 99).

            Guntrip’s notion that we would rather be powerfully bad than weak and invisible was an inherent theme throughout the national elections. The mudslinging that took place between the candidates, and between the political parties, was testimony enough. When either candidate appeared to be running behind at the polls, Romney became a “war monger” who was going to lead the country into annihilation and Obama was portrayed as a secret Muslim who was making it possible for more of “them” to become citizenries. When they weren’t fighting against each other they were fighting amongst their own political parties; vying for media coverage and accessibility to voters, saying or doing almost anything in order to remain at the helm. When Gingrich felt himself to be losing ground against Romney, he promptly complained to the press about their lack of coverage, their intrusive questioning and their unflattering portrayals.

            If, indeed, Guntrip’s assumption that time spent in the paranoid schizoid position is much preferred over that of the depressive position, and more prevalent overall, this would explain the culture of paranoia that has permeated our political process. Referred to as a “paranoid gestalt”, Terman (2011) believes that paranoid groups create paranoid leaders through a shared experience of shame and humiliation that is connected to a sense of self-esteem. Leaders who have paranoid tendencies cannot impose themselves on a group unless the group itself manifests such symptoms (Terman). This is seen clearly by means of the actions of the immoderate right and extreme left, and by the prevalence of numerous hate groups that exist throughout the U.S.

            Klein (1946) writes that persecutory fears partially derive from oral and urethral impulses to expel dangerous pieces of ourselves into another. Instead of experiencing ourselves as the hating, aggressive, destroyer we project these pieces into those who exist outside of us and, as a result, come to experience such individuals as persecutory. Just as Terman (2011) is suggesting, we project into others those very traits that exists within, and then respond to such qualities with extremist views, righteous indignation and moral authority. Riviere (1964) concurs, writing:

Once we see evil in someone else it becomes possible and may seem necessary to let loose pent-up aggression against that person. It is here that the large part played in life by condemnation of others, criticism, denunciation, and intolerance generally, comes in. What we cannot tolerate in ourselves we are not likely to tolerate in others (p. 38).
            With regards to our recent presidential election, perhaps nothing demonstrates this idea better than America’s intolerance and condemnation towards the candidate’s religious associations; both those they espoused and those in which they were associated.  Mitt Romney and President Obama were the subject of 52 percent of all religion-related media coverage over a 15-month period leading up to the election, with Romney receiving twice as much coverage (35 percent) than Obama that focused on his Mormon faith (Pew Research Center, 2012). Up from 30 percent in the 2008 presidential elections (Baker, 2012), at least ten percent of the coverage was viewed as highly negative and created from media associated with the far left (Pew Research Center).  One only has to peruse the headlines from the past 18 months to see the negativity and divisiveness associated with the coverage:  “Harry Reid: Mitt Romney ‘Sullied Mormonism’, Isn’t the Face of the Religion” (Wing, 2012), or “Bad Mormon: Mitt Romney’s Anti-Immigrant Stance Doesn’t Jibe with LDS Teachings” (Lemons, 2012). Much of the press coverage appeared conspiratorial and paranoid, suggesting that Romney and his Mormon faith were shadowy and secretive.  

            President Obama suffered some equally negative press coverage around his religion with 39 percent of the exposure focused on his religious associations, casting significant doubt, accusation and misperceptions that challenged whether or not he was a Christian or a closet Muslim (Pew Research Center, 2012). Again we could see a paranoid, fear mongering, obsessed group behind the negative attention which suggested that Obama was highly supportive of Islam and would bring Sharia law to America. When the President appeared to recognize Muslim suppression while addressing a crowd gathered in Cairo in June of 2009, stating “Colonialism that denied rights and opportunities to many Muslims, and a Cold War in which Muslim-majority countries were too often treated as proxies without regard to their own aspirations”, segments of the American population and the press felt their accusations confirmed (Ajami, 2012).

             Klein (1946) believed that if persecutory fears were too strong then the working through of the depressive position was sure to fail; creating a regression back to the paranoid schizoid position where earlier fears and schizoid phenomenon become fortified. In such cases depressive features can be strengthened and we can also become vulnerable to ego fragmentation (Klein). But if our bad object, in this case the presidential candidate who we had devalued and attacked, is able to reword this “badness”, soften our approach, and show us that sometimes they are great and sometimes not so great, they allow us to soften our “bad” projections and re-introject a modified version. Romney was able to do this by introducing us to other members of his community who practiced Mormonism and by becoming transparent about his faith practices and the good deeds he had accomplished throughout his life that appeared anchored in his beliefs. Obama accomplished similar assurances by demonstrating, through his actions, support of Israeli efforts as well as strong condemnation of Muslim influences associated with the Benghazi attack.

            With this return to the depressive position came the reality of the pain and suffering associated with the seriousness of who we chose to be the next president of the United States. Winnicott (1958) associated this phase as the “Stage of Concern” whereby both the quiet, nurturing mother and the exciting mother are joined together as one mother who is able to hold us in a “good enough” environment integrating our biological drives and psychic fantasies, and survive. With this new understanding come guilt and reparation, as discussed earlier, as well as an ability to manage loss despite a lack of support amongst those we care about. Both president Obama and Mitt Romney showed a capacity for managing losses felt throughout the campaign despite attacks launched from within their own political parties as well as political and religious figures they held in high esteem. Earlier introjections of love objects allowed them to find a sense of leniency in their response that lacked the vitriol and hate found in their objectors who were mired in the excrement of their paranoid schizoid regressions.

            Those individuals stuck in the schizoid situation continued to blame the candidates for everything wrong in the world around them, making them scapegoats so as to alleviate their own sense of guilt and remain blameless for their circumstances. Both candidates and their parties became receptacles for dissatisfactions related to education, unemployment, unionism and a myriad of other issues that felt hopeless and annihilating. Individuals became increasingly aggressive and persecutory anxieties rose in order to avoid the depressive positions’ reality; bad things happen to good people. In the face of this vulnerability and powerlessness, many individuals took the route that Fairbairn (1943) espoused, that bad objects (i.e, candidates) are better than no objects at all.

            Instead of naturally blaming the object for all things bad, a la Klein, Fairbairn theorized that individuals internalize their bad objects in order to remain loyal and attached; walking away from ego threatening encounters with the internal message that it is they who are bad versus the object itself (1943). Termed the “Moral Defense”, Fairbairn believed its motive was to make Individual bad objects good in order to maintain a secure attachment and dependency, but that in the process of doing so it severely restricted one’s ability to feel safe internally.

            While Fairbairn’s notion gives us a powerful theory in which to better understand why people stay in abusive relationships, it is also relevant to our current discussion on politics. In believing that it is us who are bad we are able to maintain the fantasy that the other is good despite indications otherwise. Throughout our history Americans have been exposed to numerous politicians that have been idealized and supported despite obvious flaws and inadequacies. John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades, Hoover’s trade wars, John Tyler’s defense of slavery, and Richard Nixon’s severely compromised and corrupt administration provide a few examples. In all of these cases many of the men and women surrounding each president kept up a series of secrets that maintained the status quo to keep their candidate in the game as long as possible. Nothing underlines this notion more than in the 2008 presidential campaign when former aide to John Edwards, Andrew Young, stepped forward claiming to be the father of a child that would later turn out to be Edwards’. 

            Fairbairn’s schizoid defenses included obsessional, phobic and paranoid features, but Klein suggested that our protections become much less primitive in nature when we enter the depressive position and come to unconscious realization that our objects are made up of both good and bad features. Winnicott (1975) believed that one of Klein’s greatest clinical concepts to the field of psychoanalysis was her advance of the depressive position given its ability to address the part we play in our own suffering as compared to simply being an actor in a play without contribution to the plot.  But he also acknowledged how difficult it was to remain in this position for any length of time, and suggested that Klein’s “Manic Defense” as a retreat from one’s inner reality and “the elation that is related to the denial, or a sense of unreality about external reality, or unconcern about serious things”, was personally relevant (Winnicott, 1977, p. p.133).

            We saw the Winnicottian characteristic of denial most recently in the President’s managing of the Benghazi assault and assassination of the U.S. ambassador and three other American citizens. It appears that a lot of activity was taking place behind the scenes that was almost manic in nature, with everyone from the Secretary of State to the U.N. Ambassador and the CIA Chief contributing to the confusing array of obscure information released. But President Obama seemed almost removed from the mayhem as though in denial of the momentum taking place; rarely discussing the incident and appearing to look at the event from a much larger perspective that involved the entire Middle East peace process. One way of looking at his behavior, from a Kleinian perspective, would be to suggest that the President was experiencing an overwhelming sense of guilt over the loss of life, and his inner denial of the incident helped him to master and control his internal and external objects to avoid feelings of vulnerability. 

            The denial of his inner reality helped the President control any feelings of guilt, while his assembling of several key players in his administration allowed him partial detachment from the horrendous nature of the massacre. It is important to distinguish here between the Kleinian concepts of denial and scotomization. Using denial in the manic sense associates the defense with a sense of omnipotence which “denies the importance … of the dangers with which it is menaced from its bad objects and the id…endeavoring ceaselessly to master and control all its objects [through] hyperactivity” (Klein, 1935, p. 160). This differs from her use of denial in the defense of scotomization which occurs within the manic defense but which potentially leads to a complete loss of reality and passivity (1935).

            Inhibition, another defense employed to defend against guilt or sorrow, might also be experienced as relevant in the Benghazi incident. Many individuals appeared fearful in asking relevant questions pertaining to the disaster, and failed to investigate potential facts before they were released. Instead, these individuals appeared hesitant in their behaviors, choosing to venerate the powers that be in allowing them to appear “all knowing” and wise in their governing.

            Perhaps nothing represented a denial of depressive anxiety more than Mitt Romney’s use of contempt when caught on tape stating that 47 percent of Americans believed themselves to be victims who felt entitled to food, housing, health care, etc., and who, given this stance, did not matter to the Republican party. This statement was said in response to individuals questioning the ability of the Republican party to win votes in several U.S. states, and could be construed to be a reaction to Romney’s sense of loss associated with these particular demographics. Attempts by Romney at reparation could be interpreted more as “Manic Restoration” given how quickly he moved on from the incident and failed to address how harmful his comments may have felt to those individuals dependent on social services.

            As demonstrated thus far, when individuals become too riddled with anxiety, persecutory or depressive, we become impaired in our abilities to speak openly and freely, and are unable to experience ourselves as whole and complete human beings. In the paranoid schizoid position differences are not tolerated, and aggressions lead to the injury and annihilation of the self or the object. It becomes impossible for us to take a stance while allowing others the same courtesy. During the last presidential election it appeared very difficult for voters to advocate for their beliefs without in some form or fashion devaluing or disputing those of the opposite party. We made disparaging remarks that served to assert our position while denigrating the position of others. We showed little capacity for empathy or differences.

            When we managed an attainment to the depressive position we became fearful of stepping out of line and of voicing opinions that might be considered hurtful or destructive in nature. Guilt stemming from acknowledgement of our own abilities to harm and destroy affected the way in which we related and interacted with others. If we found ourselves at a dinner party attended primarily by representatives of the opposite party, we quietly held onto our disagreements and held the peace, resisting the opportunity to be as dismissive and negating as our fellow diners.

            While Segal (1985) refers to the depressive position as leading to maturity, she also acknowledges that attainment of this position for any length of time is difficult and that fluctuations back to the paranoid schizoid position continue throughout our lives. Klein believed that life is a battle between managing our aggressive, destructive selves associated with the death instinct while protecting that which is good. In other words; learning how to manage the balance between love and hate. The inner objects that represent our fears and wishes are often more angelic or demonic than our projections suggest. And if our lives are full of conflict, disappointment, and bad experiences, we need to take a careful look at what we are doing that is contributing to this state of being.

            Only when we have given careful consideration to these ideas do we become able to become loving and accepting of others. We learn to identify with others which Klein believed was a necessary condition for real and strong feelings of love (1964). Balint (1952) believed that we are incapable of loving in the paranoid position given the barrier of suspicion that permeates this phase: “they can never accept their partners as true equals; the partners though quite attractive and pleasant people, do not mean much” (p. 218).  Balint (1952) also attested that in order for a new beginning to take place, in which “the capacity for an unsuspicious, trusting self-abandoned and relaxed object-relation” (p. 220) evolved, individuals had to recognize that a certain amount of depression was to be expected as an unavoidable part of living.

            This unconscious struggle to keep aggression at bay and love at the forefront will forever be with us; impacting all that we see and do and the way in which we respond to issues including national elections. Perhaps the healthiest of us during the last go around were those of us who remained undecided up until the very last minute, continuing to weigh the pros and cons that each candidate possessed while carefully considering the issues most important.

            I was not one of these individuals. Instead, I ridiculed such people for taking so long to take a stance given our “obvious” understanding of each candidate’s beliefs. I was without doubt firmly entrenched in the paranoid schizoid position despite my attempts to see all perspectives as clearly as possible. I became enraged when Facebook friends attacked the candidate of my choice by making false accusations and supporting claims made by unreliable sources in the media. But in perfect Kleinian fashion, instead of raking these scalawags over the coals I kept my opinions to myself while secretly devaluing their understandings. Only in safe, predictable environs did I voice my dissentions and utter support for the candidate I thought best suited for the role. Careful, of course, not to trample on anyone else’s feelings lest I be thought of as brash and disrespectful.


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