The Therapeutic Roots of Wokeism

Political scientist Yoram Hazony argued in Quillette that “an updated version of Marxism” was surging in America today, owing to the decay of liberalism, and its proponents were coming for everyone who did not subscribe to its politically correct, woke dogmas.

Hazony’s warning that the followers of this new breed of Marxism “cannot grant legitimacy to any form of liberalism that is not supine before them” may well prove true. Historian Victor Davis Hanson echoes Hazony’s message with his own, that the “new Mad Left” threatens huge swaths of the American population. And the historian Paul Gottfried, the editor of this magazine, has also tracked the rise of “frenzied nihilistic energy” within the woke left.

But why is the American left so “mad” these days? Marxist ideas about oppression, false consciousness, and the violent overthrow of government have been common currency in leftist political circles for many years. What accounts for their broader popularity today in the country’s offices, boardrooms, schoolrooms, courtrooms, and doctor’s offices?

The answer lies less in the realm of political theory, and more in the realm of mass psychology. There is no way that the unnatural concepts of leftist social justice could be so contagious today unless millions of minds had been nurtured to accept them at a deeply visceral level. What has transpired in recent history has less to do with the quality of ideas than the strength of emotions.

The physician and political scientist Ronald Dworkin theorizes about an unexpected source for the left’s madness: America’s pharmaceutical-medicial complex. He wrote in National Affairs:

As America’s social systems continue to crumble, we can see the stirrings of a new social order rising in their place—one that rests on a nation-spanning network of organizations, ideology, leaders, and cadres that have organized, energized, and come to dominate American society. Today, countless institutions and millions of people are dependent to one degree or another on the caring industry; indeed, all of us are enmeshed in some way in the approach to life advanced by professional caring.

Underpinning this network, Dworkin wrote, is a “caring ideology” that teaches “the view that total strangers can solve people’s life problems to make them feel better.”

This “caring ideology” might be better characterized as therapism.

What Hazony calls the new Marxism the left itself often calls “intersectionality,” and a word linked by some to critical race theory, social justice ideology, and identity politics. Others, particularly followers of Allan Bloom, whose The Closing of the American Mind (1987) was a runaway best-seller, maintain the belief in Marxism stems from “relativism,” the teaching that all value systems are the creations of of history and therefore equally valuable. Bloom, a follower of the philosopher Leo Strauss, targeted relativism as the cause of various social and political trends, including the black nationalist movement, radical feminism, and sexual promiscuity. According to Bloom, nonjudgmental relativism, by teaching young people that there were no absolute truths, left them vulnerable to the writings of nihilists who were seeking to  subvert democracy.

Then there are others who argue that intersectionality derives from the illusory utopianism of doctrines such as globalization and Marxism. Hanson claims that contemporary woke utopianism gets its inspiration from a “transnational” ideology embodied in such institutions as the European Union, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization. 

There may be some truth to all these theories, yet we are left with the question: Why is America in 2023 in the grip of a revolutionary set of circumstances which Hazony claims resembles the French Revolution prior to its plunge into the Reign of Terror? 

According to Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in The Coddling of the American Mind, the movement that Hazony describes is most evident at America’s colleges and universities. Haidt and Lukianoff claim this movement is largely about emotional well-being and “emotional reasoning,” which is defined by the belief that one’s negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are, the idea that, “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Emotional reasoning, they argue, has made terms such as “micro-aggressions,” “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” “crying rooms” and the like popular on college campuses and ultimately throughout society.

The mindset that gravitates so readily to Hazony’s “Marxism” and which is present in campus “emotional reasoning” could be called the “therapeutic sensibility.” This frame of mind is based on the “therapeutic gospel,” as historian Eva Moskowitz called this condition in 2000. The therapeutic gospel can be defined as the value system built on the core belief that society is full of emotionally battered people who are in desperate need of healing through no fault of their own. Untold numbers are assumed to be victimized at the hands of enormous forces that threaten to overwhelm them in their daily lives. Therapism prioritizes individual feelings as the standard by which to judge the world. If you feel it, it must be true.

The reach of the therapeutic gospel was evident as early as the turn of the new millennium. As Moskowitz wrote, “All the institutions of America life—schools, hospitals, prisons, courts—have been shaped by the national investment in feelings.”

Today, according to Ronald Dworkin: “Therapeutic ideas have come to supply Americans with a worldview, thereby taking on moral overtones … by which people imagine how the world around them operates.”

The therapeutic sensibility—and its convergence with Hazony’s Marxism—was on full display in Washington’s House of Representatives on Feb. 4, 2021, when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D.-NY) organized a special hour of speeches by Democratic lawmakers who re-lived the “trauma” they experienced when mobs swarmed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6 of that year. AOC claimed  the fear and horror she felt on that day rekindled memories of the sexual assault she had endured in her past, although she hadn’t actually been in the Capitol building on the day of the protests. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D.-MI) was also not present at the Capitol building that day, but she might as well have been, given her reaction. She declared to her audience: “this is so personal, this is so hard.” A Democratic congressman described the events of Jan. 6 as “a trauma to our democracy.”

Similarly, when The New York Times announced on Feb. 5, 2021, that reporter Donald McNeil was leaving the newspaper over charges that he had uttered a pejorative term to describe African-Americans, the controversy had little to do with any political views McNeil had expressed. But it seems his remarks offended the newspaper’s staffers. The Times’ executive and managing editors profusely thanked McNeil’s accusers for being brave enough to share their “painful feelings” over McNeil’s comments. What mattered was not what McNeil said or had meant by his remarks, or the social context in which he made them, but how his “victims” felt about them.

As these and many other incidents show, therapism as an ideology is so widely accepted that most American adults don’t think twice about it. But like everything else in life it has its own history, a story that helps explain the woke rage and fury many Americans are currently invested in.

The prevention of unhappiness, the management of feelings, and the cure of mental illnesses have fascinated Americans for nearly a century. This obsession took root in the post-World War II era when Canadian psychiatrist, Brock Chisholm, then the incoming head of the World Health Organization, defined health as not merely “the absence of illness, but a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.” Despite critics alleging that this definition meant mental health was a “bottomless pit,” the WHO’s definition gathered momentum in the second half of the last century.

At the same time, fields such as marriage and family counselling began their dizzying ascent. Historians have condemned marriage counsellors as a bunch of judgmental social conservatives trying to save marriages at all costs, while blaming marital failure on women. Yet, as Emily Mudd, a pioneer in marriage counselling, announced in the 1950s, counselling was there to save people, not marriages. Most counselling of couples and family therapy have been geared towards enabling people to achieve personal autonomy and self-gratification, and the marriage bond was often an obstacle to those goals. No wonder that couples therapy has earned the reputation as the place where relationships go to die.

Amid the countercultural ferment of the 1960s, therapism gathered increasing momentum. Mental health issues were at  the heart of much of the political radicalism of the 1960s. Radical feminists, for example, demanded changes in their relations with organized medicine and protested how prevailing theories of women’s psychology devalued their emotions and their perceptions of their own health.  Calling for women to take their health into their own hands, feminists urged women to “deepen our contact with our feelings. Our first concern must not be whether these feelings are good or bad, but what they are. Feelings are a reality.” Such emotional nonjudgementalism often formed the basis of consciousness-raising sessions in which women used group discussion to explore common feelings. A member of the New York Radical Women, a group formed in 1967, stated that with self-consciousness raising “we always stay in touch with our feelings.”

A key text in the history of American therapism was Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan coined the phrase “the problem that has no name,” by which she meant a “strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning” that mainly suburban women in mid-20th-century America allegedly were feeling. Her book also revealed links to the theories of psychologist Abraham Maslow, who had popularized the notion of “self-actualization.” This was a process by which individuals explored new ranges of motivations on the road toward realizing their humanity. Some feminists warned against “thinking that women’s liberation is therapy,” but in the struggle to achieve greater freedom for women, many activists found it difficult to distinguish between psychology and politics.

By the 1980s, thanks to shifts in media and communications technology, the nation’s emphasis on psychological vulnerabilities was expanding dramatically. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, millions and millions of Americans bought television sets; and these acquisitions proved to be an ideal medium for the therapeutic outlook. As sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues noted in 1985, “television is much more interested in how people feel than in what they think … Successful television personalities are thus people able freely to communicate their emotional states.”

Phil Donahue conducts his show in New York in September 1991. Rush Limbaugh
(back left) was one of the guests (photo by Eddie S. / via Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing on television did more to advance the language of therapism than daytime talk shows. The first such program was The Phil Donahue Show filmed in Dayton, Ohio, which aired on Nov. 6, 1967. By the 1980s, the no-holds-barred talk show, featuring a parade of people admitting to crippling addictions, grotesque sexual infidelities, or bizarre emotional afflictions, was a staple of television entertainment. According to Moskowitz , the talk show’s arrival brought therapism “out of the church basement and into American living rooms and offices … Television talk shows made it possible for literally millions of people to simultaneously participate in a form of the ‘talking cure.’”

A new class of media personalities such as Donahue, Geraldo Rivera, and Oprah Winfrey invited Americans to open up emotionally and express their afflictions and addictions in front of millions of viewers. Oprah quickly emerged as a leading star of daytime television, making $30 million a year by 1986. Her candor about her childhood abuse, troubles with men, and struggles with her weight allowed her to connect with audiences in a deeply personal way. Oprah’s ratings slipped in the 1990s not because her “talking cure” format was outdated, but because her show had trouble competing with the grittier shows hosted by Ricki Lake and Jerry Springer.

The bridge from Oprah to present-day therapeutic politics was her announcement in 2018 that, despite encouragement from various quarters, she was not running for president. A longtime devotee of Democratic  causes and fundraisers, Winfrey in recent years has campaigned for the #MeToo movement and for victims of sexual abuse. “You’ve got to lean to the happiness,” she told British Vogue in 2018. Oprah’s therapeutic utterings may strike some as banal, even comical. But even Steve Bannon, former adviser to Donald Trump, concedes that if Oprah ran for president, she might be a shoo-in. Her appeal to women voters might well be off the charts. 

Therapism’s triumphal march through America’s institutions has not gone uncontested. The surging popularity in the 1980s of the concepts of recovery, denial, trauma, and addiction fed a series of high-profile courtroom dramas. These dramas were often centered on allegations of childhood abuse and sometimes involved purported satanic ritual abuse. The notion that people were suffering from the lingering psychological effects of childhood abuse was related to another belief: that counselling could recover traumatic events from early life. The pop psychology theory of the recovered memory syndrome held that traumatic events lay hidden in most of our minds, and that genuine mental healing could begin only at the point they are revealed (hopefully in front of a live studio audience). 

By the 1990s, a backlash was occurring against what many referred to as a “panic” over the presence of abusers. Counter lawsuits effectively stopped the recovered memory syndrome movement in psychology.
But the courtroom setbacks were just bumps in the road on the triumphal march of therapism. No matter how discredited the idea of recovered memory became, the psychological theorizing surrounding it popularized the notion of trauma, which was key concept of therapism. 

In 2003 alone, between 3,500 and 4,000 books on self-improvement and self-help were published. That same year, the self-help industry was worth close to $9 billion. 

These miserable citizens of the digital age move back and forth between combat on politically polarizing social media platforms and the arms of a “caring industry” of 1.2 million psychiatrists, counselors, clinical psychologists, social workers, and life coaches, ready to drug, console, and affirm even bad life choices.

Therapism has received additional support with the growing epidemic of reported unhappiness and loneliness. The policies of elected officials during the COVID-19 pandemic made matters even worse. Yet, even prior to COVID, studies were showing that expanding use of social media and other digital platforms was breeding depression and anxiety, especially among young people. When governments began locking down in 2020 and forcing people to spend most of their time in their homes and related to other people only digitally, anxiety spiked. The amount of people reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder was three times higher in June 2020 than it had been in the second quarter of 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These deleterious trends in public mental health during the pandemic correlate closely with the surge in digital users and customers.

Dworkin argues that the chief difference between today and yesteryear is that unhappiness has become politicized. Therapism in the 21st century “moves easily between personal life and politics,” translating the unhappiness of millions of Americans into heated and divisive political debate. These miserable citizens of the digital age move back and forth between combat on politically polarizing social media platforms and the arms of a “caring industry” of 1.2 million psychiatrists, counselors, clinical psychologists, social workers, and life coaches, ready to drug, console, and affirm even bad life choices. The teachings and services of this industry have replaced traditional culture, Dworkin contends.

Americans are increasingly edgy and moody due to dissatisfactions at work and with family and friends. When they suffer emotional or psychological trouble today, Dworkin writes, “they call a caring professional” whose ideology is that everyday unhappiness, anger or frustration is a mental health issue caused by racial, gender, and class prejudice. There is an obvious symmetry between the ritualistic denunciations of sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia by the practitioners of the caring “sciences” and the messaging of the Democratic Party. 

Therapism is the true turbulence roiling society today, not Marxism. While the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), which prior to the 1990s took its orders from Soviet officials in Moscow, has hopped on to the struggle against racism, sexism, and discrimination against LGBTQ people, yesteryear’s Communists would have laughed at the idea that party members were traumatized by “micro-aggressions” or needed “trigger warnings” to navigate everyday life. Least of all would Communists have believed that political activism was  a form of “self-actualization.” Old-school Communists would have had little patience with campus radicals whose primary interest was discovering their gender identities. 

Therapism is a psychological reality that developed apart from politics, but which has now been weaponized for partisan political goals. The political leanings of the caring industry are hardly hidden, particularly against the backdrop of the 2020 election. The industry’s leaders, Dworkin writes, deliberately use “the jargon of political revolutionaries … to ‘raise people’s consciousness.’” Its practitioners use group airing of grievances in “diversity seminars” that operate in similar fashion to the “struggle sessions” of the Maoist Cultural Revolution—all in the name of achieving mental health. The end result is to “empower” people, encouraging them to accept that they have been “marginalized.” 

The tensions dividing Americans today are due mainly to seismic shifts in the national character that an entire industry of largely unnecessary, predatory, and politically partisan mental health “caregivers” is economically incentivized to perpetuate. By affirming the creation of a mentally unstable class of dependents, the practioners of therapism have transformed how Americans feel about political happenings. American unhappiness has indeed spilled over into the public realm in an unprecedented fashion. Personal issues have become political.

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