From ancient times, political theorists have drawn analogies between the human body and the body politic in order to understand both individual persons and social wholes. Plato formulated a tripartite theory of the city, which he contended could provide insights into the tripartite nature of the soul. Aristotle analogized between political rule and the relationship of reason to the passions. Aquinas compared the harmony of the polity to the balance of humors in the body. Hobbes thought that the various bodily systems had their counterparts in the body politic.
Clearly, analogizing between individual and political bodies can provide key insights into individual psychology and politics. A new model of the psyche, the Internal Family Systems model, can provide key insights into political phenomena we have witnessed in the United States during this election cycle.
Internal Family Systems
The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of the psyche was developed by Richard Schwartz and collaborators through years of therapy with trauma victims. The basic idea is Platonic in spirit: the psyche is a plurality-in-unity. In the IFS view, the self can be differentiated from other “parts” of the person as the compassionate and strong center of a person. These other “parts” can be referred to in various ways. In the course of therapy, some of these parts reveal themselves to be sorts of “sub-personalities,” a mental system with quasi-autonomous desires, beliefs, emotions, and worldviews.
In well-integrated persons, the self functions as the leader of the whole person. It directs the other parts toward their proper end: the full flourishing of the individual. In psychologically damaged or dis-integrated persons, the parts are out of whack. There are three generic parts, each with various species, that typically manifest in the damaged psyche: exiles, managers, and firefighters.
Exiles are parts of persons that are damaged by some trauma, often (but not always) in childhood. They are typically associated with such negative emotions (appetitive movements in relation to some evil), such as shame, guilt, and fear. Victims of trauma will usually seek to forget the horrible experience by pushing the hurt part out of mind.
Managers are the parts that direct a person’s choices. They are chiefly concerned with keeping exiles from flooding into consciousness, out of a desire to protect the self. There can be all sorts of managers that function differently, depending on the kind of exiles a person harbors. They commonly seek to keep the person in control of situations and to please those upon whom they depend. The managers will manifest a rigidity and severity to the degree that they believe the system is in danger of being re-injured—either by another or by the appearance of their own exiles.
Managers come in different varieties. Often there is a striver, who pushes the person toward achievement and perfection, but who also shuns away emotions. And there is judge or critic, who calls out the person and shames him or her whenever he or she engages in destructive behaviors. But there is also a denier, who screens out perceptions and distorts them so as to protect the person from criticism, and many more.
The managerial roles can and do function to help a person live a flourishing life, but they can also become pathological insofar as they function to keep exiles exiled, to disallow these parts from having any interaction with the self. Yet managers can fail at this task. When they do, the exiled part threatens to break the dikes of the psyche. When this happens, another part, the firefighter, awakens and rushes to the scene.
Firefighters arrive to put out the emotional fire. They often do so by offering a quick solution to douse the person in some numbing agent. Firefighters are often associated with addictive behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, doing drugs, self-mutilation, and promiscuous sexual activity. The need to keep the exiles at bay is so strong that the firefighter’s suggested course of action can be felt as almost overwhelming temptation.
While managers take a highly cerebral approach to dealing with and preempting exiles, firefighters react viscerally after exiles have come to the fore. This often means that the firefighters’ methods are passion-driven and in discord with right reason. Often, recrimination from managers like the judge follows. This, in turn, can further trigger more intrusion by exiles, more visceral reactions from firefighters, and more managerial judgment from the judge, creating a vicious circle.
For example, one of us treated a young woman who would waver between eating excessively and avoiding physical exertion and eating an extremely healthy and restrictive diet while working out with such intensity that it actually became unhealthy. It turns out that she was molested by her uncle. Instead of reporting the abuse, the mother fed her daughter junk food, causing her to become overweight and to be made fun of at school. As a result, when she reached adulthood, she would waver between these two extremes in trying to manage the pain.
IFS therapy seeks to reestablish leadership of the self. In a healthy individual, no part is silenced. Each part is heard at the right time, in the right manner, in the right measure, regarding the right objects, much like the various chairs and sections in a well-directed orchestra.
It is important to note that, in our interpretation of the IFS model, none of this entails a multiplicity of souls inhabiting the body. While the sub-personalities can act quasi-autonomously, such as by speaking in their own voices in therapy, the sub-personalities or parts do not enjoy that kind of ontological status. As we see it, to call them “mental systems” entails that they can be re-described as some particular interaction pattern among the powers and appetites of the human person, including reason, will, and the concupiscible and irascible appetites.
IFS and the American Body Politic
There have been sundry diagnoses of the rise of Donald Trump in this election cycle. While many of the accounts have pointed to important factors, the IFS model can provide more insights.
Trump’s rise is best understood as the response of a firefighter. The hurts, shame, and anxiety of a significant portion of our nation’s blue collar voters is in want of some balm. Their anxiety has both a material and a spiritual dimension. With real household median income in decline during the past two administrations, many voters perceive their material interests as having been ignored by both parties. With the ascendancy of cultural liberalism, and the increased sense that a range of traditionalist beliefs about the world are shameful and not to be tolerated in the public square, many voters believe that their worldview is under assault. Trump’s dominance of the polls and primaries for the last year constitutes a rebellion of this “exile” group against the GOP establishment. Call it “Tantrump.”
Tantrump began as a kind of anxiety-driven rage against the managers of the GOP, who had failed to palliate these exiles. The most common motive of the Trump primary voter was to cast a vote against what he or she perceived as a broken and corrupt Washington system. And, like psychological firefighters, Trump promised quick fixes. Banish political correctness. Build a wall. Ban Muslim immigration. Erect steep tariffs on Chinese goods. Call the bad guys “Radical Islamic Terrorists” and threaten to kill their families.
All this un-PC talk was intoxicating at first. The more extreme Trump’s words, the more the news media elites and twenty-four-hour news channels succumbed to their own firefighter demons. The temptation of big ratings and the material goods that came with constant coverage of Trump was strong. This accrued to Trump’s benefit; by one estimate, he has received two billion dollars’ worth of free media coverage.
By midsummer of 2016, America was waking up from a hangover after a year of Tantrump. Enter Hillary Clinton. She had successfully fended off a firefighter challenger from her left in the Democratic primaries and reassured the exiles in her own coalition. Having secured the nomination, she functions as a manager. Her rhetoric is laced with judgment, criticism, and blame for the destructive behaviors of the firefighter. In her recent speeches, Tantrump has been shamed for its unsavory overtones of white supremacy, racism, and the like.
The Possibilities of Politics in Healing the Body Politic
Political polarization, like psychological polarization, is evidence of a deeply damaged system. In IFS therapy, the patient seeks re-integration through a range of techniques aimed at reestablishing the self as compassionate, listening, curious, and a strong leader and integrator of the various parts.
Accordingly, as Schwartz notes, a self leads in a number of specific ways. These include maintaining systemic balance by a fair allocation of resources, responsibilities, and influence; monitoring boundaries among the parts and ensuring each part feels valued, connected, and able to express differences and problems; mediating polarizations among the members by emphasizing the importance of mutual trust and respect; and cultivating and maintaining a shared vision of the good of the plurality-in-unity.
Hence, a major key to healing damaged persons—and, we suggest, damaged bodies politic—is to allow each of the parts to be able to be heard and its needs to be taken into consideration. Sometimes this means negotiating with them on what they are truly seeking and desiring. Often parts come out strong and defensive, asking more than what they really need, because they are fearful you are trying to trick them. The key is for each and every part to know that they are valued in their own right, but that the way in which they are communicating their needs is creating a dysfunctional system. Exiled parts usually seek a genuine need, but the goal can be distorted, and there are often healthier ways to fulfill that need. The exiled part needs to be able to be heard, and the system must be willing to accept what happened without dismissing or minimizing that pain.
Our founders created federal and state institutions by which leadership can pursue these goals at the level of the body politic. But our political elites in both parties undermine our institutions’ capacities to arbitrate the needs of their members when they engage in the crude categorizations of identity politics and divide the population into blocs to be mobilized against one another. Their underlying assumption comes from Hobbesian psychology, in which power and interest-seeking on the individual and social level is the basic reality. While this is not entirely wrong, it ultimately distorts the soul and the city.
The deepest wellspring of action is not power and self-interest but love—the appetite to love and care for others and to be loved and cared for. This is proven correct time and again in trauma therapy—and any healing of our broken political system must proceed on the basis of this basic truth about its parts.