How Demagogy Works: Reflections on Aggression in Politically Fraught Times
by Cordelia Schmidt-Hellerau, PhD
Most recent statistics show a considerable increase in violence in the U.S. (and other western countries) raising the question of how to understand this disconcerting development. The author presents her psychoanalytic conception of aggression as an intensification of the preservative and the sexual drives, and shows how political propaganda and demagogy effectively manipulate the cultural climate by speaking to and stirring primitive fears related to these primal drives and their structural modifications. Three false claims are attributed to groups of ostracized “others”: 1) they threaten the individual’s and society’s self-preservation and survival; 2) they pervert the sexual order; and 3) they destroy the social values and morale. The three-pronged assault on the social fabric and reality perception leads to group regressions, thereby enhancing the readiness for aggression and destruction in a supposedly defensive reaction to the drummed up fake danger.
Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 40:4, 234-242, 2020.
About the Author
Cordelia Schmidt-Hellerau, PhD, studied literature, philosophy and psychology in Heidelberg and Zürich, where she worked as a university professor for clinical psychology. She is a training and supervising analyst at the Swiss Psychoanalytic Society and at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute. Her areas of expertise are metapsychology, in particular drive theory, its clinical application, and applied psychoanalysis of creative processes. She is the author of Life Drive & Death Drive, Libido & Lethe (2001), Driven to Survive: Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis (2018), Rousseaus Traum: Roman (2019), and Memory’s Eyes: A New York Oedipus Novel (2020), and 40 articles, published in many languages, and the editor of a Freud Reader and two collections of short stories. Currently she is the Chair of the IPA in Culture Committee. She works in private practice in Chestnut Hill.
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