The nature of the Left in 2022 is rooted more in psychology than political science. Specifically, liberalism is suffering from narcissism.
To understand how, it’s essential to grasp the true meaning of narcissism. In its clinical definition, narcissism is not self-love — it’s the opposite. The narcissist isn’t full of ego. Rather, he has no real sense of self. Where the self would be is emptiness, which results in a mad effort to fill the psyche with meaning. Lacking a stable and confident sense of identity, the narcissist hunts for meaning in therapy, self-help, sex, or radical politics. None of these can give meaning to empty lives.
In his seminal 1979 work The Culture of Narcissism, the brilliant social scientist Christopher Lasch argued that the human personality, its psychology itself, had changed over the course of the later 20th century. Americans had transformed from strong and well-adjusted people to those evincing a "minimal" self — a personality that is weak and dependent on government, corporations, radical politics, sex, and bureaucracies for a sense of meaning.
A central idea in Lasch’s analysis, and something that is key to understanding the new woke generation, is how infants develop. Citing Sigmund Freud, Lasch argued that to an infant, interactions with the world result in feelings of either omnipotence or helplessness. In their fantasy world, a toddler is either the king of the world, demanding their needs get met right now, or is totally helpless and dependent on parents for survival. It represents two extremes that need to be evened out.
To do so, it is vital that parents, community, and what Lasch called "transitional objects," including toys, games, siblings, and pets, introduce limits to the world of the child. These objects shrink the scale of fantasies, introduce reality, and allow a healthy transition into adulthood. In the later 20th century, the raising of the child went to television, the helping professions, schools, and bureaucracies. Lasch expert George Scialabba once summarized the process this way:
Formerly, the presence of potent but fallible individuals, economically self-sufficient, with final legal and moral authority over their children's upbringing, provided one kind of template for the growing child's psychic development. As fathers (and increasingly mothers) become employees, with the family's economic survival dependent on remote, abstract corporate authorities, and as care-taking parents were increasingly supervised or replaced by educational, medical, and social-welfare bureaucracies, the template changed. The child now has no human-size authority figures in the immediate environment against which to measure itself and so reduce its fantasies to human scale. As a result, it continues to alternate between fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness. This makes acceptance of limits, finitude, and death more difficult, which in turn makes commitment and perseverance of any kind — civic, artistic, sexual, parental — more difficult.
The result is narcissism. Lasch described it this way:
Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.
When one observes the behavior of the new modern woke, Lasch’s words are stunningly prescient. The college kids literally screaming like toddlers when faced with a speaker they don’t like, the transgender people asserting that their truth is all that matters, the you-go-girl amateur psychologists helping mentally wobbly people to demand respect even if they haven’t earned it. This is the world The Culture of Narcissism predicted. These aren’t the old communists with their "dialectical materialism" and pseudoscience about the tectonic plates of evolutionary social change. These are babies with no secure sense of self throwing tantrums. A comment on a YouTube video I recently came across is very telling. The clip shows some colorful teenage dancers in a 1980s club from 40 years ago. Being in college at the time, I was actually scanning YouTube looking for my old self. Yet what caught my eye was a comment below the video, a remark left by what I assume was a younger viewer: "They all look so confident."
The woke are not egotistical, assertive activists. They are those without a self, without history, and without confidence. More than 40 years after the publication of The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch’s screaming tyke is running the culture.
Mark Judge is an award-winning journalist and the author of the book The Devil's Triangle: Mark Judge vs. the New American Stasi. He is also the author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators, and A Tremor of Bliss.