ONE OF THE LESS HAPPY ASPECTS of the Kennedy era was the way it blended politics and fashion, giving rise to a concern with style and mood that had been lacking in earlier American liberalism. As Hollywood and the Jet Set—and many who admired both were too sophisticated to admit it—began to embrace political reform, politics became more than a struggle for measurable results and began to assume a quasi-mystical veneer. Selfdefinition and self-testing, self-purgation and role-creating are now as much a part of the Left as any political program. Liberals and radicals, having become amateur psychologists of power, are highly adept at explaining the hangups behind political failures. (A moratorium should be declared on the use of the term “hangup.” Too often an originally valid concept is debased into a mere refusal to take other people’s values seriously.)
The psychology of politics has validity and, up to a point, usefulness. But a preoccupation with political psychology is almost an infallible sign that politics itself has become debilitated and bereft of hope. Psychology then declines into a technique for discovering the roots of failure, preferably hidden betrayals.
A curious shift, not much noticed, has occurred in leftist thinking—Marx has been quietly displaced by Freud as the patron saint, the philosopher whose system is most useful for explaining political realities. Of the many reasons that can be offered for this, the most important may simply be prosperity. A comfortable middle class living in a culture in which radical questioning has become fashionable grows curious about its own inner depths. Self-analysis, when not obsessive or therapeutic, is also an amusing game. And the centrality of the race question leads straight to psychology—it is difficult to show that prosperous whites have an economic need to discriminate, hence the explanation for their behavior must lie “deeper.”