How to Teach the Re-Emergence of the American Id

Are there responsible ways to psychoanalyze a culture?

January 24, 2022

In a 1915 essay, Sigmund Freud introduced an enduring phrase—“the return of the repressed”—to explain how ideas and impulses that are self-consciously suppressed nevertheless bubble up and re-emerge.

It’s hard not to think that American society is experiencing something like the return of the repressed, as expressions of blatant racism and bigotry are publicly voiced, conspiratorial thinking grows ever more common, and zealots lead witch hunts, searching out and deliberately harassing those whose views they disdain.

Attempts to psychoanalyze society invariably and often correctly meet with scorn. Nevertheless, Freudian psychoanalysis does offer cultural insights that we should not ignore. The re-emergence of the American id offers a textbook example.

Freud famously divided the human psyche into three elements: the id, the ego and the superego.

However much questioned by academic psychologists, these terms have been thoroughly absorbed into popular thought, and I think it’s fair to say that Freud’s conception of the human mind as engaged in a constant struggle between the id, the ego and the superego has become an inescapable way of understanding how the human psyche functions.

Of course, popular usage of Freud’s three terms has become grossly oversimplified, with the id referring to people’s primal urges and passions, the ego becoming a synonym for the conscious mind, and the superego a substitute for the word “conscience.”

In fact, Freud conceived of these aspects of the mind in less straightforward terms. The id does indeed refer to certain unconscious instinctual drives and impulses (including, but not limited to, the pursuit of bodily and sexual pleasure, irrespective of the costs), the superego to a set of internalized standards, and the ego treated as mediator between the id and superego.

But in Freud’s view, the ego shouldn’t be reduced to the conscious mind, rational, sensible and judicious. Rather, its adaptive and regulatory functions are largely unconscious, and it is often fragile, insecure and weak or, conversely, inflated. Similarly, to treat the superego as a synonym for the conscience is to downplay its harsh, punitive, authoritarian and crushing elements. And the id, in turn, includes masochistic, sadistic, self-punishing impulses, including, in Freud’s view, a drive toward death and destruction.

Psychoanalysis’s primary purpose, in Freud’s view, was “to strengthen the ego.” As he put it in his “Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis,” Es war, soll Ich warden—“Where id was, there ego shall be.”

When I was a young historian, psychohistory—the attempt to use psychological theory to reinterpret historical events—was much the rage. Quickly, however, it was dismissed as crude, naïve and reductionist. Psychohistorians did, nonetheless, recognize a fundamental truth: the pivotal roles of emotion and personality in politics.

Indeed, in recent years, the history of emotions has become a thriving field of study, prompting a host of works on such topics as the 19th-century efforts to civilize the emotions, shifts in the vocabulary of feelings and emotional expression, the emotional socialization of children. Books on angst, honor, jealousy, love, neurasthenia, hysteria and melancholy abound.

But perhaps historians were too quick to shelve efforts to apply psychological concepts to the study of distinct cultures and societies. After all, national, racial and religious identities are highly charged with emotion, and acts of genocide and ethnic violence can’t be understood properly without an awareness of their psychological dimension. We ought not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

So let me take some reputational risk and suggest how we might use Freudian concepts to illuminate what I regard as a crucial issue of our own time: the resurgence of the American id.

Recently, disgraceful and despicable views that many had thought had been suppressed have resurfaced with a vengeance. I’m not only referring to open expressions of racism, bigotry or nativism and xenophobia, but to other currents in American thought with deep cultural roots:

  • The conspiracy fears that Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style.
  • The scapegoating and moral panics that resemble the witch hunts of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries.
  • The censorious moralizing that really does threaten academic freedom and open discourse.
  • The essentializing and fetishizing (by race, ethnicity, sexuality or gender) of characteristics or behavior that are in fact widely distributed.

Let me be clear: I do not favor the kind of wild, ungrounded psychological speculation that characterized some of the worst examples of psychohistory. Nor do I think it’s productive to attribute id-like behavior and attitudes solely to one side of the partisan divide.

Academics shouldn’t wield psychology as a political cudgel.

Certain aspects of the American id can be found across the political spectrum. Let’s remember: bifurcating (or what psychoanalysts call splitting) and projecting our worst impulses onto others is not just a defense mechanism; it’s a form of denial that distorts an understanding of the impulses that motivate our own behavior.

It seems to me that humanists, political scientists and sociologists could do much more in their teaching to examine how and why:

  • Gatekeeping institutions’ ability or willingness to redirect, channel, defuse and repress certain modes of discourse weakened.
  • Forms of speech and viewpoints previous treated as reprehensible and illegitimate came to be openly and publicly expressed.
  • New technologies, including social media and digital networking platforms, facilitated the emergence of information bubbles and encouraged confirmation bias.
  • A popular postmodernism that recognizes the contingency and constructed nature of truth claims on historical and social context and that deconstructed abstract concepts and social institutions and structures was disseminated and gained traction.

So how might we do this in our classes?

  1. Historicize. Contemporary developments have historical analogies, precedents and parallels that need to be recognized. Fears of subversion, paranoid delusions and scapegoating by race, ethnicity, religion and immigrant status have recurred periodically over the course of U.S. history. We might place contemporary analogues into historical perspective and rigorously examine the similarities and differences
  2. Contextualize. What, we might ask, are the factors that contribute to periodic surges in xenophobia or to moral panics? We need to identify and examine the range of factors that have contributed to the specific modes of perception and behavior.
  3. Empathize. We need to understand how people no less moral or intelligent than ourselves could embrace ideas or ways of thinking that we find abhorrent. To know all doesn’t require us to forgive all, but genuine understanding does require us to appreciate the circumstances that have led people to take actions that we quite rightly repudiate.
  4. Theorize. To reach the highest stage of understanding, we need to carefully assess alternative frameworks for understanding and formulate our own explanatory model or working hypothesis or formal theory.

As we live through a period when the collective id has resurfaced in unsettling and troubling ways, we, as academics, have a special responsibility to try to explain how and why this has occurred. We must also explore ways to strengthen our collective ego, which will certainly require our society to undergo a concerted process of self-exploration and self-reflection.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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