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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

The methods and goals of a political psychologist

This is a working draft of a second section of an essay to be written on international relations theory, called 'International Relations in the Twenty-First Century: the Russian Snake'. Section 1 of the essay is here. All comments are welcome.


Political psychology is a discipline as old as time. Yet not previously has it been recognised as an explicit sub-branch of either politics or of psychology. Rather its skills and inferences have been buried deep in the obscurantist notion of political intuition or some such similar Byzantine phrase. Here we trace the beginnings of an exercise in wafting away the smoke.

Political structures involve groups of people with different levels of power negotiating or fighting with each other. It has always been so. This is how political disputes are resolved. The skill of political psychology is to predict how politicians and others driven by political mentalities will act in the course of these interactions, and hence (in part) to predict who will win.

We need to start with a definition of politics, if our investigation into this science is to make sense. Politics is the art of manipulation of others to control institutional structures.

The world is full of bureaucracies, because important activities need the cooperation of large groups of people. A single person cannot achieve much. The study of the way in which people interact with each other in structures involving other people, each of has some theoretically different title and mandate, is called bureaucracy. It is complicated, because people each have their own incentives and bureaucracies have rules and the rules will typically be bent to achieve the individuals' incentives. In many or even most cases the rules will be bent in different ways by different bureaucrats with competing ince.ntives.

Therefore people within the bureaucracies manipulate the rules in manifold different ways to achieve their own goals and to cause harm to their political opponents whose goals, if achieved, diminish theirs. Or they find ways of manipulating the rules in similar ways such that they both benefit. This is variously known as cooperation, consensus, or corruption.

This is a subject worthy of study. The people who study this kind of thing come by many names. They are often called analysts: people who predict the outcome of a series of interactions within politics, following a series of rules that indicate how bureaucrats and politicians work.

We call this political psychology.

Every country is different in the norms of political psychology that she follows. Events that are political scandals in some countries are entirely irrelevant in others. The British Prime Minister is in the midst of a scandal in which he has been fined by the Police for having an alcohol-based party in the garden of No. 10 Downing Street during the Covid lockdown period. Curious details include that the even went on until 4am and somebody vomited up the walls. The matter was so serious, according to UK political norms, that an independent enquiry was established to write a vastly boring report into the event, and various politicians demanded that the Prime Minister resign. (He didn't; in the end there was a vote of legislators in his party and he won the vote.)

By contrast Congressman Madison Cawthorn (R. N.C.) came under fire in late March 2022 for alleging that persons holding political office took cocaine and engaged in sexual intercourse with persons who were not their lawful husbands or wives. Nobody really seems to have denied it; the scandal was that Congressman Cawthorn exposed it, for which he was 'sent to Coventry' (i.e. blackballed amongst his peers). While wall vomiting is a political scandal in the United Kingdom, revealing the fornication and drug habits of others is a scandal in the United States. None of the people Congressman Cawthorn intimated were pilloried; only he was.

Structurally, these countries' political systems are quite similar; but psychologically, they are radically different. It is hard to describe the difference without the use of cliche. Nevertheless one might say that in British politics it is a cardinal sin to appear to be engaging in acts alien to or beyond the limits of the common man, in US politics it is a cardinal sin to reveal the shortcomings of one's fellow politicians, possibly by reason of the earnestness of the political environment.

Another difference between the political psychologies of the United Kingdom and the United States, notwithstanding their similar democratic institutions in which different bodies are elected from candidates adhering to two different political parties with different ideologies, is to note the following. In each case the difference between the two dominant political parties at times has come to represent different differences, if one might put it like that. The Conservative Party in the United Kingdom has traditionally represented landowners; in time it came to represent free market economics (particularly under and after the tenure of Margaret Thatcher). Now it has come to represent a certain sort of patriotism, or even nationalism, that rejects the internationalism of the European Union.

By contrast the Liberal Party, once the second of the British dominant political parties, used to represent the interests of industrialists. It was eclipsed as the second party of the United Kingdom in the twentieth century, which has traditionally represented the interests of working people and even socialism but now represents European internationalist concepts of social democracy.

Now look at the Republican Party in the United States, which has come to represent the US conservative movement but this means something quite different from contemporary British conservatism. American conservatism promotes business interests and family values, whereas in the United Kingdom no party really has a strong position on family values. (Broad political consensus was reached on such issues a few decades ago.) Yet the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, while also calling itself conservative, was something more like Margaret Thatcher's Conservatism of the 1980's than Donald Trump's Republican Party of today.

The US Democratic Party currently represents what Americans call liberalism; but like conservatism, this word has a completely different meaning in the United States as opposed to in the United Kingdom. For many in the United States, liberalism is a term of abuse. A liberal is a person who holds immoral or indecent personal judgments about private or religious life. By contrast liberalism in the United Kingdom means moderation or deciding political issues using measured democracy. In England, liberalism is a term advocating consensus.

The point to be observed about all this is that the political cake can be cut in different ways at different times in a nation's political life; groups of people may line themselves up differently by reason of different political structures that guide ways of thinking. The sorts of issues that divide the active interest groups will be different in each country, which will accordingly have a different political psychology. Moreover those issues may change, even if the political parties do not, and hence a country's political psychology may change.

A revealing political comparison with either of these two democracies is the political psychology of the Russian Federation, which has almost no democratic instincts (and almost never has had in its history) but does have a very distinctive political psychology. In Russia, government is understood as one form of kleptocracy (another is capitalism), in which branches of government act to expropriate assets from individuals and enterprises, who in turn strive to mitigate this by minimising their interactions with government or by lacing those interactions with fraud.

Every Russian company has two sets of books, one to defraud the Russian state of taxes or other forms of perceived l theft and the other that reveals to the company owners the real state of the company's affairs. Rule of law has very little to do with Russian government. Where there are laws, they are tools in the infrastructure of state theft that every Russian businessman works to avoid every day.

Sitting above all of this is a tight group of senior administrators, headed by the President of the Russian Federation, who use autocratic powers to steer an enormous ship in any particular direction (often quite sharply, because by reason of the serial fraud they have compromising materials on anyone that matters) that they might consider appropriate. Hence Russia remains a command economy, capable of massive lurches or changes of direction if her autocratic rulers so decide.

Indeed this whole system was very much the set of principles by which Soviet Communism was operated, and not nearly as much has changed in many post-Soviet states as one might imagine.

Politicians and members of the public from any country, with a profoundly different political psychology, may have terrible trouble understanding the political psychology of another country if they have not been there and studied it's norms. Moreover in some countries there are sub-groups of political psychologies - Scotland and Catalonia are two good examples. This explains why many people in the West simply cannot understand why politically momentous incidents, for example the Russian invasion of Ukraine, can take place; whereas Russians can. The lines upon which political decisions are taken are drawn so differently in Russia compared to in the United Kingdom, for example, that there is nothing but mutual miscomprehension.

Conventional international relations theory tries to smooth over these differences by posting a common political psychology to all states in their interactions one with another (as opposed to their internal interactions) - hence movements such as realism or liberal institutionalism try to create common theories of states' incentives. But none of these theories in international relations really work, because they posit that a state's motives viz-a-viz another state are somehow divorced from the internal political psychology of the state, something that if you think about it is obviously not true. States' reactions to crises in international relations are frequently motivated by specific events in their internal affairs. Hence lots of countries are getting involved in the war in Ukraine, even though international relations theory would not predict that they would do so. The two big outliers in this regard are the United States and the United Kingdom, neither of which have any strategic interests in Ukraine whatsoever but both of which are heavily involved and what's more by substantial consensus across the principal ideological divides in each country. Russia would never have predicted this, and it is a major spoiler in her plans.

To understand a country's international relations intentions, you first must master, or at least be a journeyman, in that country's internal affairs. This is probably Russia's biggest single foreign policy failing: that she cannot see this. Kissinger famously said that while Stalin was a brilliant foreign policy strategist, his single biggest fault was that he could not see that the leaders of every other country pursued the cold ruthlessness that he did. From this insight, we should try to fashion a more sophisticated theory of international relations, and how states cooperate (or fail to cooperate) with each other. We need such a theory, because the contemporary era shows that states are still just as likely to go to war with one another as they ever were.


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