Jones: The Totalitarian Mind

The psychology that produces the most dangerous kind of politics.

by Tanner Jones | 1/16/20 2:15am

Totalitarianism is more than a political project. It is a popular psychology that facilitates tyrannical societies through a particularly brutal form of groupthink intent on the destruction of free thought. Totalitarian governments are not simply top-down regimes; they instead emerge from entire societies operating in a totalitarian manner. The great political theorist Hannah Arendt famously noted that the Nazi and Soviet systems did not appear overnight, but instead emerged from cultures inundated by the 19th and 20th centuries’ popular ideological movements of imperialism and anti-Semitism. History’s most dangerous demagogues thus share culpability with the masses that subscribed to their ideology and formed their cults of personality. 

Single-minded ideology invites totalitarian politics into democratic systems. Consider the long history of race-based slavery and discrimination in the United States. The popular ideology of racism against non-Whites fueled a doctrine of discrimination and a culture of prejudice. Indeed, in modern democracies predicated on popular sovereignty, danger lies not just at the top of the political hierarchy, but across the masses who collectively hold power. Nineteenth-century French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville dubbed this phenomenon “the tyranny of the majority.” Even the ancient Greeks understood popular opinion as a threat to justice in democratic systems. That’s why Plato described democracy as the necessary precursor for tyranny and tyranny as the inevitable outcome of democracy. Popular sovereignty, he contended, produces dangerous populism and then tyrannical dictatorship.

History provides evidence for Plato’s claim. In the dying days of the Roman Republic, Julius Caesar captured popular support and ushered in nearly 500 years of empire. In the modern age, masses mobilized by ideology transformed civil societies into vicious totalitarian regimes. Germany’s 1932 elections cemented the Nazis as the nation’s preeminent political force and paved the road for Hitler’s seizure of absolute power. Likewise, widespread popular support inflamed the Bolshevik movement that led to the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. 

While Caesar’s Rome is gone and lessons from that era might seem archaic, 20th-century Germany and Russia are no distant lands. There are still those alive who remember the atrocities of Stalin and Hitler, and both Germany and Russia were modern countries with educated populations not so different from our own. Millions of modern people not so far away and not so long ago were complicit in totalitarian regimes responsible for some of the greatest atrocities in human history. It is imperative to understand why.

In many ways, totalitarian thought is natural and easy. Humans are evolutionarily wired to take sides and root for teams. It’s easier to wholeheartedly endorse a singular ideology or narrative than it is sift through and organize all the inconsistencies and nuances of each political issue. Likewise, it’s easier to single-mindedly vilify our political opponents and celebrate our champions than it is to recognize the inescapable strengths and weaknesses of every individual. We’ve known this for millennia — it’s why Jesus’ teaching that followers ought to love their enemies has proven perhaps Christianity’s most difficult doctrine to practice.

In order to counter this totalitarian instinct, recognizing nuance and rejecting dogmatic ideology is paramount. Single-minded political movements ignore inconvenient problems with their own agendas and fail to recognize the evident goods of their opponents. We constantly see this in politics today: Dogmatic Democrats downplay failures of the Obama administration just as dogmatic Republicans ignore failures of Trump. In a totalitarian society, reinforcing one’s a priori ideological commitment becomes more important than finding the truth. In other words, the totalitarian mind uses argument not as tool for truth-finding, but as an excuse to fortify preexisting delusions.

I worry that totalitarian psychology is ascendant in the modern era, propelling polarization, impeding meaningful progress and risking a dangerous kind of politics reminiscent of darkest hours of human history. While many structural forces — independent courts, free press and fundamental rights for citizens, to name a few — create bulwarks against totalitarian government in America, it remains important to assess the status of our culture and its propensity for totalitarian psychology.

Totalitarian psychology is responsible for the mobilization of modern democratic peoples for the greatest evils in human history. It is imperative that Americans deeply interrogate their own beliefs, practice critical thinking and humility and reject totalitarian impulses in favor of a reasonable and inclusive politics. No ideology is infallible, and no ideologue has all the answers. As such, if one ideology claims a monopoly on political justice or righteousness, it necessarily tells a totalitarian lie. As individuals operating in a democratic society — and thereby parties to the social contract which renders America’s government legitimate — we must reject the totalitarian politics of dogmatism, fear and outrage. No political party is immune to the totalitarian mind and no dogmatic ideology is exempt from culpability. For a better society and a better politics, totalitarian psychology must be honestly recognized and then unequivocally abandoned.