The Decline of Theoretical Grounding in the Political Sphere

The word theory makes people shudder. As a therapist, theoretical models of therapy, wellness, function/dysfunction were a large part of my graduate school coursework. I still recall supervisory therapists at my internship site laughing and telling me that once I was done with graduate school and my exams, I would realize that theory isn’t important and doesn’t matter. At the time, I thought of this as an interesting potentially correct statement. Except now, as I make my way through my fourth year of practicing post-graduate school, I recognize theory as more important than ever in my practice. Having a clear idea – based in both empirical research, clinical observation, and some in personal experience – of where dysfunction comes from, what it means to experience dysfunction, and what the heck healthy might look like on the other side is all incredibly important to the therapeutic process. Otherwise, like a life coach, we might just be trying to make our patients conform to our own belief systems. Or worse, we might just be guiding them in circles.

It’s also important, clinically, for the therapist and the patient to be on the same page about where they want to go in treatment. The therapist may need to temper expectations or otherwise give options the patient did not realize were present. The therapist should also know the ropes and tools and be able to communicate the treatment plan in a coherent and concise manner. But the therapist – at least in my own view of the therapy process – should not be acting unilaterally under the assumption that they know what is best for the patient. This is paternalistic and manipulative.

One of my professors liked to use the phrase “road map” when describing the role of theory in psychotherapy. I find this helpful. It’s a metaphor which emphasizes the understanding of change processes. I also like that it can be adjusted as necessary to become a collaborative tool of understanding between the patient and therapist. There are so many ‘brands’ of psychotherapy, and though the intention is the same, the best route for any individual patient depends on so many different things. One of these things is the relationship between the therapist and the patient. Having the ability to collaborate on treatment and understandings of “the problem” and “getting better” is a really integral piece of the “map” of treatment. The therapist has expertise in the tools and methods of change, according to his or her theoretical orientations; but the patient holds the expertise over their own values and life systems, etc. Working together is how the most lasting kinds of change occur for the patient.

So what does all of this have to do with political processes? A lot, actually. See, before I became a therapist, I studied political philosophy. Ironically, perhaps, political philosophy was at the forefront of the founding of our nation. The 18th century, even into the 19th, was rich with political theory. New ways of thinking about the interaction between the governing and the governed (read: therapist and patient in my analogy here) were popping up all over the place. The problem of the tensions between security and freedom began to spring up as “the West” began to fundamentally re-configure the relationship between the “bourgeoisie” and the “proletariat” as the French quite nicely defined for us. This is to say, the relationship between those in the “ruling” classes and average citizens. This conversation was necessarily being had parallel to conversations about the function of government – what does a government do, and why.

Ultimately, these were revolutionary times. The script was being flipped in ways we likely cannot even truly imagine in our modern world. The idea of democracy – that government should function as a reflection of the will of the people, and that power should be held by the people rather than the “ruling classes” – was an incredible notion for a society literally built off of empire building and colonization. And yet, as philosophers, economists, politicians and professors all returned to the heritage of Greece in their rejection of the Roman model, they began having these conversations about the values of governing in public. They argued and brought up flaws in design and they redesigned and they collaborated to create theoretical models of governance that could reflect these changes in attitude around the role of government.

Among these thinkers and texts – Paine, Jefferson, Locke, Adams, etc – were the foundations of the “American Experiment.” The founders of our nation were intimately involved in these conversations and texts. As the hit broadway musical “Hamilton” points out, Alexander Hamilton collaborated with others to write an intensive treatise on the merits and foundations of Federalism as a binding agent for this new nation. To say that the founders were working from anything other than theoretical foundations would be to completely misunderstand how America began. America was truly a revolutionary experiment in a world of monarchy and colonial imperialism. The founders sat and argued amongst themselves to create a road map from their theories. Do you see where I’m going with this?

Since the founding, our governing institutions have moved further and further away from theory and “big picture” understanding. The GOP has become quite literally a reactionary party, with their goal being a dismantling rather than a building. This has been enacted through many policy goals thought through on an individual level. What is lacking is a coherent global picture. This is like bad therapy. Rather than having in mind the questions: what does the world look like in it’s ideal final form, and how do we get there, they are focused on specific impediments built around a very specific few. This is, in many ways, a regression back to a pre-democratic, pre-America world.

Not to rag solely on the GOP, the Democratic party has a similar problem. Rather than looking to form a coherent theoretical principle to guide them, they instead pick certain platforms to focus on based around public opinion. This is problematic because it lacks unity and prevents direction to guide policy creation. This inability to clearly communicate the goals and direction of the party have played a role in keeping the left stuck.

What would happen if we would re-engage public intellectualism and re-integrate the theoretical into the political realm? I argue it would be a much more healing and fundamentally more coherent governing process, just like a good therapist facilitating change for a patient.