How Infantilism Frames Our Politics: “No Request is Too Extreme”

by Robert S. Becker on July 14, 2009

Mulling over months of mind-numbing, predominantly Republican meltdowns, I puzzled about patterns until rediscovering Peter Pan’s ode to adolescence: I won’t grow up. I don’t want to go school . . . Just to learn to be a parrot / And recite a silly rule . . . I will stay a boy forever / And be banished if I don’t! . . . I’ll never grow up, never grow up, never grow up, / Not me.

No single theory explains why Senators John Ensign, David Vitter, Larry Craig or Governor Mark Sanford defy transparent, adult standards and rain down scandals. Then again, who can explain the absurd number of reality-survivor TV shows, dumbed down popular music or movies, or rejection of evolution or global warming? Yet with some popular affronts like “drill, baby, drill,” at least we know who’s being addressed: babies.

Which brings us to infantilism, namely when emotional-intellectual development stops before 15. An “infantile” politician refuses to grow up or accept adult norms, remains stubbornly self-centered and certain his/her gut instinct guides flawless decision-making. In short, infantilism extends immaturity – signaled by narcissism, magic thinking, mendacity, defensiveness, or pigheadedness – into adulthood, often blindly rejecting experience, learning, rules, or perspective. Adolescence plagues our politics – framing the low points of Bill Clinton, GW Bush, McCain, Palin, Ensign and Sanford – while nicely dramatizing the remedy: more Barack Obamas.

Stuck in the Deluded Self

Politicians, actors, and celebrities epitomize the refusal to grow up because they succeed by turning egocentricity into achievement. Success, which make adults wary, instead feeds child-like disdain for all “silly rules.” Why did President Clinton, infamous for sex-capades, get snagged by the underage Monica Lewinsky, thus maximizing GOP leverage? Why did warning lights go off when he got turned on? At work the thrill of forbidden, dangerous liaisons and Clinton regressed, the teenager shacking up with the adoring cheerleader. Because lying (to self and others) is cause and result of infantilism, Clinton deceived, jeopardized his presidency, tarnished Al Gore, and helped install our worst president.

Indeed, with foreign policy, not private parts, Dubya made war like Clinton made sex: he embraced a fantasy world, believed he couldn’t lose (or be found out), then violated our national interests, ineptly invading the wrong country. Yes, elevation to “war president” was good politics, the phantom “Decider” barking immature war cries: “bin Laden: Dead or Alive,” or “You’re either with us or against us.” Who but a child divides the planet into partners or foes? What Bush did, beyond other presidents, was enact infantilism into wide-ranging public policy. Often overwhelmed, he obeyed “adults” and happily relished his role as belligerent propagandist.

McCain’s Bush Envy Boomerangs

Why wouldn’t transparent Bush-Cheney charades work for John McCain? Alas, sustaining fantasy takes superior gut instinct and better advisers; both failed McCain and his campaign stumbled, first smitten by Sarah Palin’s glitz, then consumed by the vacant con game called Joe the Plumber. Why a ditzy brunette unfit for national office enchanted a veteran warhorse is a matter for therapy. But when McCain endlessly embraced an even emptier vessel, Joe Wurzelburger, his campaign was doomed. No trustworthy adult exhibits aberrant wishful thinking, and the aged McCain appeared child-like, desperate for miracle rescues.

In retrospect, the still impulsive Palin bookended the still inane plumber, for both glorify: 1) unmerited entitlement, as if cockiness equals valor; 2) ignorance trumps knowledge, thus 3) blindness clichés don’t distort complex realities; and 4) defiance against schooling themselves. Peter Pan’s anthem reigns here: “I won’t grow up. I don’t want to go school . . . learn to be a parrot, And recite a silly rule.’

Neverland for Sanford and Palin

Finally, infantilism explains the bizarre ways by which Sanford and Palin, unaided, imploded this month. With graphic confessions, Sanford played out the adolescent first-love fantasy affair, which he elevated as tragic and forbidden. Besides obsession, or insanity, how else to explain open adoration of his “soul mate” while claiming to re-woo his irate wife? Columnist David Brooks nails it: Sanford was “given to rambling self-exposure even in his moment of disgrace . . . apparently untouched by any pressure to live according to the rules and restraints of adulthood.”

Though better defended than Sanford, Ensign wins the prize for becoming the literal, misbehaving child. His rich parents had to bail him out by “gifting” $96K to his mistress. Ensign’s rightwing buddies had to force him to write a closure letter and drove him to the FedEx office. Ensign, for which infantilism is barely metaphor, then called his mistress to nix the forced withdrawal.

A Maverick Wishes Upon a Star

Finally, in style and content, breathless immaturity frames Palin’s abrupt resignation. The event was rushed, mating ducks were audible, key politicians and press were excluded, and the tone was manic. Palin’s jumpy, anxious tone sounded like a hyped teen defending the rather inexplicable dumping of her hot boyfriend. Like an adolescent sensing deceptions won’t fly, she overtalked, sabotaging her own statement with bags of “word salad,” incoherent words and jumbled topics, pushing garbled spontaneity as genuineness.

Fellow conservative Peggy Noonan captured Palin’s “horrifying” performance, the vacuous grievances imprisoned by “assumptions of our childhoods.” Again defying the conventional, adult world, Palin failed to explain or defend her positions, even demonstrate she knew them, “utterly unconcerned by all this and seemed in fact rather proud of it: It was evidence of her authenticity. She experienced criticism as both partisan and cruel because she could see no truth in any of it. She wasn’t thoughtful enough to know she wasn’t thoughtful enough.”

Skittish and undisciplined, Palin is damaged goods whose adolescence scares the GOP establishment; unlike Dubya, she defies instruction. Sunday, she said she’d campaign for like-minded Democrats, clarifying her new mission transcends her vacuous stalking horse, “politics as usual.” Expect more of the same, maybe a third party, and a crusade of half-baked ideas, naive fundamentalism, and gung ho chauvinism unified by her smiling demagoguery. Resignation frees her from earthbound restraints, like geography, to fund ever-presumptuous dreams of grandeur. She could take to heart another Disney voice, Jiminy Cricket, oddly pitching extremism to children of all ages:

When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are,
Anything your heart desires will come to you.
If your heart is in your dreams, no request is too extreme,
When you wish upon a star as dreamers do.

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