Image Credits: Camille Fine.
Defensive projection is a psychological concept that refers to the human tendency to attribute one’s own unacceptable urges and behaviors to another person. Usually, this is understood as a way of alleviating internal discomfort and also of avoiding confronting the truth about oneself. But it’s also something else. We have to guess about what other people are thinking and what motives lie behind their actions. Our best reference point is what we’d likely feel or do in similar circumstances. If our feelings or actions would be unacceptable, then we’re likely to think other people would have a similarly problematic reaction. But this is often untrue. People have different levels of greed and envy, are more or less jealous, and everyone owns their own particular level and grouping of insecurities. More than this, we each have our own life of experiences and foundation of knowledge that informs how we interpret events and our own self-interest. Therefore, the less we share in common with someone, the more likely we are to misjudge what makes them tick.
When it comes to conservatives, we’ve seen them openly admit doing some pretty shitty things. For example, when the Great Recession hit, they were pretty clear that they wanted the economy to remain in a poor condition so they could ride the resulting discontent to political victory. When Donald Trump was president, we’ve saw conservatives refuse to get tested for COVID-19 because they didn’t want to add to the high rate of infection in the country and give the Democrats political ammunition. It’s hard to believe people would do these things precisely because we wouldn’t do them ourselves.
It’s hard to get inside the head of a conservative not just because they consume different information and have unfamiliar life experiences, but also because a lot of what drives our own behavior is absent with them. The same is true in reverse, of course, which is why they’re prone to attributing bad motives to Democrats when none exist.
For example, Greg Sargent points out that conservatives felt that during 2020 the Democrats pushed policies in response to the COVID-19 outbreak that were intended to hurt the economy and thereby harm Trump’s reelection prospects. That’s precisely the type of behavior they engaged in during the Great Recession–their House members famously refusing to offer a single vote for the Recovery Act.
But the Democrats were not driven by a desire to harm the economy. They were following the best available expert advice in an effort to save lives, including their own.
A lot of the initial resistance to anti-COVID protocols on the right stemmed from this mis-assignment of motives to the left. Over time, it morphed into something else, and now that Biden is president and the pandemic persists, the right actually seeks the kind of political advantage they wrongly complained about in 2020. Sargent points to a statement given by a Republican political operative to CNN.
“Democrats ran an entire campaign dishonestly promising that they alone could fix a once-in-a-generation pandemic. Now that they’ve completely failed and their poll numbers are tanking, they are desperate to shift blame,” Michael McAdams, National Republican Congressional Committee communications director, said in a statement.
As a 2022 midterm messaging strategy, this is dependent on the pandemic remaining a hot mess for the next 14 months. Sargent points out that the GOP has a plan for that.
House Republicans and GOP candidates have spread disinformation about the virus, have staged epic fake-outrage fests about mask mandates, have demagogued about vaccines in ridiculous, hallucinogenic and obscenely wretched ways, and have pushed the rankest of absurdities to undermine confidence in federal health officials.
They don’t want people to wear masks or get vaccinated because that would help Biden get the problem under control and ruin their argument. The Democrats are capable of some cynical political ploys but they would never try to gain power by helping a deadly virus proliferate. The record is clear, too, that the Democrats will act to shore up the economy in an emergency even if it will help their political opponents. Remember, when the big banks needed to be bailed out in lead-up to the 2008 election, it was the Democrats who stepped up and took the heat.
That might have been politically foolish, especially when not enough subsequent aid went to ordinary people, but it shows something about motives. The Democrats see a crumbling economy as something that hurts working people, not as something to exacerbate for political advantage. They passed the Affordable Care Act to help people despite knowing it would come at great political risk.
I don’t think we’ll ever succeed in getting conservatives to act in acceptable ways, but it might help if they at least understood us better. We’re not like them. Our empathy is real, and there are limits on what we’ll do to try to obtain power.