An article that examines the current, politically contentious moment in American history through the lens of Carl Jung’s Collective Unconscious Theory and the Shadow….
by: C. Graham Campbell
“There is something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware.”
— Steven Stills, Buffalo Springfield
“For What It’s Worth,” 1966
In the summer of 1966 the composer of this song, like most of us, knew something was about to erupt amidst the quietude of American society. The ‘land of milk and honey’ was about to blow up as it had not since the Civil War. Stills could see, as the song says, “Battle lines are being drawn.” The explosion came, helped end a war, and then for the most part fizzled out. Now sixty years later, we are again erupting, this time from the opposite side of the political spectrum. In some ways the earlier eruption can be seen as a dress rehearsal for the present cultural conflict. More intense in southern states but alive throughout the country. The dangers of hate, white supremacy, and violence boil over with increasing frequency as we dive deeper into the darker impulses that have always simmered mere inches below the surface of our country. The dark energies that made slavery, school segregation and American Apartheid, lynchings, ethnic cleansing of native peoples, and hatred of the LGBTQ community possible are again boiling over into the mainstream. What was previously unspeakable is now blasted over the air waves twenty-four-seven. Where does all of this come from? Why now?
In high school I marched with Martin Luther King in Boston, joined the mobilization against the Vietnam War in the 1970s, later protested the invasion of Iraq, and campaigned for every progressive political candidate I could find. I’ve lived my middle-class life as a progressive, tree hugging, environmentally aware, black lives matter supporter, and #METOO ally. Now it feels that the progress we have made is under assault.
But there is a way to understand more deeply about all of this through Carl Jung’s conceptions of the Collective Unconscious and the Shadow.
Within every person there is a deep reservoir of psychic energy which holds not only the individual experience of each person but also the collective mental heritage of humanity. Floating in this reservoir is the energy and historical legacy of, depending on which theory of evolution you align with, two million years of human history and evolution. We all come into this life not only as blank slates on which our experience writes its notes but with a cache of universal symbols, images, myths, and representations which are present across all cultures, groups, nationalities, ethnicities, and countries. These become the blueprints for many human processes.
The reservoir contains aspects of both sides of human capability. On the one hand, the energies of the highest, most noble of human possibilities reside there. On the other hand, it contains the darkest, most primitive, and uncontrolled aspects of being human. Sigmund Freud, who first described the unconscious in terms accessible to modern sensibilities, limited his reflections, as was typical of him, to the individual and dark qualities. It was Jung who saw both the negative and positive qualities and equally importantly saw the collective nature of the Unconscious. He recognized that in the functioning of the human psyche we are not isolated, individual globs of protoplasm. Myths, images, and stories exist across all cultures and within all individuals reflect this reservoir. At the simplest level, all cultures have images of mother, father, death, hero, and enemy. Jung believed that these images, for example of mother and motherhood, are as important to framing the experience of being a mother as any conscious rules, principles or laws pertaining to motherhood. The contemporary metaphor for the Collective Unconscious sees it as a database in the cloud of our shared psychic life. In Analytic Psychology: Its Theory and Practice, he says of the Collective Unconscious, “It is as if they belong to a pattern not of any particular person but to mankind in general.”
It is from this reservoir, or database, that we can best understand the contemporary situation in America and to an extent the world with the election of right-wing governments in Israel and the rise of the new Nazi Party in Germany.
What is happening is in many ways a resurgence of what has always been here more or less open or hidden. Americans have strongly resisted looking to our negative past. We are supposed to be the “exceptional country,” the most “enlightened democracy,” which has driven all flaws and impulsive behavior out though majority rule at least according to our own report. Many of us refuse to see our own ‘Shadow,’ aspects of our selves which we disown and pretend don’t exist. The friendly hospitable South refused to see those qualities were extended only to those of white pigmentation. “Whites only” signs were only the most obvious symptoms. And the shadow kept popping up in lynchings, The KKK and segregation. And Boston, the citadel of liberalism, had to have riots to achieve school integration. Or the individual elected official who is ‘a servant of the people’ as long as they were born here and are mostly white. The Shadow lurks around the darkened corners of all our lives and emerges in ever more bold fashion.
In recent history the Collective Unconscious was seen most obviously and destructively in the rise of Nazism and Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. The example is instructive for Americans today. It took a war of unprecedented proportions to halt it however temporality.
Hitler exploded a war in Europe with a level of violence and hatred never before seen in human history. The extermination of the entire Jewish population was a clear, not very hidden, goal from the very beginning. And other countries, including the United States, did very little to see what was going on or respond in any way. Living in Switzerland, Jung watched from the sidelines as Nazism and the cult of Hitler spread. Much as our Canadian neighbors watched the cult of Trump grow. When asked why the danger was not seen earlier, Jung replied that the rest of Europe thought Hitler was a buffoon and did not take him seriously until it was too late. He also said, “Hitler was the mirror of every German’s unconscious but reflects nothing for the non-German.” He could see that Hitler reflects an aspect of the German people like a mirror reflects the face of individual people as Hitler reflected their psyche and rose because of that connection. Just as the Canadians never produced a Trump or one of his would-be successors. It is the American psyche that is reflected by Trump.
It is important to say that Jung somewhat overstates his case. It was not every German. There were examples of resistance to the Nazis just as there are examples of resistance to the hate in the United States today.
The United States took its own plunge into these dark waters with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. We were frighteningly close to a time when rage, impulsivity and racism would dominate. He swept the entire south and most of the Midwest. Fortunately, he lost in 2020 as his power waned. This time he lost only Georgia in the south by a very slim margin. Which may be why he worked on the Georgia Attorney General so hard. It is interesting that he seemed to treat all election officials as though they were bank loan managers and he wanted them to loan him another hundred thousand votes.
But the danger remains with many who seek to succeed him on the throne.
At the height of his power, he had a remarkable ability to speak the unspeakable often with phrases that worked as ‘dog whistles’ successfully calling out the hounds. And the more he blew the whistle the more they charged to his side like a hostile Rin-tin-Tin or an aggressive Lassie. An excellent example of this was very early in his first campaign on July 18, 2015, in one of his typically raucous campaign rallies. He said of John McCain, a Republican senator, war hero, and POW for five years, “He is a war hero. Because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.” Many observers, including myself, thought the candidacy was doomed before it actually breathed. How could he say such a thing about a fellow Republican and especially a war hero. But the hounds loved it. He unleashed the disdain for any moderate Republican and especially the one who lost to Obama. Trump often communicated this way. He insisted on calling Covid-19 the ‘Chinese Flu’ which unleashed a barrage of Asian-American violence and racism. He never once spoke directly of prejudice against any group, but his code words were rallying cries. He spoke the words of those who could not say what they really felt in public. He became their ticket out of the extremist corners of political and cultural discussion. The more outrageous he became the more loyalty he generated. Within recent time only George Wallace had dared to say such things.
When the collective unconscious drifts beyond the shores of its reservoirs there is often a suspension of customary honesty, truth, and common sense.
The defeat of Trump in 2020 slowed down the dive into the collective pool but the reservoir remains at capacity and is ready to overflow again in a tsunami of rage and white supremacy. Trump opened the floodgates as the announcer, spokesman and head coach of all that has been seething in the American Psyche. The candidacies of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Herschel Walker both of Georgia and George Santos of New York are also examples of this. The new true liars also generate loyalty.
And Trump’s power may see a resurgence if recent opinion polls are accurate.
His major ‘wanna be’ successor is clearly Florida Governor Ron DeSantis who presents as a right-wing nut, Don Quixote tilting at every windmill that is not white, male, and straight. Seems like the sunshine state is headed for some pretty serious darkness behind its governor who won reelection in 2022 by a landslide. Since then, he has had considerable success as leader within Florida supporting restrictions against gender rights, all forms or expressions of the LGBTQ community including censoring three hundred fifty books in schools many of which teach about gay rights and Critical Race Theory. He has also required medical records of any student in public schools labeled transgender. What these culture wars do is hide the fact that Florida is consistently on the bottom in terms of quality health care, elder care, school funding and teacher salaries. As long as he attacks “woke culture” he does not have to face how very little he has really done for the people of Florida. His attacks on Disney are mostly related to the park’s long history of being accesssable for same sex couples while using other legal issues as a shroud around the homophobia. It appears he will take on a fading Trump in Republican Primaries.
One easily can long for the days when Republicans and conservatives campaigned against government intrusion into the private lives of its citizens. He now advocates control of what can be said, written, or advocated. He tries to ride expanding government’s intrusion into abortion rights into the medical decisions made by other groups and other decisions. He goes to the extreme of labeling parents of transgender children getting them appropriate medical treatment as form of child abuse. He experiences numerous wins in his culture wars in Florida but seems much less successful nationally at generating support from Trump loyalists.
He clearly intends to ride all of this like a military Humvee into the republican primaries. It will be as close to a WWE wrestling match between two faux behemoths, one who may be fading and one not yet ready.
Americans rely on the strategy of not looking at the Collective Unconscious and/or shadow. If it would stay within its reservoir that would be an option, a poor option, but nevertheless an option. DeSantis’ strategy goes from allowing individual people to decide for themselves what they will read and think about to limiting what others can read, think and know. No wonder the absolutely prescient George Orwell’s 1984 is on the list of books banned by the contemporary Big Brother. All of this is conveniently hidden behind the screen of concern for children.
Except that is what got us into this mess. It is time to see ourselves and our history with eyes wide open willing to confront what many Americans avoid. It is as though many of us believe that if we look, we will be overwhelmed with shame or sorrow. The reality is not looking is the danger. Not looking is the shame. It also expresses a lack of confidence in democracy and Americans being intelligent enough to decide for themselves. If you don’t want your children reading about sexuality then supervise them for yourself, stop relying on the government to do it. My children watched and read comic books of The Simpsons and didn’t become stupid.
Most Americans love the stories of Pilgrims fleeing to this continent to escape the tyranny of despotic European governments and spreading west with our culture and wisdom. And it was a heroic time. The trouble is this ignores the ethnic cleansing of native peoples who had lived here for centuries. The point of this is not guilt but transformation so such things don’t happen again. Even the beloved 1950s, the idyllic time when life was lived as it ‘should’ be lived, when women knew their place and minorities weren’t so ‘uppity’ had hidden weaknesses. Our country was plagued with rigid rolls, expectations, and our own special brand of American apartheid. Again, the point is not about guilt but seeing what even we are capable of so that we don’t repeat any of it. Seeing becomes holding a candle in the darkness which brings transformative energy not overwhelming guilt. It brings the opportunity to live up to what we claim to be with full access for all of our citizens. Looking with honest open eyes decreases the power of hate and exclusivity. In the process, we learn to protect all our citizens, every minority from the majority. Otherwise, we repeat the Nazi experience as reflected in the famous saying of Pastor Martin Niemoeller, originally an anti-semite but later a victim of the Nazis.
“First, they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out-
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists
and I did not speak out-
because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out—
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.”
If we are not all safe everywhere, none of us is safe anywhere. Speaking out, seeing, lighting candles emboldens everything right about America. It energizes what has been called the “angles of our better nature” by Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Bush (senior).
Hate, white supremacy, violence, and racism of all kinds when not seen for what they are, wherever they are, calcify around the heart building walls in the community which keep some people subservient. Not only are some people blocked from full participation, but it is a heavy burden to carry for those who hate. Facing these things forthrightly liberates the heart burdened by all this sludge.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time in US history that the Collective Unconscious has overflowed its banks. Salem Witch Trials were a very good example of a contagion which briefly overtook a region of the country dominated by a Puritan landscape. That time it was led by a savvy clergyman, Cotton Mather, who had his own dog whistles of hunting down the ‘handmaidens of the devil.’ And there is the experience of Prohibition in the 1920s which chased ‘Demon Rum’ successfully enough to get a constitutional amendment passed banning alcohol in America for a brief period of time. Both of these experiences were cloaked in religious language and ideology which ought to be enough to make us very suspicious of those who wish for the equivalent of Christian sharia law in the entire country. The south which has always been more overtly religious is particularly vulnerable to the Evangelical Christian idolatry of Trump and his disciples. The overflow of cultural reservoirs often seeks spiritual justification and enemies to rally against. The current surge of floods was initially secular until the evangelical mob jumped on the bandwagon.
During the last third of the twentieth-century considerable energy went into civil rights, gender parity, LGBTQ equality, and accessibility for all Americans. This was an enormous task requiring effort at all levels of society. The trouble was that it was overwhelmingly from the top down, controlled by those who came to be seen as Eastern Liberal Elites. Mostly these efforts tried to erase the shadow or tighten the lid on the caldron of ethnic hatred. Every law that was passed was experienced by those still captivated by the myth of the idyllic 1950s as an affront. They felt pushed aside and threatened with being replaced by those who were new to the country and their ‘new morality.’ Workers who benefited from new safety standards often did not connect those protections with increased rights for other groups.
Partly in response to the equality trend regressive forces began resurfacing especially in talk radio. The right wing which more recently has been known as the ‘Alt-rt,’ began a long and patient counterattack. Much of this was focused on undermining faith in many American institutions, especially the media. Lies about the Sandy Hook School massacre denying its reality began almost immediately reaching their ultimate on the radio show hosted by Alex Jones. With no regard for the truth, he simply spread the ‘big lies’ which attracted enormous attention and proved to be very lucrative. Financial success obviated the need for even an iota of truth or fact. The more the lies were repeated the more normal they seemed. The jar on the lid containing the caldron was then blown off by the establishment of Fox News which rapidly became the unofficial voice of the alt-rt. All of this inaugurated the ‘post factual world’ in which ‘the big lie’ became ‘the constant lie.’
It is important to see that especially in the beginning liberals and progressives had their own part in this by mostly fleeing as the heat came on when slurs and insults were thrown at them. Hence the title of ‘snowflakes.’ They were happy to light candles but quickly let them be blown out when the opposing winds got heavy. They could not defend their ideas when challenged. Consequently, they did a remarkably good imitation of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain cringing before Hitler warning him to not invade Czechoslovakia. John Kerry lost 2004 after a devastating ad by Republicans showing Kerry on an earlier vacation windsurfing in the ocean, going whatever way the wind blows. He lost the entire south. Scott Brown, the first Republican Elected to the Senate from Massachusetts in decades, was virtually assured the victory in his 2010 election when his opponent complained about campaigning in the rain. With one wimpy squawk her campaign melted away. Brown lost to a much tougher woman candidate in 2012 in Elizabeth Warren who has persisted in lighting candles since then.
The flood waters are still in the streets neither entirely mopped up nor erased. It is important to remember that Hitler was jailed for treason while leader of the Nazi Party precursor but took overpower in 1939 by overthrowing the government. The shadow energies which have always been present are likely to arise again with or without Trump. We are likely to experience more of what is presently going on.
How this ends up will depend on each of us deciding to stand for truth and light. The Collective Unconscious holds our best and our worst impulses which will be more available depends on our willingness to confront our dark sides. This doesn’t require a Puritan hysteria of guilt and shame over past sins so much as shining lights into all of the corners, events, elections, and people. That is the blessing in all of this. It is an opportunity for cleansing. Much has changed in the overt way we conduct our politics in the twenty-first century. Truth is, the darker elements are simply more obvious. That is a form of progress no matter how uncomfortable. To wade our way through the morass we need to work both internally on ourselves individually and in our communities, lighting candles and sometimes bonfires whenever we encounter darkness. This will empower us to see in a 360-degree circle so we can allow positive energies to flow.
And there are several specific things we can do, including
- Progressives need to find better spokes people who can articulate a vision of a country in which all people are included.
- It’s time to exert some targeted economic power as liberals have never done.
- Except for Disney, stop traveling to Florida.
- Boycott goods from Florida, especially their oranges which are going to get expensive anyway.
- Refuse to attend conferences in Florida.
- Boycott advertisers on Fox News like G.M., Liberty Mutual, Procter and Gamble, Toyota, and Subaru. As a group we can pick one sponsor and carry on a truth in news campaign.
- Buy hybrid cars.
- Don’t buy Iowa corn.
- Visit Georgia and buy peaches from there.
- Vote, vote, vote in every election.
- Campaign, campaign, campaign.
- Donate, donate, donate.
- Insist that billionaires pay their fair share of taxes.
These are just several ways we can light political candles. Others can probably list twenty more. In these ways we can light candles to empower a more vibrant democracy that embraces all of our citizens.
In the meantime, it is important to keep singing with Steven Stills,
“We better stop.
Hey, what’s that sound?
Everybody look what’s going down.”