Psychology of Political Expression by Jacob Abshire

Within the inner workings of society there exists an undeniable impact of man’s relationship with authority and how that relationship is expressed through both obedience and disobedience. Overtime, various noted psychologists and sociologists have pursued a clearer understanding of such expressions, analyzing the role of obedience and disobedience within society. And with that, a typical way in which people express themselves within their society is through some sort of political system, acting as an authority figure, whether through support of a political party or idea. In certain cases people have gone to the far extremes of the political spectrum and work to express that extremity. Considering that idea, such desire from an individual for obedience or disobedience to a certain authority dictates the way in which they express themselves politically. 

Erich Fromm, a recognized German social psychologist, creates insightful claims regarding the psychology behind obedience and disobedience throughout the entirety of his article “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem”. Fromm illustrates the idea that in order for man to accept obedience, he must do so out of his own heart, not out of fear of some force (82). And so, whatever power seeks man’s obedience must become a “good” figure in the eyes of man, allowing man to view himself as part of the good. Perhaps then, the way in which people regard themselves politically (Democrat, Republican, Liberal, Conservative, etc.) is determined by the way such institutions have portrayed themselves to the individual. People will tend to show obedience for whatever has been proclaimed to them as good and disobedience to whatever has been proclaimed as bad, because such thinking permeates a form of self-righteousness that, as Fromm states, is what man would do “rather than to detest themselves for being cowards” (82). And it is very possible that such manifestation occurs through multiple different outlets, such as the individual’s childhood or from news media. However, the method by which the individual judges some form of authority that seeks obedience, in this case political institutions, doesn’t matter as long the authority is shed in positive light. So not only does man’s desire for obedience or disobedience play a role within their political expression, but also the way in which political institutions have portrayed themselves to the individual.

Alongside the ideas of Fromm are those of Maeve Cooke, author of “Civil Obedience and Disobedience”, who creates a more detailed illustration of what an individual would consider a “good portrayal” of a political institution. She mentions a viewpoint that all members of modern society are seeking to be strong evaluators, capable of analyzing what is good (Cooke 998). And so, institutions that have seemingly stripped members of their autonomy in strong evaluation have produced disobedience. If an individual is capable of viewing themselves as more “morally correct” under a given political institution or idea, it seems that is the one they will remain obedient to, and consequently disobedient to the institution that fails to give them that capability. Which closely relates to the ideas previously mentioned by Fromm, but also builds upon those ideas, stating that being a strong evaluator of good stems from one’s desire to be autonomous (Cooke 997). And it’s that desire to be autonomous that acts as a catalyst for an authority figure to exercise its authority because, as mentioned by Fromm, “Man must want and even need to obey” (82). And so, man’s want to be obedient has stemmed from man’s desire to be an autonomous “strong evaluator”, which, consequently, causes man to seek obedience to a political institution that portrays itself as a method by which the individual can exercise his own free thinking autonomy. 

In unison with the ideas of Fromm and Cooke, Davide Morselli and Stefano Passini’s “Authority Relationships between Obedience and Disobedience” analyzes the portrayal of authority to an individual. Morselli and Passini refer to the more abstract psychological aspects previously mentioned by Fromm, yet take it further by laying out the way that psychology, in terms of disobedience, plays out in society, in the forms of protests or social movements. Morselli and Passini divide disobedience into different types, that “we can define as anti-social (destructive) and pro-social (constructive) disobedience” (101). By creating such a divide, they create this idea that there can be multiple views of disobedience, as the individual decides whether they view it as “anti-social” or “pro-social”, which essentially just rephrases the ideas of Fromm. So perhaps, tying back to political institutions, all political institutions function in the same way and work with the same idea that they will be disobedient to what is “anti-social”, fighting against what they view as wrong, and obedient to what is “pro-social”, advocating for their perspective of good. In the world today, it seems people have become much more extreme in there disobedience to a political institution or idea, fighting harder to improve their society based off their view of what is “pro-social” or anti-social”.

 Within “Disobedience and Support for Democracy: Evidences from the World Values Survey.”, Morselli and Passini introduce an idea that disobedience such as social movements or protests occur once groups believe “the authority’s demands are not congruent with previously-agree moral, social, and political principles” (285). With an increase in media technology and the influence of news networks, it has become much easier for political institutions to portray themselves to an individual as far greater than they are, and thus transfersly portray the opposing political institution as far worse than they realistically are and as an authority that is breaking those agreed upon principles. And so, it seems now political authorities have the power to somewhat manipulate the psychology of disobedience/obedience in the individual to obtain their obedience. So perhaps the way one expresses themselves politically is dictated not only by the portrayal of a given institution, but the amount of exposure one has to media that allows an institution to portray themselves as possessing “pro-social” ideals. 

So, with the motives and displays of both disobedience and obedience clearly established, the thoughts of Eric Groenendyk within “Intraparty Polarization in American Politics” can be analyzed to more in depthly evaluate extremity within American politics. Overall, Groenendyk concludes that the polarization of elites in a given party causes moderates of that party to like it less and has possibly created a platform for the creation of a third party, one outside the two that dominate American politics (1620). However, more interesting to consider within the bounds of disobedience and obedience is Groenendyk’s claim that “the polarization of party elites has provided all partisans with a reason to like the other party less” (1617). It seems that partisans at the forefront of their party have increasingly allowed themselves to strictly follow their “pro-social” views, which creates a greater divide. Or as Fromm would put it, these extreme partisans have a strong “authoritarian conscience”, which is described as “the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing” (81). And so, as the media and the news provide a platform for such partisans to have more influence over each individual, each must consider whether they will choose obedience or disobedience to such polarized political institutions. And in many cases, each person will react to polarized ideas with polarized opinions because they seek to please any “authoritarian conscience” that has been established within them, thus resulting in greater polarization. So yes, it holds true that the way in which political institutions and ideas portray themselves to the individuals and appeal to their “authoritarian conscience” dictates their political expression, if such portrayal, with great exposure to the individual, is polarized, then the individual will react with disobedience or obedience that is similarly polarized. 

With all things considered and to further this idea of extremity in politics, the ideas of Fromm can once again be examined. As previously stated, Fromm claims that in order for man to obey, in this case in the form of subscribing to a political institution’s line of thought, he “must want and even need to obey” (82). Polarized partisans have created a political environment in which many political ideas or notions are an extreme, and so if any one person is to voice their opinions they must do so in a likewise polarized manner. Thus, these polarized partisan’s have created a need within the individual seeking political expression to be obedient to the given political institution; the need Fromm deems as necessary for obedience. And due to such an occurrence, the American political environment has become an “explosion of hostility between parties” (Groenendyk 1616). And so perhaps the role of one’s desire for both obedience and disobedience in the political realm is that it serves as the fuel for hostility and the motive for polarization.

 Though many factors contribute to the way in which members of society express themselves politically, such as news media or social media, there is an unmistakable influence of the psychology behind how man deals with authority on that expression. And it seems that the use of factors of media by the authority of political institutions serves as a pathway towards such institutions illustrating themselves in a positive light to society. And so, given one’s exposure to that likely polarized portrayal, one will desire to seek obedience or disobedience to that political party or idea if it indeed provides room for the individual to seemingly maintain their own free thinking and autonomous evaluation of society. 

Works Cited

Cooke, Maeve. “Civil Obedience and Disobedience.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 42, no. 10, 2016, pp. 995–1003., doi:10.1177/0191453716659521. 

Fromm, Erich. “Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem.” Writing and Reading for ACP Composition, 3rd Edition, edited by Christine R. Farris and Deanna M. Luchene, Pearson, 2018, pp. 78-83.

Groenendyk, Eric, et al. “Intraparty Polarization in American Politics.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 82, no. 4, 2020, pp. 1616–1620., doi:10.1086/708780. 

Morselli, Davide, and Stefano Passini. “Disobedience and Support for Democracy: Evidences from the World Values Survey.” The Social Science Journal, vol. 49, no. 3, 2012, pp. 284–294., doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2012.03.005. 

Passini, Stefano, and Davide Morselli. “Authority Relationships between Obedience and Disobedience.” Apr. 2009, 



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