Presidential Polls Offer a Psychometric Assessment of the US Population

Donald Trump

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December 16, 2015 17:18 EDT

It is highly unlikely that Donald Trump or any of the other extremist candidates pose any real threat of being elected in America.

We just can’t figure out Donald Trump. Watching pundits try to explain his success in the polls—despite his appalling public statements—is even more spectacular than watching the man himself.

Part of the difficulty is that we tend to look at such things rather superficially, without looking at the deeper psychological dynamics that are in play. A psychological study of the democratic process is in order.

Fortunately, the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott provided such a study in an article entitled “Thoughts on the Meaning of the Word Democracy,” in which he asks, what is the proportion of a population that must be healthy—that is, emotionally mature—to sustain a democracy? (Or conversely, “What proportion of anti-social individuals can a society contain without submergence of innate democratic tendency?”)

The question is important because, as Winnicott writes, “The vote [by an individual] expresses the outcome of the struggle within oneself, the external scene having been internalized and so brought into association with the interplay of forces in one’s own personal inner world.” Thus, the political domain becomes an aggregate of the inner worlds of the voters.

Winnicott creates a framework for answering his own question by defining four distinct segments of a population:

1) Healthy members: Those who are mature (particularly in an emotional sense) according to their chronological age and social setting;

2) Anti-socials: Winnicott doesn’t define this term, but the DSM-5 description of “anti-social personality disorder” includes such attributes as manipulativeness, deceitfulness, callousness, hostility, irresponsibility, impulsiveness and risk-taking;

3) “Hidden anti-socials”: Those who react to inner insecurity not by rejecting authority (e.g., society or the state), but by identifying with it;

4) Indeterminates: Those who fit into none of the above categories, the psychological equivalent of “swing voters.”

For several years, I have been interested in developing a set of proxy indicators that would provide a psychometric—or “ego demographic”—profile of a given population. By “ego demographic,” I am referring to the population-level application of Jane Loevinger’s eight stages of ego development that I described in a 2013 article in Monthly Developments for an international development audience. (These proxy indicators would help international nongovernmental organizations tailor their strategies and communications to the social psychology of the population with whom they are working, which is often misleadingly termed “culture.”) While I haven’t systematically mapped Winnicott’s categories to Loevinger’s ego stages, it is clear that the two maps pertain to the same territory.

For the US, I propose that the presidential polling numbers can be used to create such a psychometric profile by sorting the population (in a general sense) into Winnicott’s categories, and potentially into Loevinger’s stages as well, particularly early on in the election cycle before “electability” becomes the principal concern.

The Donald’s Chances

Since an individual vote reflects “the interplay of forces in one’s own personal inner world,” supporters of psychologically healthy candidates indicate their own psychological health through that support. Supporters of candidates who exhibit callousness, hostility or impulsiveness indicate that those traits are resident within themselves. Some voters are anti-social, rejecting society in favor of the individual, while others represent the “hidden anti-social” tendency by rejecting the individual in favor of society.

What conclusions can we draw from this analysis?

First, without a major change in America’s circumstances between now and November 2016, it is highly unlikely that Donald Trump or any of the other extremist candidates pose any real threat of actually being elected. It is unlikely that a political campaign could move a significant segment of the population from healthy to anti-social (hidden or otherwise).

Thus, it is reasonable to believe that—if the nation’s circumstances do not change appreciably—Trump’s polling numbers have essentially peaked.

However, any wise democracy will still be wary of such candidates, since they stand at the ready to jump in should some sort of national catastrophe occur, raising fears among the general population to an intolerable level. This is frequently the mechanism by which democracy fails. It is here that those psychological “swing voters” come in, deciding if the nation will follow a path toward health or toward decay.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Joseph Sohm /

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