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Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Is supporting populist political parties a mental disorder?

John McGowan makes the case

Commitment? Or sign of illness?
It’s just over a month until the UK general election and many Brits seem to have lost trust in their traditional politicos. Whether it’s the UK Independence Party (UKIP) scapegoating the European Union and immigrants, a rise in nationalism (the Scottish National party), or  Russell Brand’s teenage anarchism, faith in facile, and sometimes ugly, solutions is on the march.  It’s a huge relief, therefore, to hear that the editors of the DSM (the main reference book for psychiatric classification), are considering a new category of disorder to cover this condition. Clearly many critical things have been said about the burgeoning amount of psychiatric diagnosis, here and elsewhere. However, I’ve just looked at the DSM draft entry (reproduced below), and think that this time, the American Psychiatric Association might really be onto something. In fact, all I can say is bring it on. 

Populist Politics Disorder (Draft for consultation)

A disorder characterised by a passionate, often recently acquired, belief in populist political parties and/or broad and ill-defined solutions to complex social and economic problems. This can last anything from two weeks to several years. Sometimes it may persist for life. Manifestations include pompous and self-righteous discourse in conversations, social media exchanges and car stickers. As well as the cardinal symptoms outlined above, a number of other signs may characterise the presentation:

1. An overly simplistic idealisation of the party or solution, often ignoring obvious shortcomings or turning a blind eye to the complexities of a debate. What is manifest here is blind love.

2. A corollary wish to condemn or demonise other parties or issue groups to a degree not commensurate with the differences in their actual views. In many cases, in fact, the closer the views of other groups to that of the venerated group, the greater the need to castigate them. For references in popular culture see, ‘The zeal of the convert’

3.  Ordinary language being replaced by slogans generated by the idealised party or issue group. Use of these may be intensified when contrary views are put, or deeper analysis of relevant issues is requested. Examples include, ‘Don’t blame me, I voted UKIP’ and ‘The SNP offer a fresh approach’.

4. Opponents may be referred to as 'career politicians', ‘elites’ or , ‘The Establishment’. If a populist group or party makes this charge the sufferer will instantly ignore the phalanx of pollsters, strategists and PR people around the idealised group’s leaders and see them as ‘one of us’.

Do you know someone with Populist Politics Disorder? Unfortunately there seems to be no ready treatment available, beyond the obvious public health measures: block  these bores on Facebook and walk away from them in cafes.  As GK Chesterton remarked, you cannot reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into. Can the Election offer a cure? We can only wait and see.


  1. hehehe excellent April 1st post! Had me going for about 30 seconds. I started thinking up all sorts of psychodynamically informed responses about paranoid-schizoid anxieties leading to a creation of such a defence! Brilliant work.

    1. Many thanks. Perhaps slightly narrow joke but may me laugh anyway.

  2. Shreena Unadkat1 April 2015 at 12:42

    This has been so enlightening! I feel I may have suffered with PPD in the past, and will be sure to be passing the diagnostic criteria onto friends at various social occasions in the coming months in order to aid self diagnosis. One can only hope that the appropriate services are formed to help those with this condition before the 7th of May.

  3. As this is a draft for consultation Shreena, I think there may be a case for severity of symptomatology to be measured against age. What I have in mind is something along the lines of 'old enough to know better'. Something I feel some of my more enthusiastic compatriots north of the Tweed might occasionally think about.

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