From all the talk on the political right mocking “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and “victim mentality,” it might seem like a therapeutic approach to life’s problems is specific to the political left. But, as philosopher Roger Foster writes, a “therapeutic ethos” was also a key part of the rise of the right in the 1970s and ’80s.
Foster describes the rise of the therapeutic ethos as a long-term trend. Starting in the late nineteenth century, he writes, the understanding of the self shifted. Americans moved away from talking about “character”—the use of self-control to conform with a uniform moral law for the benefit of society. Instead, they increasingly referred to “personality”—a way of distinguishing oneself as a unique individual. Over the course of the early twentieth century, the focus on individual psychology deepened. The rise of psychotherapy encouraged people to focus on the contents and functioning of their own minds.
In the mid-1960s, cultural theorist Philip Rieff described the emergence of the “psychological man”—someone who focused on improving his own inner life rather than on the social obligations that Christianity had imposed on his predecessors. To many at the time, that was indeed a left-wing idea, tied closely to the ideals of equality and democracy. For example, the leftist Students for a Democratic Society expressed its goals in psychological language, such as “finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.” Meanwhile, feminism redefined the purpose of marriage away from social obligation and toward the happiness of each spouse.
“In this period, the therapeutic ethos was understood in conservative cultural criticism as a disruptive force that tore asunder the communal bonds tying the individual to the collective,” Foster writes.
Yet it didn’t take long for some on the right to adopt a similar therapeutic individualism. This was tied up in a new view of entrepreneurship. In previous eras, conservatives praised the success of self-made businessmen as embodying both self-mastery and self-sacrifice. It was honorable because it served the common good. Foster writes that the 1970s right reconfigured this story as “responsibility divorced from submission to collective ideas, as the responsibility for the management of one’s own life.”
The right also expanded the entrepreneurial ideal beyond business owners to all workers. Choices like going to college, networking, or working to improve one’s own mental functioning became “investments” in “human capital.” Answers to problems were to be found in one’s own psyche rather than in the broader society.
The flip side of this was seeing government not as a collective project but as a cheerleader for patriotic optimism and individual success, something epitomized in Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Citing historian Daniel Rodgers, Foster writes that over his eight years in office, Reagan’s speeches shifted from a focus on the “burden of freedom” to “psychic restoration.”
Today, individualistic flourishing continues to dominate much political rhetoric on all sides, and no ideology has a monopoly on the therapeutic ethos.