The 20th-century psychologist Wilfred Bion made a fascinating behavioral hypothesis. When groups work to accomplish a task, they remain largely grounded to a rational level of conduct. However, when groups become consumed with anxieties, they typically exhibit three behavioral tendencies — assumptions, as Bion calls them — that distract them from accomplishing their tasks.
Perhaps the most psychologically and politically relevant of Bion’s three assumptions is that of dependency. In this phenomenon, a group coalesces around a single leader who guides it and provides protection and consolation for its angst. In dependency, groups will idealize their selected leader in an attempt to shift the responsibility of the group’s task onto him or her. Insofar as the leader takes on the burden of the group’s task, the group’s anxiety is assuaged.
Enter Oprah Winfrey, a woman whose recent political apotheosis belies a factious ideological disunity within the Democratic Party and whose support evinces the applicability of Bion’s dependency theory in our modern American politics.
The sad reality is that the agenda of the current president — dominated by developments including corporate tax cuts, beefs with Kim Jong Un and intense environmental deregulation — is disagreeable to nearly all Democrats. These kinds of adverse policies, and their growing negative effects, have become the focus of the Democratic Party’s present, temporary agenda of containment. Coupled with impulsive rhetoric and rabble-rousing tweets, the current administration and its decisions have sown the seeds of intense anxiety in much of the party.
Unfortunately, this intense political angst, instead of spurring Democrats to embrace a united front, has only underscored many of the factions that currently contend for legitimacy within the party today.
Indeed, the urgency to contain the policies of the current administration has only highlighted the fact that the Democratic Party comprises many subgroups, all with their own solutions. Whether it be the Democratic National Committee’s Better Deal, Joe Biden’s reclamation of Democratic values, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren’s economic justice in the age of globalization or Kamala Harris’ branded resistance, there is simply no clear Democratic juggernaut poised to reclaim the White House in 2020.
This disunity has done nothing but intensify Democrats’ sense of anxiety.
And in the midst of these competing narratives of the Democratic Party’s future, Oprah Winfrey gave a riveting speech at the Golden Globes that both bridged the gap between leftists and the establishment and instantly drew many onlookers’ attention to her political future.
The group, as Bion said, had found its leader.
But for many, an Oprah run represents a kind of political laziness. Democratic political analyst Christina Greer says, “It’s a lazy approach. Oprah’s supposed to come in and do what her TV show does, which is make you feel good without challenging you.”
New York Times columnist Thomas Williams agrees: “Indeed, the magical thinking fueling the idea of Oprah in 2020 is a worrisome sign about the state of the Democratic Party.”
Ultimately, an Oprah candidacy would mark an interesting shift in the Democratic Party from its pre-Trump anxieties, when it largely supported experienced politicians like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, to supporting someone with no governing experience whom the Democrats see as most capable of going toe to toe with Trump in 2020.
To be clear, Oprah is an intensely inspirational woman, a real self-made billionaire who fights for social justice and gender equality. She’s “the queen of the universe,” according to CNN commentator Van Jones. Her speech blew everyone away. Nevertheless, she is still only a Band-Aid fix for a Democratic Party that remains philosophically piecemeal.
While Oprah certainly assuages the fears and anxieties of Democrats, her possible candidacy allows for an easy distraction from the responsibility the Democratic Party has to articulate a united agenda.
If Bion’s group theory of dependency is worth anything, it’s to show the danger of group derailment in the face of intense anxieties. Many of my friends and I share anxiety at the potential continuation of the Trump White House. In order for our party to avoid the kind of derailment that Bion warned against, we ought to call for a united Democratic front, not behind a celebrity superstar with no political experience, but behind a unified party agenda and a clearly articulated narrative.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .