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Daniel Burston: A Dirge for American Democracy

‘The Sane Society’ and Eisenhower’s America

When I was 15 years old, I was fascinated by the strange assortment of books in my parents’ study. Neither of them had a university education, yet their library included Martin Buber, C. S. Lewis, Soren Kierkegaard, and other religious authors who rubbed shoulders there with militant atheists like Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell and Jean Paul Sartre. Poetry by John Milton, William Blake and Robert Frost nestled alongside that of Omar Khayyam, Khalil Gibran, Rabindranath Tagore, Japanese Haiku and a young Canadian – but a very old soul – named Leonard Cohen. Novels by Dickens, D.H. Lawrence, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, William Falkner, Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth kept company with translations of Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Zola and de Beauvoir. Asian philosophy represented by Lao Tzu, Christopher Isherwood and D. T. Suzuki co-mingled with books by or about Malcolm X, I. F. Stone, essays by Arthur Koestler, and plays by Marlowe, Shakespeare and Shaw. Lastly, there were several books by Sigmund Freud, Bruno Bettelheim and Erich Fromm.

One day, out of curiosity, I picked up Erich Fromm’s book The Sane Society (Fromm, 1955). Despite my youth, I found it absolutely intriguing. I told my English teacher about my discovery, and she invited me to do a book review of it for my classmates. The big day came, but only three, perhaps four of my classmates listened attentively (with grave expressions!) to my somewhat anguished presentation, while the remainder of the class grew bored and restless, talking in stage whispers so I knew that their attention was elsewhere. Toward the end of my presentation, loud laughter broke out among the class clowns, who shared a hearty joke at my expense. My teacher, feeling overwhelmed, called my presentation to an abrupt halt. Not a promising beginning! 

Nevertheless, what struck me then – and strikes me now –  was Fromm’s contention that an entire society can be mad, and that “adjustment” to a deeply disordered society –  one unaware of or merely indifferent to its own perversity – constitutes a “pathology of normalcy”. Of course, in this context, “normalcy” (or normality) denotes the absence of severe inner or interpersonal conflict and glaring symptomatology, on the one hand, and a state of statistical averageness or conformity with prevailing cultural norms and expectations, on the other; something more akin to a chronic, low-grade deficiency disease than it is to genuine health (Fromm, 1955). 

Fromm called this mode of adaptation “automaton conformity”; a lifestyle that reduces internal suffering and friction with one’s environment to a tolerable minimum, but only at the expense of one’s development as an honest, intact and responsive human being. As an alternative to this kind of socially patterned defect, Fromm advocated what Martin Luther King Jr. later called “creative maladjustment”. In an address to the American Psychological Association’s annual meetings in September of 1967, less than a year before his assassination, the 38 year old Reverend King said:

There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence (King, 1967.)

Reverend King then went on to propose the creation of an International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Sadly, the America Psychological Association never acted on his sage advice. But the parallels between Fromm and Reverend King do not end here! On the contrary. Reverend King went on to say: 

Men and women should be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’; or as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who in the midst of his vacillations finally came to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; or as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, could scratch across the pages of history, words lifted to cosmic proportions, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ And through such creative maladjustment, we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice (King, 1967.)

Here then is another parallel between Reverend King and Erich Fromm. Fromm described himself as an “atheistic mystic”, but his ethical sensibilities were rooted deeply in the Prophetic tradition. Despite contemptuous dismissals from more orthodox Marxists who aligned themselves with Moscow, Fromm interpreted Karl Marx in this light as well,  linking Marx’s concept of alienation to the Biblical concept of idolatry (Fromm, 1961; Burston 1991). He often said that “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy, 8:2-3), and claimed to be doing “God’s work” through his unusual combination of scholarship and activism. This rare combination of traits won him many admirers outside the psychoanalytic profession, but prompted psychoanalytic insiders to dismiss him as an oddity, an outlier or an intellectual lightweight. Small wonder! Reverend King called on American psychologists to question adjustment to society and promote creative maladjustment on merely one occasion (to the best of my knowledge.) Fromm called on psychoanalysts to do so throughout his career – first in The Sane Society (1955), then five years later, in Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter with Marx and Freud (1962), and again in The Crisis of Psychoanalysis (1970) almost a decade after that. And to the end of his life, ten years later, he maintained that the psychoanalytic profession’s unwillingness to explore and address “the pathology of normalcy” represented a betrayal of the radical dimension of Freud.

Fromm’s critique of consumerism and conformity in middle-class  America in the mid-1950s had considerable merit. And much of it still applies today. That being said, The Sane Society was published when America still embraced a kinder, gentler version of capitalism than what we all endure today. After all, in the post WWII economic boom, the middle-class was growing steadily, trade unions flourished, and low skilled or unskilled laborers, even high school dropouts, could find a trade and earn a decent living. They could even afford to retire in relative comfort and security, in many cases without acquiring a college degree. Income inequality was merely a fraction of what it is today, and while the threat of nuclear war loomed on the horizon, the degradation of our ecosystems and the devastating climate events that occur daily in some corner of the globe was merely the stuff of science fiction. Silent Spring, by Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson, gave us the first intimation of what lay in store for us, but was only published seven years later (Carson, 1962.)

Moreover, it bears remembering that The Sane Society was published halfway into the first term of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Presidency. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, Eisenhower fought fascism from 1942 until the war’s end. During his two terms of office, from 1951 to 1963, he completely de-segregated the American Armed Services, famously sending Federal Troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court’s ruling to integrate schools in 1954. He was also known to say: “There must be no second class citizens in this country” – a sentiment that is clearly not shared by President Trump and his followers – and left office issuing a prescient warning to American citizens about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex”. 

Despite Fromm’s support for Eisenhower’s Democratic rival, Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s America was comparatively sane by contrast with the United States today. Comparisons are risky, of course, because the mindless conformity and bland uniformity of opinion that distressed Fromm – and many of his perceptive contemporaries – are scarcely to be found in America now. In the time that elapsed between the Eisenhower and Trump administrations, the American electorate has become as intensely polarized as it was during the American Civil War. Partisan politics are so deeply envenomed that any sense of the common good seems to have vanished from the political scene, along with the modicum of decency and decorum once expected of American presidents. Now authoritarian populism, brazen corruption and wild conspiracy theories are so prevalent that we are thoroughly enmeshed in what some call a “mafia state”, teetering on the brink of fascism, with a Supreme Court and an Attorney General who are only too eager to oblige our Führer-in-waiting.

To grasp how far we’ve fallen since the Eisenhower era, just consider our current President’s incoherent foreign policy, his fervent embrace of tyrants, and his contempt for America’s intelligence agencies, which sounded the alarm about Russia’s (ongoing) attempts to undermine our democracy. Eisenhower would never have countenanced that! Consider the fact that Trump crippled the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory capabilities, though ever escalating climate disasters and looming mass extinctions (our own included) are just over the horizon. Consider Trump’s shrill demonization of racial minorities, the mushrooming concentration camps on the Mexican border, or the country’s failure to pass sensible gun legislation to curb mass shootings in our schools, thanks to the machinations of the National Rifle Association. 

Moreover, in complete defiance of the American constitution, Trump has claimed more than once that he has all the authority, but bears none of the responsibility for the rising death toll which makes the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. No clearer statement of Trump’s anti-democratic attitude or intentions could be possible. In genuine democracies, executive authority and responsibility always go hand in hand – a fundamental principle no previous President ever dared to deny. Indeed, to the contrary, Eisenhower’s predecessor, President Truman, said famously: ‘The buck stops here.’ And though Trump’s support may be weakening somewhat, the fact that so many Americans still pledge their unwavering support to him is a frightening commentary on American culture, and attests to the disastrous state of public education here since The Sane Society was published. 

So, let’s be frank, shall we? Much as Fromm distrusted them, Eisenhower Republicans are no longer welcome in America’s Republican Party. They were far too reasonable, good natured, and willing to give their Democratic counterparts the benefit of the doubt for their patriotism and good intentions. As conservative commentator Max Boot observes, Eisenhower Republicans were exiled and ridiculed as RINOs – “Republicans in name only” – first by the Tea Party, then by Trump and his supporters (Boot, 2018.)  Indeed, Trump’s paranoid and divisive rhetoric resembles that of Eisenhower’s shabby contemporary, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, a hate-mongering publicity hound who amassed power by destroying innocent lives, and whose assistant, the infamous Roy Cohn, was actually Trump’s mentor in the 1980s. 

With all these worrisome developments unfolding before our eyes, we may wonder, is the world we live in actually more insane than it was in Fromm’s day? And if so, is there still a chance of saving democracy and creating a truly sane society? The answer to the first question, I believe, is undoubtedly “yes.” To the second question, it is – well, perhaps. But to emerge from these deepening crises, we must acknowledge our losses without idealizing the past, or looking back too fondly on the “good old days.” Consider the astonishing popularity of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, whose book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, became a runaway bestseller in 2018. Peterson recommends a return to 1950s’ masculinity codes and approaches to parenting young children (Peterson, 2018). He counsels young people to refrain from criticizing the world (and to avoid activism of any kind) until they have  actually “accomplished something”, by which he means become gainfully employed, married with children (Burston, 2020.) He probably has scant respect for brave and outspoken teenagers like Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez, Alex Wind and their counterparts and supporters who are determined to recall our world to its senses, to stop climate change and gun violence. (Shame on them, and on their parents, Peterson seems to say.) 

         Besides, if we’re honest, even the more recent past is littered with the detritus of false hopes that have vanished or collapsed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire, globalization and the ascendance of neo-liberal economic policies, the rise of the internet – none of these things bestowed the robust blessings and benefits we were promised they would. Instead, they have unleashed a Pandora’s box of social and political evils we are still ill equipped to understand, much less to address effectively. 

Ironically, we are living in a cultural climate that resembles Europe in the early 1930s; the Europe that Fromm fled when he arrived in New York  in 1933. What would Fromm say about our current situation? Honestly, I am not sure. He was prescient in many things, but I fear that Fromm did not anticipate the severity or the complexity of the dilemmas we face today.  Nevertheless, I remain deeply grateful for The Sane Society. The high hopes he cherished for social transformation in the 1950s, which inspired and informed so much activism in the 1960s and 1970s may seem absurdly optimistic in retrospect. But living in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, many people still hope that the lifestyle changes imposed on us by collective lockdown, and the increased awareness of the failings and inequities of contemporary capitalism (especially in the United States) will restore our hope, rekindle our humanistic values, and galvanize the citizens of the world to press their legislators and politicians to transform our dying world into one that is genuinely conducive to human flourishing. Let us pray they are right. Only something on a scale like this can prevent our deepening descent into chaos. 


Boot, M. 2018. The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right. New York: Liverwright Publishing.

Burston, D. 1991. The Legacy of Erich Fromm. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Burston, D. 2020. Psychoanalysis, Politics and the Postmodern University, New York: Palgrave MacMillen.

Carson, R. 1962. Silent Spring. Reprinted by Crest Books, Greenwich, CT.

Fromm, E. 1955. The Sane Society. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Premier Books.

Fromm, E. 1961. Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar.

Fromm, E. 1962. Beyond the Chains of Illusion: My Encounter With Marx and Freud. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Fromm, E. 1970. The Crisis of Psychoanalysis: Essays on Marx, Freud and Social Psychology. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Premier Books.

King, M.L. 1967. Invited Distinguished Address to the American Psychological Association, September 1. Reprinted in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 24, No. 1, 1968.)

Peterson, J. 2018. 12 Rules for Living: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto: Random House.

Turkle, S. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. New York Basic Books.

Daniel Burston’s many books include The Legacy of Erich Fromm (Harvard, 1991).

Copyright 2020 Daniel Burston

Erich Fromm (1900–1980)

6 comments on “Daniel Burston: A Dirge for American Democracy

  1. Daniel R. Cobb
    December 13, 2021

    Great piece, enlightening, and thank you for the introduction to Fromm. From my layman’s perspective, I attributed Germany’s descent into Nazi madness to a nation that had lost its hope following overwhelming defeat in WWI. The Versailles treaty left the nation disgraced and with little hope. Much has been written about how their situation made the nation ripe for an authoritarian’s rise to power. But racist white Americans are not suffering such extremes. In elevating Trump to fascist god-hood, they weren’t responding to a Civil War defeat or some other great loss. The right’s social grievances are truly nonexistent compared to the injustices suffered by minorities in America. Their claimed grievances are largely imaginary, contrived and inflamed by Fox news and social media. And I suspect this environment will not improve until a way is found to throttle the firehose of propaganda that is Fox. And as you implied, I think we are running out of time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. petersironwood
    July 26, 2020

    Thanks for posting. You might “enjoy” if that’s the right word…this https://petersironwood.com/2020/07/25/the-only-them-that-counts-is-all-of-us/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. johnlawsonpoet
    May 27, 2020

    Thanks so much for this introduction to Fromm’s The Sane Society and for your meditation on insane normalcy. The way you related it to MLK’s thought was particularly enlightening.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      May 27, 2020

      Thanks, John!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Daniel Burston
      May 29, 2020

      Hello John,

      Sorry to respond belatedly to your comment. But very glad you found this reflection worthwhile. Please share it with like minded folks.


      Daniel Burston

      Liked by 1 person

  4. selina333333333
    May 27, 2020

    masages send to my email(pacyt83@gmail.com)


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