Despite the historic ties between psychedelics and politics, LSD and “magic mushrooms” are no longer confined to the likes of peace signs, tie-dye, and flower children of the ‘60s. As science’s relationship with these drugs changes, researchers have uncovered a meaningful link between liberalism and psychedelic drug use. Could it be that psychedelics can shift our political perspective?
In a world where authoritarian agendas continue to divide us, psychedelics shine a light on the threat that war and hatred pose to humanity. These substances aren’t just for the purpose of inner healing; psychedelics could help to change the world around us.
Psychedelic therapy: a permanent change in mindset
In recent years, scientists have been investigating a clinical technique that holds the potential to banish depression for up to a year and yield permanent shifts in personality and behaviour.
This approach is known as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. It is the clinical combination of psychedelic drugs and talking therapy sessions – and the evidence is astonishing. Psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of “magic mushrooms”, could be used to treat depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety. LSD may be an effective treatment for alcohol use disorder, and MDMA for PTSD.
Mental health issues change our worldview. When we see ourselves in a negative light, the world around us becomes a darker place. But psychedelics transform our reality; not just with powerful visual hallucinations, but with psychological changes that last well beyond the trip itself.
A psychedelic trip is a transformative experience, largely because these substances break down the brain systems involved in rigid, negative thinking. They evoke a mystical experience: a sense of oneness with the Divine, God, or the Universe.
Psychedelic researchers have found that stronger feelings of mysticism result in a better clinical outcome. But even outside of the clinic, psychedelics can change our lives in other ways. Due to the spiritual influence of the mystical experience, it is not uncommon for people to encounter a religious awakening during a psychedelic trip, where previously non-religious people suddenly accept the existence of a higher power.
By this token, and the known ability of psychedelics to transform the mind, psychedelics may also have the power to change our politics.
Openness and liberalism go hand in hand
The counterculture movement of the 1960s represented the birth of the New Left. Intertwined with this era of liberalism and anti-establishment was the rising use of psychedelic drugs, but was LSD a driving force behind this rejection of authority? Psychedelics change how people think. They, quite possibly, shifted the social narrative, causing activist groups to view the US Government as a power-hungry bureaucracy, rather than a trustworthy leadership.
Now that researchers are beginning to understand the science behind the psychedelic experience, it is clear that these drugs can foster feelings of openness – one of the ‘Big 5’ personality traits. By definition, openness is the receptiveness to new ideas. More specifically, it is the appreciation of art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience.
In the political history of psychedelics, was it this openness that ushered the counterculture movement to campaign for social change? Researchers have since found that “openness to experience” is a significant predictor of self-reported liberalism, so it certainly seems to coincide with liberal ideology.
The psychedelic experience is one of ego-dissolution, unity, and oneness. It allows us to see the bigger picture, without the restraints of our ego. We see every being as equal, and possibly begin to question our worldview. And perhaps this more open, liberal attitude could evoke a change in one’s political stance – but is there any evidence of this being true?
In 1971, a study investigating the lasting effects of LSD use found that recreational LSD users scored higher on “personal liberty” and “foreign policy liberalism” scales than non-users. There might be a link, but do psychedelics really foster liberal political beliefs?
Causative or coincidental?
In 2017, a study published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs found lifetime psychedelic use to be a predictor of “liberal political views, openness, and nature relatedness” and was negatively correlated with “authoritarian political views”. But what researchers are yet to clarify is whether or not this is a causative link.
It may well be that those with liberal views were more inclined to take psychedelics in the first place, probably because Conservative voters are often more opposed to drug reform. But more recent evidence suggests that the substances themselves may have a greater influence. In 2018, research into patients with treatment-resistant depression found that psilocybin therapy induced a shift to the left on the Libertarian-Authoritarian scale.
However, much like the divisiveness of political beliefs, these findings have sparked debate amongst researchers. It has been argued that the politics scale used in the aforementioned study does not correspond to current, Western left- and right-wing political parties and therefore lacks credibility, in this respect.
The notion that psychedelics promote left-wing politics is largely theoretical and not supported by current data. What’s more, these findings overlook the existence of right-wing psychedelic users. As detailed by the authors of a recent theoretical paper, there are countless cases of users “who remained authoritarian in their views after taking psychedelics or became radicalised after extensive experience with them.”
It has therefore been proposed that the political outcome of a psychedelic trip is largely dependent on the context. It is more likely that psychedelics amplify pre-existing feelings and opinions, and it is this that underlies the perceived shift in political views.
As argued in an essay published by Mind Foundation, “psychedelics are politically pluripotent: they can strengthen all sorts of political movements depending on the political orientation of the individual and the environment – the political set and setting.”
Psychedelics and the path to peace
Psychedelics are historically entangled with the peace movement of the ‘60s. One photograph, taken by Robert Altman in 1969, shows an anti-Vietnam War protester holding a sign that reads, “Drop acid, not bombs”. The meaningful sentiment still rings true today.
Even if the link between psychedelics and liberal politics is tentative, one thing is clear: psychedelics can promote inner peace. Are there ways in which these healing properties of psychedelics could facilitate lasting social change?
In research published in Frontiers in Pharmacology in 2021, it was found that ayahuasca ceremonies – often used for the purpose of finding inner peace – resulted in a deeper intercultural understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, two groups with a long, complex history of conflict.
The study aimed to see how psychedelics could favour “peacebuilding” by analysing interviews of Jewish Israeli and Arab Palestinian participants. A recurring theme that surfaced in the interviews was that ayahuasca induced a unity-based connection – that is, a strong sense of togetherness.
As one Jewish Israeli participant shared, “[we] really experienced this place in which the connection is not Israel-Palestinian, it is human, the human tribe.” Another Arab Palestinian participant claimed that “you reach that point when you don’t see this as Jewish or Arabic … there’s nothing, no language, no religion, no gender, nothing.”
The study’s lead researcher, Dr Leor Roseman, told Imperial College London that “there are no easy fixes for conflict resolution and long-term change. We’re not suggesting psychedelics are a quick fix, but some of the elements and experiences we report here may help to shed light on how people relate to one another, and may even lead to deeper understanding and lasting change.”
Psychedelics may amplify our political voice and shift our political perspective, but what could this mean for the future of humanity? Perhaps the openness of the psychedelic experience could help to bridge political divides, bringing us closer to a world of peace.