Understanding narcissism vital to understanding politics
September 24, 2015 Leave a comment
If civics education in high school today is anything like the way it was when I was in high school, it remains nearly useless for creating well-informed, critical-thinking voters. It could basically have been summarized as: nice, ordinary people like us elect other nice ordinary people to sit in a big room in Ottawa called the House of Commons, making the people’s laws and holding the government to account.
Their work, we were told, is reviewed by some fancier people called Senators, and if things go well, a bill becomes law with the assent of the Governor-General, who represents the Queen, a free-floating celebrity whose role even a teacher could not coherently describe.
Having taught us the basic theory of how Canadian democracy is supposed to work, the teacher’s duty was done. At no time were students encouraged to be skeptics. And the human factors that occasionally brought a politician’s downfall through scandal? Irrelevant.
Yet human factors are important. In theory, people who run for public office are concerned citizens just like us who want to make a difference. Though this is often true in practice, the reality is much more complicated.
Consider the words of Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve and thus America’s top banker from 1987 to 2006. His tenure spanned the terms of four presidents, each of whom relied on him as an advisor. But Greenspan had also personally known two earlier presidents, making him one of a select few to have known a total of six U.S. presidents.
“Nixon was the extreme,” Greenspan wrote in his 2007 memoir, The Age of Turbulence, describing the 1969-74 Republican president as “an extremely smart man” but also shown by the Watergate scandal to have been “sadly paranoid, misanthropic, and cynical”. In private, Greenspan found Nixon so crude that his language “would have made Tony Soprano blush”.
“But I came to see that people who are on the top of the political heap are really different,” Greenspan continued. “Jerry Ford was as close to normal as you get in a president, but he never was elected.”
“There’s a constitutional amendment that I’ve been pushing for years without success,” he adds. “It says, ‘Anyone willing to do what is required to become president of the United States is thereby barred from taking that office.'”
“I’m only half joking.”
Greenspan had revealed a truth. Politics is a career that attracts a disproportionate number of highly narcissistic personalities: people who have a hunger for power or adulation so deeply rooted in their personalities that they are willing to make the harsh sacrifices of a political career to satisfy it — the 60-70 hour weeks, the public criticism, the invasions of privacy, the strained (and often destroyed) marriages, and everything else.
Narcissism is a normal human behaviour to at least some degree, as a scroll through a Facebook feed can attest, but is deemed by the American Psychiatric Association to be problematic when it begins to be expressed as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”
Politics, with its grand ceremonies, opportunities to cross paths with the famous and powerful, and reliance on the public’s admiration for success, makes for an ideal stage.
“…[W]hat typically drives [politicians] is a lust for power, prestige, status, and authority,” U.S. psychologist Leon Seltzer wrote in a 2011 commentary on the Psychology Today web site. “As senator or congressman the whole nation has become one huge ‘narcissistic supply’ for them. That is, the ego gratifications available simply from residing in congress are truly extraordinary: such an unusually prestigious role can’t but pump up their self-esteem to levels that further confirm their bloated sense of self.”
“Bill Clinton was a self-destructive narcissist, although he’s so fatally charming, which is also one of the narcissist’s great traits — a sort of lethal charisma — that we forgave him a great deal,” said Jeffrey Kluger, the author of The Narcissist Next Door, in a 2014 video interview.
“Barack Obama certainly would score high if he were to sit down and take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. He sought the presidency after only two years in the Senate, he clearly believed that he could achieve high office — he did achieve high office. Unlike some narcissists, he doesn’t seem terribly comfortable in the public eye, or at least terribly comfortable mingling with people.”
Yet some politicians were able to harness their own narcissism effectively.
“Ronald Reagan, I think, is a very, very good example of perhaps the most highly functional narcissist who’s ever been at least in our political system,” Kluger notes. “It was narcissism, a healthy narcissism, that pushed him into movies; it was healthy narcissism that pushed him into politics.”
Indeed, the public might have to accept that the price of having leaders in any form is to be able to live with their narcissism.
“Narcissistic leaders are often skillful orators, and this is one of the talents that makes them so charismatic,” a 2000 Harvard Business Review article (republished in 2004) by American psychoanalyst-anthropologist Michael Maccoby noted. “Indeed, anyone who has seen narcissists perform can attest to their personal magnetism and their ability to stir enthusiasm among audiences.”
“Although it is not always obvious, narcissistic leaders are quite dependent on their followers—they need affirmation, and preferably adulation,” Maccoby continues, noting that this can give leaders the confidence to pursue their goals — or set them on the path to disaster:
“But the very adulation that the narcissist demands can have a corrosive effect. As he expands, he listens even less to words of caution and advice. After all, he has been right before, when others had their doubts. Rather than try to persuade those who disagree with him, he feels justified in ignoring them—creating further isolation. The result is sometimes flagrant risk taking that can lead to catastrophe.”
This could be used to justify changes to Canada’s parliamentary system at both the federal and provincial level that would strengthen independent oversight of the executives’ actions, from requiring that party leaders hold the confidence of caucus and not just the infrequently engaged party membership at all times, to formally protecting the independence of even governing-party legislators from prime ministerial and cabinet interference, as the Swedish parliamentary system does.
Either change would give legislators more latitude to rein in an over-the-top narcissist who happens to be installed in the top job.
Helpful too would be better public understanding of narcissism’s inevitable role in public life, especially as we enter the final weeks of Canada’s three-way, too-close-to-call federal election race.
In addition to carefully evaluating each party’s offerings, the voting public would be doing itself a favour by assessing everyone from the party leaders down to their local candidates and the talking heads each camp parades before the TV cameras, trying to discern who has a healthier form of narcissism, who has a more harmful one, and thinking through the implications for the country.
But let there be no doubt: narcissism will always be a factor in politics.
“Even our greatest and most humble people — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King — had to have had narcissistic components to their personality. They gravitated toward attention, they gravitated toward crowds,” noted Kluger.
“If we believe that they didn’t get a charge out of standing before a crowd of half a million people . . . and moving an entire nation with their words, well, we don’t really understand human nature then if that’s what we think.”