It's called the Presidential Campaign, and it starts earlier and earlier with every iteration. And, of course, in between the campaigns for both parties is the usual, everyday political narcissism we see emanating from Washington DC like some bad odor hovering over the country.
What do I mean by an exercise in political narcissism?
Far too often, narcissistically flawed individuals are hopelessly attracted by the grandiose opportunities of the political arena (as well as the Hollywood arena) like moths to a flame. Their sense of self is starkly invested in the desire for power over others (always, of course, "for their own good") , constant admiration and adulation and grandiose ambitions. This makes them remarkably adept at what is called the "politics of personal destruction".
For the narcissist it is always a zero-sum game he or she plays with other individuals. From the perspective of the narcissist, if someone else "wins", the narcissist "loses". It cannot be otherwise, since on some level they know that their own talent and skills are way overblown. Hence, they cannot hope to "win" based on those talents alone. Thus, the behavior of the classic narcissist is mostly directed toward making others lose so they can win by default. To that end, there is no behavior or tactic that is considered out -of-bounds or over-the-top.
This leads us to the current state of political discourse in this country and the ubiquitous personal attacks that have become the trademark of all political campaigns in both the Republican and Democrat parties.
If you want to understand why political campaigns have become so virulent and personally vicious you need not look any farther that this sad truth. While politics still occasionally brings out those who have strong personal integrity and values; often it is the people of no demonstrable integrity and elastic values who are obsessively attracted to the field and who triumph--and that is true on both sides of the political spectrum.
By that, I mean that those who would actually make the best leaders generally opt out of the process, because they tend to be too healthy to generate the continual all-consuming rage necessary to destroy all opponents; or they lack the required-- and mostly distorted --sense of personal "perfection" and grandiosity that drives the power-hungry.
Clearly, there can be other conflicts that motivate people in politics other than a broken sense of self. This is not an indictment of all politicians; but it does apply to many. Healthy self-respect and self-worth, i.e., healthy narcissism is essential for functioning in any profession; or, for that matter, for simply functioning effectively.
There are few politicians who are deficient in grandiosity and self-serving behavior. It becomes an issue of character when their identity gets re-invented regularly to please people. A healthy individual would not want to be POTUS if in doing so he would regularly have to violate his own sense of personal honor and integrity.
Such a committment to values and ideals is based on narcissism too, but it is the healthy kind of narcissism; the kind that generates values and ideals to begin with (for a discussion of this see here).
For a typical pathological narcisssist, the only value and the only ideal is himself.
I am frequently reminded that it is hopelessly naive these days to expect the electorate to vote for a person based on what that person actually stands for; instead, these days most people respond to the negative campaign ads that slice and dice the other guy; and are mainly influenced by botoxed faces and Hollywood-packaged good-looks rather than the content of any candidate's character. The less they know of that character, the better!
Unless you can dig up some dirt; then it becomes like a reality TV show and everyone is entranced.
As far as good looks, do you imagine that a Golda Meir or a Margaret Thatcher would have a chance to become the first woman president of the US. Not these days, for sure where there is favored a certain overly-thin, botoxed, plastic look--not only for the women, but for the men.
Real personal integrity and character comes from having a consistent set of values and exhibiting behavior driven by those values. Today's classic narcissistically-driven politicians can only flutter in the political winds, and, Zelig-like, easily adopt whatever characteristics their adoring public care to project onto them.
It is easy to be tough and ruthless with political adversaries in the US political battlefield. The kind of threat political adversaries pose is hardly life-threatening (though in other, less civilized nations it may well be). Political bullies in both parties feel perfectly safe in viciously attacking and denigrating those who oppose them. And, when it happens occasionally that a political adversary unexpectedly shoots back and won't go away, the bully easily falls back on the "victim" role and whines about "vast right or left-wing conspiracies" or sheds a few tears on cue; or belligerantly attacks anyone within reach.
This is not the kind of person who can face real threats in the real world very effectively because this is not the kind of person who can effectively deal with threats they do not perceive as personal--why should they care much about any other kind, unless the latest polls indicate they should?.
The best leaders are not obsessed with themselves; or with polls; or with accumulating power by pandering to all sides.
Those leaders may, in truth, have many other personal flaws--but not particularly of the dangerously narcissistic variety. Whatever those flaws (and we all possess them), they are characterologically able to be more concerned about dealing with external reality; rather than in preserving a distorted and fragile internal one. Avenging petty slights and insults is not a high priority to a psychologically healthy person. Those healthy individuals are far more likely to direct their psychological energy toward dealing with real-world geopolitical threats that endanger both their country and the people they have the responsibility to protect; rather than using that country or the power of their office to counter threats to their endangered self and act on their grandiose fantasies about themselves.
The latter is the same psychological pathology that is rampant among dictators and dictator wannabes of all stripes. Their concern about others in their group/nation is purely of the “l’état c’est moi” variety.
That the needs of the nation, or the people they serve, might be different from their own; or that doing the right thing is often different from doing the popular thing, are foreign and dangerous concepts to the political narcissist.
The only reality they know--or care about--is the one inside themselves.
Having said all this, the voters of this country should also do a little introspection, because frequently these voters of all political persuasions, enable and encourage the narcissism of their leaders.
The sad truth is that negative campaigning works.
It appeals to the average voter who does not bother to look past the headlines or news bites to seek truth about a given situation. Oftimes, there is no "truth" to be discovered; or that can be discovered; and one must make voting decisions based on little things like character, integrity, past behavior, and mitigating factors.
It's not easy when accusations against character and integrity are hurled around unthinkingly and without consideration for facts.
And then, there is always the reality that candidates for public office, even that of the Office of the POTUS, cannot be held to an impossibly high standard of behavior, i.e., they cannot be expected to be "perfect" in every way.
If such a candidate were ever found by either political party, then I would be the first to do everything I could to ensure theat he would not get elected. Such candidates are either lying or hiding something about themselves, since such perfection is not generally a characteristic of the human species.
"Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone" seems like a good idea for these political campaigns, along with the vignette: "There is no one who has not sinned."
So, what is a voter to do?
First, we have to stop rewarding excessive political narcissism. No one is a God; no one is The One; no one is The Messiah who will lead us out of the Wilderness. While it is tempting to want to place all our faith and hope into one vessel, it is an abdication of personal responsibility and a flight into dependency and the desire for someone to take care of us.
Been there, done that as a nation--fairly recently, in fact.
It is also fairly natural, i.e. human, thing that we should flock to someone who promises to give us lots of free stuff. Children especially are attracted to such individuals. But,when you are grown up you usually have realized that getting "something or nothing" is a con, and that anyone proposing such a thing is nothing more than a con artist.
A real leader will not make unrealistic promises; his personal integrity and honesty would compel him to do what he thinks is the right thing, even if it is unpopular and difficult to do; and he would be able to state his reasons for doing what he did; and be able to persuade you that it was indeed the right thing to do--or be willing to live with the consequences afterwards if he doesn't. A real leader has nothing to hide and is honest about his mistakes.
This does not mean that a real leader is unable to compromise when the situation calls for it; but an honest man or woman who is not narcissistically preoccupied with pleasing or manipulating everyone does not compromise with fundamental values and understands when those values are at stake and when they are not.
That's why it is so important to understand a politician's basic character, because character underlies values.
Isn't it time America had a real national debate about what constitutes character in a politician?
I am not particularly satisfied with the Democratic Party answer to this quesion, because they are more concerned with demonizing anyone they label as "hypocrite" (i.e., anyone who espouses some high ieal what they consider the Good, but who personally fails to live up to it and lies to themselves about their own failures). The Democrats seem to believe that you just make every "sin" a political virtue; or accept that "anything goes" in the personal integrity sphere as long as the person is ideologically pure. They justify the way they treat corrupt or immoral Democrats is justified because Republicans are "hypocritical".
The Republicans aren't that much better, constantly espousing personal virtue and even legislating it onto others (something that the Democrats do as a matter of principle, for "our own good"). While Republicans are often intolerant of human frailty, at least they don't actively promote it like their political adversaries, whose relativistic morality makes excuses for everyone's behavior, except when it suits them politically to use such information to demonize their opponents.
Nevertheless, "demonizing one's opponents" is what it's all about these days. Candidates who refrain from doing it are punished at the polls. Candidates who try to speak about the issues have trouble gaining traction unless they too join in the demonization, even when it is against potential allies and not opponents.
So, now we come to the Republican Presidential Primary. How is one to choose?
Character does matter and so do Ideas. So does behavior and performance in both the personal and public spheres.
Each of us much decide for ourselves which candidate's character and ideas; behavior in the past and present, are most appealing to us and will work for our nation. Each of us much decide, based on past performance, past displays of character, what each candidate's future performance and character is likely to be.
As we say in psychiatry: The best predictor of FUTURE behavior is PAST behavior. Other factors may be involved, of course; and obviously, people can change for the good and give up their bad behaviors.
That doesn't necessarily mean that they are entitled to our vote. I believe in redemption for even the devil himself--but I wouldn't vote for him for President.
For example, most people will take into consideration the fact that Gingrich's past behavior in his personal and public life indicates that he had some serious character flaws which led to erratic performance and (to be blunt) narcissistic gratification chosen over responsibilities and committments. People can make mistakes and be genuinely sorry and changed for the better. The behavior I refer to happened quit a number of years ago in the past (I believe). I do not denounce Gingrich: he is only human. The question is, has he changed as he claims? Has his character improved? How will he function under stress? Will he continue to seek narcissistic gratification over his responsibilities and committments--to his family, his party and his nation? I do like his ideas; and I will be watching closely how he behaves during this primary season. In the end, he may be the best possible candidate to support--but I have not made up my mind based on the information provided and the behavior observed recently.
As for Romney, he has also some things in his past that indicate a flawed and weak character. He is definitely a good-intentioned person, but his political ambitions have lead him to support and believe in things all over the political map, left and right and East and West--a serious charge when considering character and values. I do not denounce him either for his time at Bain and I find it rather reprehensible that any conservative would, assuming such a conservative believes in the free market at all.
Santorum for me is pretty much WYSIWYG. He is politically consistent and his character seems steady. He says what he thinks wheter or not it is popular; and there is a lot to admire in that, even if you don't agree with him on some issues. He may be too much like the kind of Republican who wants to legislate morality for others, and I, for one, don't care for that. But he has some interesting ideas and he argues that he would leave most of the morality issues to the state and local levels. He will be demonized forcefully by Democrats and the Obama Administration because they disagree on policy as well as ideology. They will attempt to make it a character issue.
Paul has much to recommend him from an economic and idea perspective. But he too was so narcissistically engaged in the pursuit of his own personal glory, that he allowed some very nasty stuff to be published in his name in the past. I think he is unable to see the Big Picture in the foreign policy area, but some of his ideas there bear open discussion and debate and I am glad he is in the race to bring them up.
The only other candidate right now is Obama. I do not hesitate to say that most of his adult life has been an exercise in political narcissism and the accumulation of personal power. If Democrats and Independents who voted for him (and not a few Republicans, I would venture) are now disappointed, then they should read this post again to understand the psychological dynamics (their own as well as Obama's). Obama's ideas are old and stale. They have been tried all over the world with dismal and horrific results. All we have to do is to look at what is happening in Europe to see where it will all lead. But Obama has used these ideas to advance himself over the years
As far as Obama's character: He also has lots of skeletons in the closet for which he has received a pass from his Party; the media; and most of the voters. I suspect that if as much information about his past was known as is known about all the other candidates, there would be hell to pay.
But he came out of nowhere, a tabula rasa who was felt to be The One, The Messiah. He received a Nobel Prize for Peace for doing nothing to speak of; and several years later has brought America to the brink of economic and political disaster. His associations with people like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers are despicable, as is his ability to rapidly terminate any relationship which might do him political harm. I see him as a rather weak character overall; which strong narcissistic traits, whose ideas I totally deplore.
When it comes down to a choice, I prefer almost anyone on the Republican side and at least several on the Democratic side of the aisle.
It's going to be a long and painful year in many ways.