Trying to understand what the heck is wrong with our politicians? Understanding psychiatry may help.
According to Greek legend, a young man was so fascinated, awestruck, and enraptured by his own image reflected on the surface of a pool that he sat lovingly gazing at water’s edge for so long that he succumbed to his own vanity and eventually transformed into a flower that carries his name, “Narcissus.”
In the age of psychology, the American Psychiatric Association, in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual II (DSM) from 1968 lists “Narcissism” as an emotional problem and “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” (NPD) with a number of characteristics. These include excessive preoccupation with personal competence, power, prestige, and vanity; difficulties in maintaining gratifying personal relationships; deficits in psychological self-awareness; severely impaired empathy for others; problems differentiating the self from others; hypersensitivity to all criticism and insults – imagined or real; arrogant body language; flattery toward people who admire or praise them; tendency toward bragging and exaggerating personal achievements and qualities; claiming expertise in a number of areas; and inability to view the world and issues from other peoples’ perspectives. In summary, this condition results in the over-inflation of one’s self-importance.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder falls within the overall category of “sociopathology,” in which a person’s antisocial behavior demonstrates a lack of a sense of moral concern or responsibility or a deficit of social conscience. The American Psychiatric Association’sDSM classifies this condition as “Antisocial Personality Disorder” (APD), which it defines as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”
Psychologists diagnose individuals as having APD if they manifest three or more of these symptoms: repeatedly violating social norms related to established laws and performing acts that result in frequent arrests; deceitfulness, dishonesty, and lying; impulsivity; irritability and repeated aggressiveness; reckless disdain for personal safety or the safety of others; consistent irresponsibility in work settings and frequent failures in honoring financial commitments; or lacks sense of remorse.
While in ancient Greece and Rome, a demagogue originally referred to a leader or orator who advocated for and championed the common people, the term has since come to represent a politician who, rather than employing rational arguments, appeals instead to peoples’ fears and prejudices for their own political ends.
When “we the people” (the demos in “democracy” rather than thedemos in “demagogue”) step into the election booth, we must first fully vet the candidates and fully educate ourselves to the issues. During any era, narcissistic and other types of sociopaths using demagoguery appeal to the electorate to achieve political offices.
Therefore, democracy demands an educated electorate. It demands our personal responsibility to critically examine our politicians so we can make truly informed decisions. It demands of us all, as well, an appraisal into ourselves to understand our motives, our interests, and our weaknesses lest we fall for the stereotyping, the scapegoating, the calls to hatred, and the calls to violence, either directly or covertly, by the demagogues.
As a student of history, I can name only a few of our U.S. presidents and a few more in the Congress whom I would consider in varying degrees as truly great moral and political leaders with soaring intellects who served the people with honesty and integrity. Others may have once held these qualities, but the process involved in obtaining an office compromised them to such an extent that they either left the political arena to preserve their integrity, or they lowered their moral center of gravity and remained to keep hold onto power.
I never thought that I would examine the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association as my political guidebook, but within the current political season, I find it extremely useful, especially as I witness some figures, one in particular, so consumed with their own images, words, and needs, that they lose their human form and morph not into flowers, but rather, into dangerous creatures who challenge and degrade our democratic system of government.
I am deeply concerned about our country’s ability to attract new and fresh talent, whom I believe may be the only ones who can rescue our nation from the political cynicism and malaise, and heal the political scars and deep divisions. Possibly the current crisis has had the effect of motivating some to do exactly that.