Is Your Favorite Politician a Sociopath?
What do John Edwards, Bob Barr, Rod Blagojevich, John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, William Jefferson, William Jefferson Clinton, David Vitter, James McGreevey, Tom DeLay, Charles Rangel, Newt Gingrich, and David Paterson have in common?
They're all politicians who've been caught doing something illegal, unethical, mind-bogglingly self-destructive, or all of the above.
But what also binds them is that none of them seem to believe they really did anything wrong, in spite of vast evidence to the contrary. When they finally have no option but to appear contrite, their apologies feel stilted, scripted and anything but heartfelt.
The latest offender, New York Governor David Paterson, hasn't even gotten around to apologizing yet. In the meantime, he's apparently managed to convince himself that it's okay to phone up and intimidate a woman his top aide just viciously beat up. Then there's John Edwards. I've just finished reading The Politician by his aide, Andrew Young -- an irresistibly salacious takedown, but one that never gets near understanding Edwards' breathtaking brazenness and utter obliviousness. Or how about the much-indicted Rod Blagojevich joining the cast of "The Apprentice" while he awaits his own criminal trial -- and continues to profess his utter innocence despite dozens of tape recordings that make it clear exactly what he did.
Narcissism -- suddenly the most overused word in the language -- simply doesn't do these guys justice. On a hunch, I decided to look up the word sociopath, which it turns out isn't defined much differently than psychopath. Here are some of the most common characteristics of both:
- Conventional appearance
- Glib, superficially charming, often highly verbal
- Promiscuous sexual behavior
- Manipulative and cunning
- High sense of entitlement
- Lacks a sense of moral responsibility or moral conscience
- Shallow emotions
- Callousness, lack of empathy
- Lying without remorse, shame or guilt
- Interested only in their personal needs or desires, without concern for other people
Sound anything like the politicians I've named above -- and perhaps your own friendly elected representatives?
These are men (yes, they're all men) who've operated all their lives in a world that rewards them more for their acting abilities than for who they really are.
What Paterson, Edwards and these other pols are missing, at the most basic level, is an inner life: the capacity for introspection and self-awareness, or any reliable connection to a deeply held set of values.
The consequence is they feel no impulse to take responsibility for the consequences of their behaviors.
In Jim Collins' terrific book Good to Great, he concludes that great leaders are characterized by a paradoxical blend of fierce resolve and great humility. The politicians who've failed us most egregiously have no shortage of fierce resolve. What they're lacking is any authentic humility: the capacity to recognize and own their shortcomings alongside their strengths.
Most chilling of all, no form of treatment seems to work for the sociopathic personality. They want what they want when they want it. When they're caught, they may feel compelled to act better for a period of time, but they rarely change. That's because they don't truly feel they've done anything wrong.
Maybe it's up to us, before we vote them into office, to look past who pols tell us they are and into whether there's anything authentic going on inside.
How do we get a better sense of who these guys really are? For my part, I'm going to start looking for politicians willing to tell us not just what they're going to do for us, but how they fall short.