Passion and a few principles: That’s all you need to run for public office. Not experience, intellect, sound judgment, humility, or leadership skills. Charles Gibson isolated this same quality in Sarah Palin, shortly after she earned herself an improbable spot on McCain’s ticket. “You didn’t say to yourself, ‘Am I experienced enough? Am I ready?’ ” he asked her.
“I didn’t hesitate, no,” she told him.
“Doesn’t that take some hubris?”
“I answered him yes because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink,” she said.
Her answer was the same as O’Donnell’s: I have the confidence; therefore, I’m qualified to serve. “It’s this infantile and grandiose sense,” says Richard A. Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the psychopharmacology clinic at Weill Cornell Medical College, “that desire equals competence equals expertise. It would be like me saying, ‘I’ve seen someone do an appendectomy. It’s simple. Just put a knife in and cut here.’ ”
Friedman points out that he’s not diagnosing O’Donnell and Palin with narcissistic-personality disorder, which corresponds to a very specific set of symptoms, displayed over a certain length of time. Such a diagnosis would require a psychiatric evaluation. But as Friedman wrote two years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it’s perfectly fair game to look at public figures and say that their symptoms or behaviors are consistent with certain psychological dynamics and traits—which is to say, that they’re behaving narcissistically.
Of course, it’s often a fine line that separates the ambitious from the megalomaniacal in politics. About three years ago, I asked Gary Hart which extremes of personality make a great presidential candidate. “Whatever the sane side of messianic is” was his answer. As a rule, politics disproportionately attracts narcissists, because the field rewards charm and self-promotion; they’re required currencies to ante in. (In 1998, Current Psychology published a study by Robert Hill and Gregory Yousey comparing narcissism levels in politicians, clergy, college professors, and librarians using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. The authors hypothesized that the first three types would score substantially higher than librarians, because their jobs involved both more prestige and more visibility; instead, the clergy, professors, and librarians all clustered together, while the politicians broke away from the pack.)
“When people become more powerless, they become more distrustful of those who have power, and that, in turn, disempowers them more.”
If we had a political system that valued leadership, or the actual job of legislating, this selection bias wouldn’t really be a problem. But we don’t. Instead, we have a system that rewards those with a boundless capacity to self-promote. Before this moment, Christine O’Donnell was purely a media phenomenon, the founder of a grassroots Christian organization that in fact was a shrewd media movement, landing her on Bill Maher’s show 22 times and even once on the Sex in the 90s docu-series on MTV. The main headliners of the tea party aren’t politicians but performers—and that includes Palin, whose passion for actual governance lasted only two and a half years before she chucked her Alaska governorship for a more lucrative media career, in which she could exist in perpetual opposition and with no accountability. At a fund-raiser for combat veterans in San Diego three weeks ago, she admitted as much: “I get to say some things that maybe some of you can’t say because I have no title, I have no uniform, I have no office,” she told the crowd. “I get to say what I feel.”
“The most provocative thing you say gets attention,” says Brian Baird, a Democratic congressman from Washington State who’s retiring at the end of the year, after six terms in office. Baird had his own unfortunate experience with this phenomenon this election cycle, though he isn’t running for anything. He was addressing an auditorium of 3,500, many of them tea-party enthusiasts, when a Marine veteran named David Hedrick grabbed the microphone and bellowed, “Stay away from my kids,” declaring that Obama’s health-care bill authorized compulsory training in child-rearing for parents. The video became a viral sensation, earning over 1.3 million hits. Hedrick appeared on the Fox News circuit and became a congressional candidate in the primary in Baird’s district, where he finished second out of three GOP candidates. Three weeks ago, he was arrested for allegedly striking his wife in the back of the head twice. You can, however, still purchase a “Stay away from my kids” tote bag online.
In his old life, Baird was a psychologist, counseling cancer patients and chairing the psychology department of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. He’s still inclined to view politics as a psychologist would. By far the most problematic trend, as he sees it, is how national politics retains show horses, not just attracts them. “Politics has always required that you communicate who you are,” he says. “But now it’s become such a strategic necessity that people come here thinking it is their job, rather than just part of their job.” Hence an army of elected tweeters, a seascape of BlackBerrying congressmen during the State of the Union. “So the people who are focusing on policy, rather than twittering, kind of look bad,” says Baird. “That’s the irony.” Baird doesn’t tweet. “But I must tell you,” he says, “I hear from activists all the time: ‘I get tweets every day from so-and-so, but I never get them from you.’ And I want to say to them, ‘That’s because I’m working.’ ”