Tuesday, October 19, 2010

You Really Need to Ask Why Narcissists Act in a Narcissistic Manner?

If you're David Brooks, that question apparently requires deep thought. After presenting a hagiographic biography of Mark Kirk, Brooks is puzzled. The problem, it seems, is not with the man, but is with the system.
If this were a fairy tale, it would be a simple story of a good man committing himself to public service and doing extraordinarily well at it. But this is reality. Nobody who walks into the valley of our political system emerges unscathed.

Today’s political environment encourages narcissism and inflames insecurity. Pols must continually brag about themselves, and Kirk has succumbed. Even with his record, he’s embellished his achievements. He claimed a military award went to him when it really went to the unit he led. He claimed his plane was shot at over Iraq when it wasn’t. He claimed he was a teacher when he was an assistant at the school.
Brooks offers no evidence that Kirk felt pressured to fabricate achievements out of this imagined "need" to continually brag. Brooks identifies nothing about the "political system" that would make Kirk's wounds anything other than unnecessarily self-inflicted. Brooks also offers nothing to distinguish the résumé-embellishing politicians of the present era from those of the past.

To the extent that "people who run for public office put themselves in a position in which everybody is inclined to believe the worst about them", isn't that because politicians like Kirk choose to lie about themselves instead of being honest? If Brooks things Kirk is among the best Congress has to offer, why shouldn't the public be jaded about the rest of 'em? Brooks sneers that if you run for office, people "write you off as a sleazeball because it feels so good and superior to do so" - but didn't he just tell us that, at least in this case, people have a good reason to contemplate whether Kirk is a sleazeball and to doubt the other entries on his résumé?
So this is not a fairy tale about a good man going into public service. It is a reality tale about why most serious people don’t want to go into politics at all.

The system will inflame your weaknesses (Kirk’s mistakes were serious and he has apologized for them). Then the bad will come to define you, and the good you’ve achieved will be forgotten.
If your weakness is that you're a narcissist who lies about his accomplishments, whatever good you may have otherwise accomplished, isn't that a valid reason for voters to reject you for public office? Sure, as Paul Waldman has observed, the lies that get you in trouble can be less serious and less relevant to your job performance than the lies that the public seems inclined to excuse, and we know little about what type of lies offer a "meaningful prediction about the candidate's performance should the candidate win office". But there isn't a politician in the country who doesn't know that character matters, or that getting caught lying will affect how voters perceive his character. In this particular case there's an easy way for a candidate to get around Kirk's problem - simply tell the truth. It's not hard.

Brooks lectures,
Few people try to weigh the good against the bad and reach some measured judgment. Instead, as David Frum once observed, they regard candidates the way adolescents regard parents: if they are not perfect then they must be irredeemable.
Except neither Kirk nor his flawed opponent have been pushed out of the race. People will vote for them, warts and all, and one of them will go to Congress. At present Kirk appears to have a slight edge. So where can I find any real-world evidence of Brooks' claim?
The reality is, Kirk has led a life that is extremely impressive in most respects. The oddest thing about him is that he’s willing to go through this process.
No, the oddest thing is that he thought it was a good idea to lie about his personal achievements rather than relying upon his actual achievements, which according to Brooks are quite impressive.
And the larger question is: In the years ahead, how many other talented people will be willing to do it, too?
Brooks again pretends that this is something new - as if throughout our nation's history races for Congress and the Senate involved a pure meritocracy, and only in the last few years has the nastiness of political campaigns made otherwise qualified people question whether they would want to run for office. I've been wondering about that for as long as I've been voting, and I was far from the first to raise the question. The answer seems to be that no matter how dim the public's view of politicians there are an ample number of narcissists, sociopaths and nut jobs in the world to make sure that the ballots remain full - and, if anything, it is their presence in the races and their campaign tactics that squeeze out the significant population of more balanced and equally or better qualified individuals who neither want to run against that brand of candidate nor serve in an institution that they dominate.
And he gave it for his opinion, that whoever could make two ears of corn, or two blades of grass, to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.

- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, 1726

The world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians.

- Benjamin Disraeli, Lothair, 1870

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