Why do so many politicians seem crazy?

            “Narcissism is closely allied with demented self-confidence: hubris. In his book The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair, and the Intoxication of Power, the politician and medical doctor David Owen suggests that ‘there is a pattern of hubristic behavior manifest in the behavior of some leaders, particularly political leaders, which could legitimately be deemed to constitute a medically recognized syndrome,’ which he calls the hubristic syndrome. It afflicts some political leaders, but not all. Owen believes that it derives from some sort of narcissistic personality disorder, but goes beyond that. Its consequences throughout human history have been disastrous. Owen suggests that a sprinkling of behavioral symptoms from the following list characterizes this disorder:

George W. Bush

George W. Bush

—A narcissistic propensity to see the world primarily as an arena in which they can exercise power and seek glory rather than as a place with problems that need approaching in a pragmatic and non-self-referential manner;

            —a predisposition to take actions which seem likely to cast them in a good light—i.e., in order to enhance their image;

            —a disproportionate concern with image and presentation;

            —a messianic manner of talking about what they are doing and a tendency to exaltation;

            —an identification of themselves with the state to the extent that they regard the outlook and interests of the two as identical;

            —a tendency to talk of themselves in the third person or using the royal “we”;

            —excessive confidence in their own judgment and contempt for the advice or criticism of others;

            —exaggerated self-belief, bordering on a sense of omnipotence, in what they personally can achieve;

Tony Blair

Tony Blair

            —a belief that rather than being accountable to the mundane court of colleagues or public opinion, the real court to which they answer is much greater: History or God;

            —an unshakeable belief that in that court they will be vindicated;

            —recklessness, restlessness, and impulsiveness;

            —a tendency to allow their “broad vision,” especially their conviction of the moral rectitude of a proposed course of action, to obviate the need to consider other aspects of it, such as its practicality, cost, and the possibility of unwanted outcomes;

            —a consequent type of incompetence in carrying out a policy, which could be called hubristic incompetence. This is where things go wrong precisely because too much self-confidence has led the leader not to bother worrying about the nuts and bolts of a policy. It can be allied to an incurious nature.

Owen details the way in which George W. Bush., and more especially Tony Blair, eventually checked all these sinister boxes as their period in power unfolded. Margaret Thatcher had previously become another victim, and history shows many precursors.”

—SIMON BLACKBURN, Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (Princeton 2014), pages 68-69.


My old friend Steve Badrich shared this quote by the British philosopher Simon Blackburn.   I don’t think the tendencies he describes are limited to George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

It has long seemed to me that the only Presidents of the United States since Dwight D. Eisenhower that were normal human beings are Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.  I don’t mean to say that none of the other post-1960 Presidents ever did anything good.   But they all had deep psychological flaws —  John F. Kennedy’s and Bill Clinton’s sexual addictions, Lyndon B. Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s megalomania and obsessive resentments, Jimmy Carter’s need to justify political expediency in terms of Christian piety, Ronald Reagan’s false memories and general disconnection from reality, and, as for Barack Obama—he fits the David Owen profile at least as much as George W. Bush.   The Obamacare rollout is a prime example of hubristic incompetence.

All this indicates something systemically wrong with the selection progress.  Or maybe the flaw is in our expectations.  I remember Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, in his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1968, saying, “I would be an adequate President.”   That’s not what we voters want to hear.   We want to hear candidates who promise to be transformative, even when we know they won’t be.  All this makes me nostalgic for good old Gerald Ford, who was content to carry out his Constitutional duties, enforce the laws and not break them, and refrain from starting wars or attempting social engineering.

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One Response to “Why do so many politicians seem crazy?”

  1. andrewcordisco Says:

    Reblogged this on The Presidents Project.


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