Democracy rests on the wisdom and mental health of the people. Yet emotional and behavioral dysfunction is rampant across the land, starting with legislators in Washington, D.C.
The U.S. Congress has a 16 percent approval rating for a reason: a significant number of its senators and representatives, in my professional judgment, are neurotic. As a result, their influence on our democracy is destabilizing, contributing to growing dysfunction. (Bipartisanship in Washington may have eroded in recent decades for reasons outlined here.)
Conventional wisdom claims that this dissension is largely due to hardening ideologies and the corrupting influence of money. The problem can also be understood and potentially reformed through psychological insight. We can expose the neurosis that mires many Democratic and Republican politicians in dissension and causes them to be seduced by power and prestige.
A neurotic individual, tangled in inner conflict, produces an overflow of negative emotions and behavioral self-defeat. Neurosis is present in a person according to the degree of his or her immaturity, arrogance, self-centeredness, self-deception, stupidity, stubbornness, callousness, righteousness, ruthless ambition, cynicism, distrust, fearfulness, entitlement mentality, oversensitivity to feeling criticized or disrespected, and willingness to distort facts and blame others.
Neurotics are inwardly conflicted. They are at war with themselves. Much of their energy is absorbed by conflict. Divided against their own self, they produce divisiveness at every turn. An assemblage of neurotics in an institution such as the U.S. Congress will invariably produce unhealthy conflict among members, leading to outcomes that produce national dissension, widespread suffering, and self-defeat.
Many politicians are driven by neurotic ambition. Their desire for attention and fame supersede their interest in serving others. Let’s examine some features of such self-absorption.
Remarkably, a member of Congress who is driven by neurotic ambition possesses the same underlying psychological makeup as the timid failure. This similar substructure consists of an inner divide marked by self-doubt, self-alienation, and self-deception. The difference is that the “successful” neurotic politician is capable of mobilizing blustery aggression and exhibiting a bold, often charming persona. This socially accepted aggressiveness is largely a false front, a misrepresentation through which these individuals desperately try to convince themselves and others that they’re powerful individuals and not inner weaklings.
Such politicians become more desperate to succeed because failure is experienced so painfully, as confirmation of a deep sense of unworthiness. This self-doubt, unresolved from childhood, produces an emotional conviction (largely unconscious) that they are indeed losers or failures. Desperation and the accompanying inner fear of being exposed as empty suits wipe out a sense of honor. To cover their tracks, they become willing to resort to despicable tactics and cozy up for funding to even the most corrupt benefactors.
When politicians are unable or unwilling to change themselves for the better, they’re unable to change the nation or the world for the better.
Neurotic politicians can feel they never have enough power. Frequently, they envy or dislike those who are seen to have more power. They lust insatiably for more self-aggrandizement, scrambling over one another for positions on the most important committees and other perks of power. They don’t use the group for a feeling of belonging but rather as a means of advancement and prestige.
These individuals often exhibit themselves as living dynamos of inexhaustible energy. While spurred by new excitement, they experience constant inner tension. This tension arises as a result of their inner need to maintain the effectiveness of their unconscious psychological defense: “I’m not inwardly weak and passive. I’m a powerful person. Look at all the attention I draw to myself. People are greatly impressed by me.”
Through their defenses, they are compelled to falsify reality. Rather than wanting to see objectively, they are more interested in seeing a “reality” that supports their idealized self-image.
The resulting compulsive drive for success is exhausting. If their defenses of exuberant energy and enchanting charisma are not constantly maintained, they can quickly slip into greater tension, anxiety, inner fear, and depression. Their energy-sapping effort, fueled by inner desperation and fear, forces many such individuals to live beyond their emotional means. Exuberance and self-reverence tend to collapse when they’re alone.
Many of them project their inner fear out into the world where, in “seeing” grave dangers from real or potential enemies, they both exhibit and generate paranoia. The resulting neurotic aggression is more likely to destroy than to strengthen. A classic example of this psychological type is Joseph McCarthy, Republican senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death in 1957. McCarthy flamed out in disgrace and alcoholism following his unfounded anti-Communist crusade against innocent Americans. Even though many people in those years held him in contempt, McCarthy could ignore the scorn because the maintenance of his contrived aggression, in keeping his underlying weakness and passivity under wraps, was his foremost concern. He embraced an idealized self-image that defended against inner truth that would have revealed his entanglement in the emotional conviction of being an unworthy, lesser person.
Predictably, he projected upon others the judgment that, in allegedly being Communist sympathizers, they (not he) were the lesser persons deserving of scorn and loathing. The more viciously he attacked them, the more desperately he was denying inner truth.
These days many politicians harbor similar inner dynamics, though they may appear more restrained and charming. They often feel contempt for the poor and behave ruthlessly toward them. On an inner level, the poor remind these politicians of their repressed and despised weak self. To cover up (defend against) this identification with the poor as “life’s failures,” neurotic politicians turn their backs on their needy fellow citizens. Their defense is presented along these lines: “I don’t want to identify with the poor as lowly, lesser people. I don’t even want to think about them.” These politicians often exhibit an “I-know-best” attitude that reinforces their self-image as superior individuals.
Such a person is unlikely to have real friends. A true friend is normally accepted as an equal. But neurotic politicians want admirers, not friends who can hold them accountable and laugh at their pretensions. So-called friends are likely to be established on a quid pro quo basis, as is apparent in the indictment on bribery and corruption charges brought this month against U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey.
Massive depression can be hiding out behind outward displays of self-confidence. Other defensive cover-ups employed by neurotic politicians consist of vanity, exuberant optimism, and intense self-satisfaction—the pleasures of vainglory—derived from narcissistic exhibitionism.
These individuals frequently have a cynical outlook and are unduly suspicious. They might dwell on fantasies of being unjustly treated, sweet revenge, and vindictive triumph. Such cynics will enlist allies to validate their negative outlook. If others share this outlook, their defense (“Many people agree with me that my suspiciousness and aggression are appropriate”) becomes more effective.
The degree and extent of neurotic politicians likely approximates the extent of neurotic voters. Voters who are in denial of their own neurosis or blind to its dynamics won’t likely be able to choose wisely at the ballot box. They choose politicians who mirror their own neurotic profile.
The media, meanwhile, do manage to hold such politicians somewhat accountable, particularly when influence-peddling or other illegal misconduct is uncovered. Yet the media decline, with some rare exceptions, to employ psychological language when reporting on political dysfunction. The media themselves operate, in part, on neurotic principles. Driven by passivity and an appetite for sensationalism, they give credence and attention to the most exhibitionistic and unseemly politicians. The press appears unable or unwilling to consider the polarizing effects of highlighting the pronouncements and intentions of such politicians.
Most politicians have a knack for ingratiating themselves to others. They can greet a prospective voter with a “sincerity” that enthusiastically honors that voter’s outstanding worthiness. This usually leaves a naïve person feeling deeply appreciated and grateful. Of course this ability to ingratiate is part of the charm and competitiveness of politics. It’s certainly fair play in the democratic process. Yet it does illustrate the underlying dynamic at play in the typical politician’s psyche, namely a self-referential understanding of the power of flattery. Through this means, the neurotic politician gives to others—in small payouts—what he desperately wants for himself—in windfall amounts.