Last Saturday, in the pages of the New York Times, Arthur Brooks pointed out that narcissism is on the rise. He cites some pretty depressing statistics to bolster his point. But a few minutes after I read his piece, I ran into a post from my friend Nancy French that made the point in a somewhat more dramatic fashion. Nancy collected some of the more “caustic” of the tweets from lefties in response to the death of Justice Scalia. They are narcissism on display simply by virtue of a) their inability to grant their intellectual opposition any credence whatsoever, and b) their own confidence in their own rectitude.
It made me think very hard about what separates me from my political opposition. When I say “separate” I don’t mean what issues we disagree on, I mean what makes it so we cannot get along. There are people I love dearly and call friend, even family, with whom I have major disagreement on issues. There are also people with whom I am in complete agreement on issues that I would cross a street to avoid running into. I would consider this later category far more of my political opposition than I would the former. In general, the former category and I can find common ground – somewhere, and thus we can get something done. The later category would only get in the way of my forming such a compromise. As Brooks notes:
This is a costly problem. While full-blown narcissists often report high levels of personal satisfaction, they create havoc and misery around them.
I doubt the data exists right now to draw definitive conclusions, but it would be fascinating to see if the rise in narcissism could be statistically linked to the increased political polarization we are seeing. The hypothesis is most enticing.
As narcissism has risen in the last few decades, it is easy to point to it on the left side of the political spectrum. (See the stuff Nancy French found so easily.) But the signs are now increasing of its presence on the right side as well.
There is the old canard about politics that “They are all the same.” I’ve never bought into that. The policy differences have always been very real, and consequential, but in recent decades it seems that the character differences have been pretty transparent as well. Jimmy Carter was the last Democrat to be wrong on almost everything but a man of great character. Since then the Democratic party has fed us a steady menu of cads and narcissists. Since Carter it has never been that important to get to the issue differences, the candidates were of such low character that there was no point.
I have always thought Republicans would carry the day because I always think character will win. I have not always been right about character winning, but I have to think like that because the alternative is too ugly to contemplate. But what happens if narcissism takes hold on the Republican side of things? I am no prophet, but I have to think our nation becomes untenable at that point.
There is much talk of losing our Republican and/or conservative soul. I understand the talk, but I wonder how many people having the conversation are more worried about issues than character? Politics demands that our issues stances and sets move from time-to-time, but when we let our character move is when we are losing something most precious.