OPINION: Why bad politicians rose to power and why they stayed there

Robert Labayen

Posted at Jul 28 2020 10:28 PM

Not all politicians are bad.

But it’s true that politics attracts many bad people. Not just normally bad people but even people with a psychological pathology.

Narcissists

Psychologist Steve Taylor wrote that “narcissists crave attention and affirmation and feel they are superior to others and have the right to dominate them. They also lack empathy, which means they are able to ruthlessly exploit and abuse people for the sake of power.”

This is the problem: narcissists fool us because they look like people with admirable leadership traits. A study by Ohio State University found that “when a group is without a leader, you can often count on a narcissist to take charge.” They are “overconfident in their own abilities” so many people are made to believe these guys are capable. But “they don’t necessarily make better leaders.”

Both Hitler and Mao Zedong projected their intellectual superiority. In truth, their incompetence led to the suffering of millions of people.

They hate critics

Narcissists will do everything to protect their image. Upon becoming Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler seized the printing equipment of the political parties he didn’t like. He also controlled the “independent” organs and used them for his own propaganda.

Mao Zedong said “let a hundred flowers bloom” when he encouraged his people to freely express their feelings about the government. A year later, he had many of these critics arrested and some were sent to labor camps.

Psychopaths

Psychos can charm people because they have no inhibition, they are great at lying, and they only have cognitive empathy, not affective empathy.

With affective empathy, you can feel what others feel. With cognitive empathy, you know what others feel but you are unmoved. With knowledge of what people feel, psychopaths can manipulate their victims.

During campaigns, they can lie about their credentials, lie about their rivals, and make big promises they don’t intend to fulfill. Voters in a suffering country can be fooled by big promises because they are in need of a “messiah.”

A bad combination

Joseph Stalin had a terrible combination of narcissism, Machiavellianism and paranoia, among others. He used and fooled so many connections, told lies and changed facts in order to become Secretary-General of the Soviet Communist Party in 1922. Being extremely paranoid, he believed people were criticizing him and out to get him. So, he had many of his closest collaborators, closest party members, even a famous doctor, murdered along with 20 million others who were killed during his reign.

It takes three to tango

Andrew Lobaczewski was a Polish psychologist and a victim of both the Nazis and Stalin. He came up with the term “pathocracy” to describe a government made up of people with pathological disorders. He believed that a pathological leader attracts people like him to serve in his government while the good ones will fall away or will be rendered powerless.

Other political scientists explained the “toxic triangle” which involves a bad leader, vulnerable followers, and a society with conditions ready to be exploited. For example, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot were brought to power by bad political parties while their respective countries were going through economic insecurity and social disintegration.

Why people voted for them

Bad politicians got elected because citizens were fooled by their charm and lies. They got re-elected because they controlled the media, gamed the system, had funds to buy votes, and power to coerce voters.

A recent study in the U.S. also showed that corrupt politicians got elected because of the voters’ “lack of attention.” Many voters didn’t really care to know the issues and the track records of candidates. Like in any marketplace, “name recall” was enough for people to make a choice.

Among other things, more political education enabled by free communication can help reduce the possibility of being manipulated by madmen.

Does power corrupt every politician? A recent study by the University of Toronto said no. The researchers found that power may heighten “pre-existing ethical tendencies.” The bad become badder, the good may stay good and use power for good. That second part is reassuring enough.

Read:

Abuse of Power as Pathology by Bandy X. Lee, M.D. in the Psychology Today website

Narcissistic People More Likely to Emerge as Leaders by the Ohio State University in the Science Daily website

Pathological power: the danger of governments led by narcissists and psychopaths by Steve Taylor in The Conversation website

Power robs the brain of empathy by Kathleen Blanchard in the Digital Journal website

Snakes in Suits: Understanding and Surviving the Snakes in Your Office by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

The Press in the Third Reich in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website

The Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton

Tyrannical Minds: Psychological Profiling, Narcissism, and Dictatorship by Dean A. Haycock

Why do voters allow corrupt politicians to stay in office in the Open Learn website

Why Power Corrupts by Christopher Shea in the Smithsonian Magazine website

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Robert Labayen spent 22 years in advertising prior to joining ABS-CBN in 2004. He was VP-Creative Director at Saatchi & Saatchi and Executive Creative Director at J. Walter Thompson, two of the country's leading ad agencies. He is currently the Head of Creative Communications Management at ABS-CBN. His job involves inspiring people to be their best. He is a writer, painter and songwriter.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.