Why do politicians resign? As we remember it – rightly or wrongly – it was once all about issues of principle or, at least, some matter of personal honour. These days, however, it seems that the usual cause is one of personal misbehaviour.
Certainly, we’ve never held our politicians in such personal low esteem. If you were to ask the general public to describe the personality of the average politician you might expect to hear words like ‘arrogant’, ‘shameless’, ‘dishonest’, ‘manipulative’, ‘reckless’ and ‘uncaring’.
In an article for the Atlantic, James Silver – a criminal defence attorney – points out that these are the classic characteristics of the psychopath:
- “Psychopathy is a psychological condition based on well-established diagnostic criteria, which include lack of remorse and empathy, a sense of grandiosity, superficial charm, conning and manipulative behavior, and refusal to take responsibility for one's actions, among others.”
But can he really be suggesting that our politicians are a bunch of knife-wielding maniacs? No, because it turns out that psychopathy is a much wider category than commonly imagined:
- “Psychopaths are not all the same; particular aspects may predominate in different people. And, although some psychopaths are violent men (and women) with long criminal histories, not all are. It's important to understand that psychopathic behavior and affect exist on a continuum; there are those who fall into the grey area between ‘normal’ people and true psychopaths.”
Furthermore, there are reasons why people with psychopathic tendencies might be attracted to politics:
- “Robert Hare, perhaps the leading expert on the disorder and the person who developed the most commonly used test for diagnosing psychopathy, has noted that psychopaths generally have a heightened need for power and prestige — exactly the type of urges that make politics an attractive calling.”
Even worse, psychopaths might actually be well-adapted to a modern political environment:
- “Research has shown that disorder may confer certain advantages that make psychopaths particularly suited to a life on the public stage and able to handle high-pressure situations: psychopaths score low on measures of stress reactivity, anxiety and depression, and high on measures of competitive achievement, positive impressions on first encounters, and fearlessness.”
In their anger with politicians some people claim that MPs have an easy life. This is demonstrably wrong, but, when confronted with the evidence, the retort is ‘well, no one made them do the job’. And that, of course, is precisely the point. To subject yourself to all the rubbish that a MP has to go through, you either have to be unusually brave or unusually mad or both.
But here’s a really mad idea: Politics might just benefit from the involvement of intelligent, imaginative, engaged individuals who nevertheless wish to enjoy a normal family life, a sensible working week and a reasonable degree of privacy.