Last week the Petraeus hoopla seemed to distract Americans from everything else that was going on in the world. Even the fiscal cliff took a back seat as we got a “Real Housewives” look into what goes on with generals and socialites in Tampa.
All those revelations took voters far from the original question of why a highly public figure such as General Petraeus thought he could get away with sexual misbehavior. Even though he wasn’t elected to his position, Petraeus can now be added to a list of politicians that includes Weiner, Spitzer, Craig, Clinton, Condit, Hart, Gingrich, and many more. How does that happen?
Newpsychopolitics believes that good politicians go bad through a combination of three personality factors: narcissism, attraction to risk, and hubris. Anyone who runs for office needs a little of each of these qualities. But when they spin out of control, bad things are likely to happen.
Narcissism is an overvaluation of oneself. Narcissists see themselves as superior to the people around them. They believe they’re brighter, more charming, and even more physically attractive than other people. Politicians—whose message is almost always that they can solve the problems others have failed to solve—are huge narcissists.
Politicians are also attracted to risk. Every two, four, or six years, politicians face the possibility of losing their livelihood. In each election, they put their personality, job performance, and maybe even their own family up for evaluation by the American people. And they do this for power, not money, since people in the private sector earn far more than the average politician.
Then, after thousands or millions of people endorse the politician and his ideas, he’s likely to develop hubris, or a belief in his own infallibility. That’s when bad decisions get made. Hubris is what led to Gov. Spitzer toughening laws on prostitution at the same time he was visiting prostitutes, Rep. Chris Lee sponsoring a bill on appropriate Internet behavior while posting suggestive pictures on Craigslist, and Sen. Larry Craig both supporting a Constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman and looking for sex in airport men’s rooms.
When a politician has an extramarital affair, the sex is not the really important part of the matter. We can be sure that he—and we’re talking only about men since women in politics don’t seem to get involved in extramarital affairs—somehow lost control of his narcissism, he’s attracted to a really big risk, and he’s feeling he can get away with anything. When those three things occur in the same person at the same time, very bad things are likely to happen.
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