This morning, as Britain searches for a new prime minister, George Monbiot reflects on the toxic politicians who now bestride the globe:
A few years ago, the psychologist Michelle Roya Rad listed the characteristics of good leadership. Among them were fairness and objectivity; a desire to serve society rather than just yourself; a lack of interest in fame and attention; and resistance to the temptation to hide the truth or make impossible promises. Conversely, a paper in the Journal of Public Management and Social Policy has listed the characteristics of leaders with psychopathic, narcissistic or Machiavellian personalities. These include: a tendency to manipulate others; a preparedness to lie and deceive to achieve your ends; a lack of remorse and sensitivity; and a desire for admiration, attention, prestige and status. Which of these lists, do you think, best describes the people vying to lead the Conservative party?
In politics, almost everywhere we see what looks like the externalisation of psychic wounds or deficits. Sigmund Freud claimed that “groups take on the personality of the leader”. I think it would be more accurate to say that the private tragedies of powerful people become the public tragedies of those they dominate. For some people, it is easier to command a nation, to send thousands to their deaths in unnecessary wars, to separate children from their families and inflict terrible suffering, than to process their own trauma and pain. What we appear to see in national politics around the world is a playing out in public of deep private distress.
We are all imperfect. But we seem to prefer leaders whose imperfections are writ large. What should we do?
The underlying problem is the system through which such people jostle. Toxic personalities thrive in toxic environments. Those who should be least trusted with power are most likely to win it. A study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that the group of psychopathic traits known as “fearless dominance” is associated with behaviours that are widely valued in leaders, such as making bold decisions and bestriding the world stage. If so, we surely value the wrong characteristics. If success within the system requires psychopathic traits, there is something wrong with the system.
In designing an effective politics, it could be useful to work backwards: to decide what kind of people we would like to see representing us, then create a system that would bring them to the fore. I want to be represented by people who are thoughtful, self-aware and collaborative. What would a system that elevated such people look like?
It would not be a purely representative democracy. This works on the principle of presumed consent: “You elected me three years ago, therefore you are presumed to have consented to the policy I’m about to implement, whether or not I mentioned it at the time.” It rewards the “strong, decisive” leaders who so often lead their nations to catastrophe. A system that tempers representative democracy with participative democracy – citizens’ assemblies, participatory budgeting, the co-creation of public policy – is more likely to reward responsive and considerate politicians. Proportional representation, which prevents governments with minority support from dominating the nation, is another potential safeguard – though no guarantee.
Surely, we can design a better system. Given the problems the globe faces, we need a better one.
Image: Celebration Of Mind