Our toxic political system produces toxic
leaders. We should design a system that rewards kindness and honesty.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian,
12th June 2019
Who in their right mind would want the job? It
is almost certain to end, as Theresa May found, in failure and public
execration. To seek to be Prime Minister today suggests either reckless
confidence or an insatiable hunger for power. Perhaps we need a reverse Catch
22 in British politics: anyone crazy enough to apply for this post should be
disqualified from running.
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 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 & 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.
This could be a particularly potent force in
British politics. The psychotherapist Nick Duffell has
written of “wounded leaders”, who were separated from
their families in early childhood when they were sent to boarding school. They develop
a “survival personality”, learning to cut off their feelings and project a
false self, characterised by a public display of competence and self-reliance.
Beneath this persona is a profound insecurity, that might generate an
insatiable need for power, prestige and attention. The result is a system which
“consistently turns out people who appear much more competent than they
The problem is not confined to these shores.
Donald Trump occupies the most powerful seat on earth, yet still he appears to
seethe with envy and resentment. “If President Obama made the deals that I have
made,” he claimed
this week, “the Corrupt Media would be hailing them as
Incredible. … With me, despite our record setting Economy and all that I have
done, no credit!”. No amount of wealth or power seems able to satisfy his need
for affirmation and assurance.
I believe that anyone who wants to stand in a
national election should receive a course of psychotherapy. Completing the
course should be a qualification for office. This wouldn’t change the behaviour
of psychopaths, but it might prevent some people who exercise power from
imposing their own deep wounds on others. I’ve had two courses: one influenced
by Freud and Donald Winnicot, the other by Paul Gilbert’s compassion-focused approach. I found
them both immensely helpful. I believe almost everyone would benefit from such treatment.
Psychotherapy would not guarantee a kinder
politics. Alastair Campbell’s admirable
openness about his mental health and therapy and did
not stop him from behaving – when working as Tony Blair’s spin doctor – as a
foul-mouthed bully, who browbeat other people into supporting an illegal war in
which hundreds of thousands died. As far as I know, he has expressed no remorse
for his role in this aggressive war, which fits the Nuremberg tribunal’s
definition of the “supreme
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 elevates 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’
budgeting, the co-creation
of public policy – is more likely to reward responsive and
considerate politicians. Proportional representation, that prevents governments
with minority support from dominating the nation, is another potential
safeguard (though no guarantee).
In rethinking politics, let us develop systems
that encourage kindness, empathy and emotional intelligence. Let us ditch
systems that encourage people to hide their pain by dominating others.