The question, then, is whether it is reasonable to believe that people with serious abnormalities in the way they interact with the world can be found
running for (and winning) office. However unsettling as this may be, the answer seems to be yes. It's possible for psychopaths to be found anywhere --
including city hall or Washington, D.C. Remember, psychopaths are not delusional or psychotic; in fact, two of the hallmarks of psychopathy are a
calculating mind and a seemingly easy charm.
In his landmark book on psychopathy, The Mask of Sanity, researcher Hervey Cleckley theorized that
some people with the core attributes of psychopathy -- egocentricity, lack of remorse, superficial charm -- could be found in nearly every walk of life and
at every level, including 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.
There is more at work than just the drive to seek office, though; psychopaths may have some peculiar talents for it, as well. 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. Sound like the description of a successful politician and leader?
Doubtless, it's easier to see some leaders as psychopaths than it is others. Presumably, no one would dispute the notion that Hitler and Stalin were
psychopaths at the extreme end of the spectrum: completely unconstrained by empathy or guilt and willing to say or do anything to accomplish their goals.
This, though, reinforces the perception of psychopaths as out-of-control madmen who are evil to the core. Might there be other, more mainstream political
leaders who have psychopathic traits but fall closer to the "normal" range? Some have certainly thought so.
In 2003, neuropsychologist Paul Brok argued that Prime Minister Tony Blair was a "plausible psychopath" who was ruthlessly ambitious, egocentric, and
manipulative. Respected psychologist and researcher David Lykken has written:
If we can believe his biographer, Robert Caro [...] Lyndon Johnson
exemplified this syndrome. He was relatively fearless, shameless, abusive of his wife and underlings, and willing to do or say almost anything required to
attain his ends.
In any event, the idea that a psychopath could reach the heights of power is nothing new. Over a century ago, famed American philosopher and psychologist
William James said, "When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce [...] in the same individual, we have the best possible conditions for the
kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries." Perhaps, then, that's the key; it's the combination of other talents with certain
elements of psychopathy that can make an effective leader.
Which brings us back to those currently tossing about the label of psychopath -- ironically, some of them may not be denigrating the candidates as much as