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Is Britain sliding into a pathocracy under Boris Johnson?

US President Donald Trump (front) with Dominic Raab (centre left) and Boris Johnson (centre right) at a Nato summit. Photograph: PA/Stefan Rousseau. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Psychologist STEVEN TAYLOR on what happens to societies when power accrues around certain personalities, and why it’s more important than ever we exercise our democratic vote.

Throughout history, one of the human race’s biggest problems has been that people who rise into positions of power tend to be precisely the kind of people who should not be entrusted with power. For every Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, there have been legions of ruthless, unprincipled and psychopathic leaders who have wreaked havoc on their countries, and the wider world.

The reason for this is simple: The desire for power usually correlates with negative personality traits, such as selfishness, greed, lack of moral principles and a lack of empathy. So the people who have the strongest desire for power tend to be the most ruthless and least compassionate individuals. And once they possess power, they usually devote themselves to entrenching, increasing and protecting their power, with scant regard for the welfare of others. It’s true that power corrupts, but also it’s also the case that power attracts people who are already corrupt (and who become even more corrupt once in power).

On the other hand, highly empathic and moral people – the kind of people who should become leaders – are naturally disinclined to gain power. Empathic individuals like to remain on the ground, interacting with others, rather than elevating themselves. They don’t desire control or authority, but connection. So this leaves the positions free for people who do crave control and authority.

Yet it would be misleading to say that it is only ruthless and selfish individuals who gain power.

There are many accidental leaders who gain power without a large degree of conscious intention on their part, but due to privilege or merit (or a combination). There also idealistic and altruistic leaders, who feel impelled to gain power to improve the lives of others, or to make the world a better place, promoting justice and equality.

However, altruistic leaders are probably the rarest. Even with a strong impulse to improve society or the world, altruistic people’s sense of empathy and responsibility often stops them rising to high positions. Whereas ruthless leaders have no qualms about exploiting others and breaking moral principles to help them rise to the top, altruistic leaders are reluctant to behave unethically in order to gain advantage.

According to the Polish psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski, the situation is even worse than I’ve described above. After spending his early life suffering under the Nazis and then Stalin, Lobaczewski (who died in 2007) devoted his career to studying the relationship between psychological disorders and politics. He concluded that individuals who suffer from disorders such psychopathy and narcissistic personality disorder are strongly attracted to power and often – in an inevitable process – end up constituting the governments of nations. Lobaczewski used the term ‘pathocracy’ to describe governments made up of people with these disorders.

If we look around the world, it seems clear that pathocracy is still flourishing. Despite a convention that psychologists shouldn’t unofficially diagnose public figures, many American psychologists and psychiatrists have publicly stated that Donald Trump displays all the
signs of narcissistic personality disorder.

This would certainly explain his grandiosity, his lack of empathy and moral principles, his excessive need for admiration and his sensitivity to criticism (all of which are traits of narcissistic personality disorder). Similar cases have been made by psychologists for other ‘strongman’ politicians around the world, such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

But pathocracy isn’t just about individuals. As Lobaczewski pointed out, pathological leaders tend to attract other people with psychological disorders, and other ruthless individuals. At the same time, empathetic and fair-minded people gradually fall away. They are either ostracised or step aside voluntarily, appalled by the growing pathology around them. As a result, pathocracies become progressively more entrenched and extreme, often within a short space of time. You can see this process in the Nazi takeover of the German government in the 1930s, when Germany moved from democracy to pathocracy in less than two years.

How does all of this relate to our present political situation in the UK? Unfortunately, I believe that there are signs that we are closer to pathocracy than ever before.

The recent exodus of moderate Conservatives is characteristic of the purges that occur as a democracy transitions into pathocracy. The distrust and disregard for democratic processes shown by Boris Johnson and his ministers and advisers – including their scornful attitude to parliament – is also characteristic of pathocracy. The same applies to their lack of moral principles, including their willingness to propagate blatant lies, as evidenced by the recent ‘fact-check’ debacle.

Let me be clear that I am not trying to imply that Johnson and other leading Tories suffer from personality disorders. As a psychologist, I would never attempt to make any such claim without a thorough assessment, and it would be highly unethical to do so. An individual’s public persona may be very different from their real personality.

It seems reasonable to observe, however, that a culture of ruthlessness has developed amongst the government, with a lack of empathy and moral principles.

While this might not yet qualify as a fully-fledged pathocracy, we are definitely moving in that direction.

Democracy is an essential way of protecting people from pathological politicians, with principles and institutions that limit their power. This is why pathocrats – and ruthless, self-centred autocrats in general – hate democracy. Once they attain power they do their best to dismantle and discredit democratic institutions, including the freedom and legitimacy of the press.

This is the first thing that Hitler did when he became German chancellor, and it is what autocrats such as Trump, Vladimir Putin and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán have been attempting to do.

In my view, we are at a pivotal time in British history – a point where pathocracy could take hold. And we need to make use of every democratic process and principles to ensure that it doesn’t. This includes our democratic right to vote on December 12.

Dr Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University

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