In a recent column, The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof described the plight of a middle-aged friend of his who was dying of cancer. The friend had quit his job some time ago, as part of a mid-life crisis. In a cruel twist of fate, the friend soon thereafter found himself diagnosed with a deadly disease—and with no access to health insurance. Kristof movingly described the situation of the friend, who had agreed to allow Kristof to put a real person’s face on the abstract concept of a “pre-existing condition”—and, for that matter, “the uninsured.”
Kristof’s column apparently brought forth a torrent of responses. Most took the author’s concerns seriously, discussing how our health care system cruelly dooms people to premature deaths that many would likely avoid in a system with universal health coverage. In a follow-up column, however, Kristof expressed his horror at a string of emails he had received from people who basically said, “Hey, your friend got what he deserved. Why should I pay for his mid-life crisis?”
Even though Kristof’s friend acknowledged that he had made some mistakes, the point of the column was that the consequence of those mistakes was so extreme—premature death, as the price of putting off buying health insurance. That did not matter to the cynics. For them, it was all about their fierce belief that they are “not responsible for anyone else.”
Kristof’s response to the letters he had received at the Times after his column ran began with an important assertion: “To feel undiminished by the deaths of those around us isn’t heroic Ayn Rand individualism. It’s sociopathic. Compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but of civilization.” Did Kristof go over the top in using the word “sociopathic”? And even if he did not, was his description apt only for a tiny fringe of macho poseurs who gain attention by taking shocking positions, or is this sociopathy more widespread than we would like to think?
In this column, I draw the unavoidable—and quite depressing—conclusion that the emergence of sociopathic attitudes is no longer confined to the lunatic fringe. While most Americans—Republicans, Democrats, and independents—remain healthy, well-socialized human beings, a group of people whom—we must now admit—can accurately be described as sociopaths has taken over the modern Republican Party, enforcing a new orthodoxy that is just as cold-blooded as what we saw in the responses the Times received to the story of Kristof’s now-deceased friend.
In other words, while most rank-and-file Republican voters are good people, their party has been stolen from them. A combination of factors—party loyalty, distorted news coverage, horse-race politics, and many others—has allowed one of our two major parties to continue to be viable even after this hostile takeover. A win by the Romney/Ryan ticket will, unfortunately, validate that group and unleash it to do serious damage to America and the world.
How Widespread Are These Anti-Social Attitudes, and How High Up Do Those Attitudes Go in the Current Republican Party?
In one sense, Kristof should not have been surprised to receive hostile, hateful emails in response to his heartfelt column. During one of the Republican Presidential debates during the 2012 primaries, after all, a moderator had asked a hypothetical question that was eerily similar to the facts of Kristof’s dying friend’s situation. When the moderator asked: “Should a hospital refuse to treat this uninsured, dying person?” some men in the partisan crowd started yelling, “Yeah! Let ’im die!!”
Even knowing that those attitudes are out there, however, one cannot help but be taken aback when confronted with them directly. It is simply shocking to most people to hear someone uttering unthinkably cruel things.
The bigger question, however, is whether such incidents simply reflect a very loud, tiny minority’s reveling in its ability to shock the sensibilities of emotionally healthy people, or whether they have spread deeper and wider. There is, unfortunately, growing evidence that these debased attitudes are no longer confined to a few crazies.
Consider that one of the most popular right-wing authors in the country, Ann Coulter—who routinely accuses liberals of “treason” and other crimes—now considers it acceptable to refer to President Obama as “the retard.” (Her practice led to a rebuke by a Special Olympian, but she keeps on using the word.) Consider, too, that the highest ratings in talk radio go to a man, Rush Limbaugh, who demeans women as “sluts” for defending women’s access to contraception, and who mocked the actor Michael J. Fox’s involuntary movements due to Parkinson’s Disease. These people are only the leading edge of an entire industry of people who delight in mocking the entire idea of social cohesion, reinforcing a twisted Darwinian notion of “just desserts” that is unrecognizable to a civilized notion of society.
Still, people like Coulter and Limbaugh might be dismissed as mere entertainers—corrosive to society, perhaps, but not possessing any real or direct power. Even if one finds that a compelling argument, however, it is not difficult to find examples of Republican Congressmen and Senators who excitedly agree with those views, espousing equally primitive viewpoints that should shock the conscience. For example, one Freshman Senator, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, won election in 2010 even after announcing that the federal government should not be allowed to prevent businesses from refusing to serve African Americans.
These are not, moreover, meaningless back-benchers who are otherwise well-controlled by the Republican Party’s leadership. Indeed, the entire Republican Congressional delegation has signed a pledge not to raise taxes that is enforced by an unelected powerbroker who has directly likened the estate tax to the Holocaust. Yes, you read that correctly. Because the estate tax is only collected from a tiny percentage of the population, imposing that tax is—according to the leading conservative voice on tax policy in this country—morally comparable to exterminating a religious minority group in a brutal genocide.
What Is a Sociopath? Understanding the Breakdown in Social Order That Is Inherent in the Current Agenda of the Republican Party
While all of these examples are troubling, and even shocking, to many people, is it possibly over the top to apply the extreme word “sociopath” to describe a person who holds some combination of these views?
The answer, I believe, is no, because current Republican orthodoxy takes as its starting point that the norms of social order do not apply to the economic elite in this country.
While there are many different definitions of the word “sociopath,” there is a common element to all of them: sociopaths lack the normal constraints of conscience when it comes to pursuing their own selfish ends. Other people, in their eyes, are “lesser,” and it does not matter if the “people who really matter” do whatever they see fit, no matter if that means ignoring the rules everyone else must live by.
One dictionary, for example, defines “sociopath” as “a person with a psychopathic personality whose behavior is antisocial, often criminal, and who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience.”
In turn, “antisocial” is defined as “opposed or detrimental to social order or the principles on which society is constituted,” and “of or pertaining to a pattern of behavior in which social norms and the rights of others are persistently violated.” Indeed, the clinical definition of “antisocial personality disorder” includes a “[g]ross and persistent attitude of irresponsibility and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations.” (The clinical distinctions between that disorder and sociopathy are not relevant here.)
Just as we see with all psychological disorders, the problem is one of degree. Surely, even the healthiest people will occasionally break a rule or a law, in pursuit of their selfish desires. The problem comes when a person or a group of people acts in extreme ways, persistently harming others in the apparent belief that other people simply do not matter.
Within the last few years, we have seen the people at the top of the Republican Party, supported by an extensive infrastructure of pundits and news organizations, go far beyond merely advancing an agenda that is arguably less good for society than other agendas might be, as a matter of policy. They have, with increasing intensity in theTwenty-First Century, openly advocated policies that harm innocent people—and they have adopted methods to achieve those ends that simply ignore the rules by which other people behave.
For example, Republican politicians have embraced the idea that illegal immigrants should be made miserable—so miserable that they will “self-deport.” Even though such an approach involves deliberately harming those immigrants’ children, who have no legal culpability for their situation, that consequence apparently does not matter to these Republican leaders.
To take another example, the Republican Majority Leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, according to a recent report, advanced an agenda during last year’s contrived debt-ceiling standoff “to reduce programs for the poor, including eliminating nutrition and education financing, increasing work requirements for those on food stamps and cutting certain job training programs. Those efforts underlie the fight over legislation to this day.”
One of the top Republicans in Congress considers it an absolute priority to reduce funding for nutrition programs for children. That is simply shocking, but, sadly, it is no longer surprising.
This lack of conscience—so aptly captured in my Verdict co-columnist John Dean’s book Conservatives Without Conscience—extends to Republican leaders’ desire to eliminate or radically reduce anti-poverty programs (demonizing food stamps, for example, with racially-coded language), and even to their refusal to understand that the middle-class support program known as unemployment insurance is necessary during extended economic downturns.
The rationalizations the Republicans offer have become ever more extreme, of course, as the degree of anti-social behavior has become ever more difficult to justify. The bottom line, however, is that we now find ourselves in a situation where one of our two major parties openly advances policies that are designed to make life more difficult for those people who are not currently well off.
The 2012 Republican Ticket Is the Perfect Distillation of This Sociopathic Phenomenon: Cruel Policies, and Self-Serving Tactics
Surely, however, one might still cling to the belief that no party would enter a Presidential election with a sociopathic agenda, advanced by sociopathic candidates. One might think that in “safe” congressional districts, it might be possible to get away with nominating candidates who are extreme and even anti-social, but surely no party would be so crazy as to nominate candidates for President and Vice President who exhibit such behavior.
Would that it were so. The Republican ticket now includes a Presidential candidate who spent the entire primary season embracing the most extreme views of modern Republican dogma, and who then chose as his running mate the author of Republican budget plans that would turn those extreme views into law. Healthcare for poor people? Cap it, and send it to the states. Healthcare for the elderly? Raise their costs right away, and make sure that the federal contribution shrinks over time for those who need it most.
In his most infamous moment, of course, Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney was recorded admitting to his wealthy supporters that he has no concern for any of the people who will be harmed by his policies—that famous 47 percent. They will, he said, never take “personal responsibility and care for their lives,” so they apparently deserve what Romney would do to them as president. And we now know what that is: Romney would follow the orders of those who believe that, in our society, the “takers” are morally inferior to the “job creators,” and thus would reorder society to intensify, rather than ameliorate, economic and social inequality.
It is not, however, just the lack of concern for others—nor the policies that would harm the weakest members of society—that makes this Republican ticket qualify for the labels “sociopaths” and “anti-social.” It is also their tactics. In a Romney aide’s infamous “Etch-a-Sketch” comment, we learned that the Republican strategy was simply to say whatever is necessary to win. That strategy has now been seen in its full glory during the Presidential and Vice Presidential debates, as both halves of the Republican ticket have walked away from their own records, in an effort to sound as if they are not the extremists that they really are.
Finally, it is not even merely the opportunistic changes of position that we have seen from Romney and Ryan that are so shocking. In all of the debates, as in so much of the campaign, the Republican candidates have simply been caught in one lie after another. Yet none of that has seemed to matter to any top Republicans (or, for that matter, in the polls), and the Republican candidates have simply refused to admit their lies or change what they say. This disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations has reached an awe-inspiring level. Everyone knows that politicians will act opportunistically, but until now, there have been limits. The current leaders of the Republican Party act as if those limits do not apply to them.
No one wants to believe that an entire political party has been hijacked like this. As the few remaining moderates have been drummed out of the Republican Party, however, we have seen the center of gravity of the party move to a place that few thought it could ever go.
There are many good people who will vote for that party’s candidates on November 6. Few will realize just how bad things have really become at the top of that party, or how much damage to real people those party leaders are doing—and will do, with even greater ferocity, if they are elected to the top offices in the land.