The Politics of Redemption

If you are entertained by politics, like me, or similarly by sports, there is nothing more fascinating than to see someone rise. A mom-and-pop store owner who becomes mayor, a local figure who is elected governor, a mixed son of an absentee father who becomes president. We cheer for them, we see ourselves in their place, we feel the taste of victory vicariously.

anthony_weiner face

But then it is also fascinating, and creepy, to see someone fall. A congressman who sends pictures on Twitter of his underwear. A self-righteous governor who is caught with prostitutes. A presidential candidate who keeps on having an affair. It is so creepy to see them fall, not only because we wonder why did these people who apparently had it all think they still didn’t or were not going to get caught. It is creepy also because we had let ourselves identify with the successful, and feel that we are falling with them. We see fantasies acted out, foolishly, at our TVs or newspapers for collective judgment, lesson, and perusal.

But then things get really weird when one of these fallen figures tries to rise again. At least in American politics, there are fresh examples: Anthony Weiner’s bid for New York mayor, Elliot Spitzer’s  announcement that he will run for comptroller also in New York, Mark Sanford’s bid for redemption in South Carolina. There has been an abundance of articles this past week analyzing their trajectories, with similar conclusions: the public is growing more forgiving, the candidates need to show they’re really sorry, it is also good if they fail, pay their dues, and try again next time.

But one article went deeper into their psychologies, an article at POLITICO. These rise-and-fall-and-rise-again narratives are not just aberrations: the very people who long to rise long to fall, or at least indulge in kinds of adrenaline behavior that will bring them down.

It is the latest (arguably quite redundant) evidence of a more fundamental truth about politics: The instinct that leads many people obsessively to pursue public approval and power through winning elections is closely linked to the instinct that leads many of these same people (and let’s face it, they are all men) to sexual excess and disaster.

It is curious, morbid desire: we long to succeed and to fail, to be celebrated and to be despised, to show to the world how good we are but to show also how bad we are. It is a deeply narcissistic instinct, longing desperately  to validate the failed self: guilty when in success, debased when in scandal, unhappy in both.

Their comebacks come embedded in claims of contrition and deep self-reflection, but their fundamental personalities — driven, flamboyant, possessed at least on the outside of exceedingly high self-regard — seem basically unchanged. This has led many people to believe that the emotional makeup that drives their comebacks is very similar to what drove their scandals.

Yet the key insight I got from this psychological analysis is, curiously, how our narcissism can corrupt even our efforts at redemption. We have a complex mix of sinful desires, and our desire for redemption may be just as dark as our desire for success and for scandal. “We keep hearing about redemption and forgiveness — these are all religious words,” said journalist Sally Quinn. “There’s nothing religious about what’s going on here. This is strictly about ‘me, me, me,’ …” If not understood, detected, and repented of, our shadow pursuit of redemption will be just another subterfuge to repackage our narcissism.

crucifixion worship Jesus cross

So, if I may end today somewhat uncomfortably, here are some personal questions. What do you desire? What lies behind the desire? What uses it to mask a hidden desire for something else? And how can we find true redemption? Can we redeem ourselves, or do we need a real Redeemer?

These are hard questions, even for such a splendid and gracious community as Wondering Fair readers.

René Breuel

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