Narcissism is back in the news, thanks to Sarah Palin. Todd Purdum's Vanity Fair profile, which appeared just days before Palin announced her resignation, described the Alaskan governor this way:
More than once in my travels in Alaska, people brought up, without prompting, the question of Palin's extravagant self-regard. Several told me, independently of one another, that they had consulted the definition of "narcissistic personality disorder" in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—"a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy"—and thought it fit her perfectly.
The diagnosis clearly resonates, not because it is accurate (who knows?) but because narcissism is the psychological substrate of our troubled times. During the credit boom, an unquenchable need for short-term success, combined with a lack of empathy for those who didn't share in the economic windfalls, was a byproduct of a society trying desperately to survive beyond its means. We both empowered the most ruthlessly self-aggrandizing among us and succumbed to the erosion of any authority that might have contained the overweening. We lost any independent measure of the American dream.
Still, a question remains: Was the army of narcissists unleashed upon our society a product of the boom or the cause of it—or both? For John Gartner, grandiosity was a precondition for success. His 2005 book The Hypomanic Edge praised the reckless abandon of Americans who leapt before they looked. (Slate's Dan Gross made a great case for why those leaders ultimately threaten the institutions they lead.)
In the noughties—given our obsessing over celebrities, insatiable consumption of debt to keep up with others, and the loss of any meaningful values that might sustain us in adversity—the country seemed to be caught up in its own culture of narcissism. As exceptional as this new culture was, it was not new. The culture of narcissism first appeared as a popular concept 30 years ago. And this week marks the apogee of its influence with the anniversary of President Jimmy Carter's infamous "malaise" speech (delivered on July 15, 1979).
That much-reviled address is an unlikely subject for study. But historian Kevin Mattson has done his best to reclaim it in his new book What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr. President? To Mattson, a desperate nation, hobbled by a stagnating economy with chronic energy shortages, a crumbling manufacturing sector, and crippling inflation, was buoyed by Carter's willingness to level with them. Carter tried to snap the country out of its frenzy of selfishness and return it to a civic-minded purpose. The speech boosted the president's poll numbers by 11 points in one evening, and the event seemed to provide a catharsis of sorts, if a short-lived one.
The 1970s were a nadir of American self-confidence. Carter came to give the "malaise" speech at the prodding of Patrick Caddell, who was himself inspired by a reading of historian Christopher Lasch's surprise best-seller of 1979, The Culture of Narcissism. A quiet Midwesterner with a cranky pen, Lasch was the Paul Krugman of 1979—an esoteric thinker whose political stance was informed by raw anger and disgust. Lasch may have used radical cultural concepts to inform his views, but he himself was deeply and personally conservative. He would later write a book dismissing the notion of progress and locating our best hope as a society in small-town acceptance of limitations.
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The Culture of Narcissism was an attack not only on the excesses and disillusionment of the '70s but also on the growth of institutions—the liberal state, corporations, and the therapeutic culture—that broke down the individual's independence and authority. Those institutions may have grown out of a need to protect us from depredations. But the unintended consequence was to replace our freedom and individual authority with insecurity and anxiety.
Thus was born the narcissistic personality of the 1970s. The cultural narcissist—as opposed to the clinical one, like Palin—can overcome the anxiety created by his or her lost economic and social independence, according to Lasch, only "by seeing his ‘grandiose self' reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped in his own design."
Narcissism thrives only where positive authority—a world of role models who establish genuine, trusted leadership and an economic system where rules are defined and enforced—no longer presides. Lasch's narcissism was a direct result of the hypocrisy of the liberal state and its collapse under the multiple assaults of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the degraded environment, and the emasculating energy crisis.