#12 power
Gerhard Vinnai

The Loneliness of Power

Literary texts repeatedly portray the loneliness of the powerful. Does this isolation still apply to the politically powerful today? And, if so, why do people still choose to become politicians?

The absolutist Spanish King Phillip II in Schiller's "Don Carlos" is an isolated figure. In his novel "The Feast of the Goat", Vargas Llosa describes the loneliness of an aging Central American caudillo in the 20th century. We know that Adolf Hitler had no close friends and never had a relationship with a woman that involved true intimacy. Given the different social conditions of today, does the loneliness of the politically powerful persist?

In the public eye, today's top politicians appear to enjoy a myriad of social contacts and seem anything but lonely. Just how isolated they might feel on the inside is very hard to precisely assess. But there are surely socially psychological and other factors caused by our social structures that can result in loneliness.

Anyone who seeks success in interparty power games must be able to create dependencies

In societies in which the economy and related social life are dominated by the principle of competition, this same principle also shapes the political arena. Party politics involves fierce competition for power between rival parties. The power of one's own party is always under attack by the opposition. Even within a party itself there are challengers who aspire to assume their own positions of power. This state of constant competition engenders permanent mistrust of others, along with a ceaseless drive to create relationships that might shore up one's position of power, itself in continual potential peril. Anyone who seeks success in interparty power games must be able to create dependencies that force others to remain loyal. Former German Chancellor and CDU Party Chairman Helmut Kohl, for example, ruled the CDU primarily through his extensive network of contacts and the dependencies thus created. Kohl excluded anyone who objected or sought to free themselves from this position of dependency from the centre of power.

Anyone who has and would like to maintain power depends on friendships and solidarity, but ultimately, and most importantly, on the calculated instrumental use of confederates and potential rivals. Too much trust in an attempt to establish intimacy does not pay in politics – which engenders open and shrouded distance.

Too much trust in an attempt to establish intimacy does not pay in politics

Despite all the endless talking, the business of politics damages the verbal communication that can bring people closer together. The battle for votes and competition with other parties imposes many constraints on the verbal utterances of politicians. A politician has to learn to avoid clear, explicit statements if this means taking a stand, something best avoided for tactical reasons, or might offer one's political opponents an avenue of attack. Promises for the future must often be made so vague that they cannot serve as the basis for any actionable, concrete demands which might not be met.

Political discourse in parliaments or talk shows is, as a rule, not primarily aimed at arriving at the truth, as would ideally be the case with scientific debates, for example. Here the primary objective is to secure power and influence, and ensure one's interests prevail. At the same time political decision-making generally involves compromises that are never fully in line with one's own position and view, thus diluting them. Politicians are often seen by the public as unprincipled opportunists only interested in maintaining power. While this may often be the case, it is also often not entirely fair, since power structures that force compromise make it difficult to assume and defend clearly defined positions.

The language of politics is ritualized. Working together to pursue political party interests requires standardized speech patterns that allow internal differences to be disguised. It would impossible to call up new arguments or respond to questions in depth in the innumerable and generally brief conversations politicians have with voters. Their responses to voter's questions are intended first and foremost to hammer a specific position into voters' minds without necessarily encouraging their awareness of problems and issues. This entails a form of disregard that creates distance.

To be successful, politicians must constantly exude an air of competency.

The sort of truthfulness and openness that would allow a person to admit to failings or a lack of knowledge can be very damaging in the political arena. To be successful, politicians must constantly exude an air of competency. Unlike in successful discussions in other spaces, politicians cannot afford to formulate any preliminary, unguarded or problematic statements that could then be adjusted and developed over the course of a conversation. They have to act as if they are always in the know. All these factors make the sort of discussion that might allow all parties to arrive at an interactive answer to an open question almost impossible in the political arena.

Under constant (media) surveillance

Leading politicians are subject to relentless observation by the media. This form of constant supervision not only affects their political actions; it also increasingly exposes their private lives to public scrutiny. Politicians are forced to develop carefully thought-out strategies to deflect media influence from their private lives or offer glimpses of private moments in a manner designed to curry favour. Such strategies necessitate an ever increasing mistrust of media representatives, or the ability to stage the self as a private person so as to mislead the public. Chancellor Kohl consistently lived a perfect family live in the spotlight of the media. His son has since revealed in an expose that this was far from the case. (Kohl 2011)

Top politicians are subjected to extreme workloads. They have very little scope for pursuing their own interests or enjoying down time, both of which would be instrumental in achieving some distance from their political careers. The family lives of politicians often suffer terribly under the weight of political responsibilities. Wives and children generally do not live near the political nerve centre, resulting in radically reduced weekend relationships. Some male politicians seek the consolation in extramarital affairs.

Power is sensual and can make politicians erotically attractive to some women who are willing to enter into affairs with them. This entails the peril of a scandal in the media which has ended some political careers, especially in the USA. A politician's love life, if it does not adhere to the social norm and cannot be kept secret, can spell doom for a political career. In contrast to countries like the USA, in Germany the media as a rule still respect the private lives of politicians and do not expose them to the public. But not everyone adheres to this unwritten rule, and it may be broken at any time to serve political purposes or feed the sensation hungry to sell papers. The revelation of a politician's sexual escapades is not always damaging, though. Indeed his followers might secretly admire the sexual prowess these seem to indicate.

An image that appeals to voters

In democratically organized countries, politicians depend on the approval of voters. But a general lack of political education and personal experience with politics mean most voters are relatively unfamiliar with how political organizations function. They tend to "personalize" their interpretation of political events. Here the actions of politicians are perceived in a simplified form as the natural expression of their character and skills. The media in general, and television in particular, encourage this personalized way of thinking.

According to Sigmund Freud (see Freud 1940), political leaders can attract the loyalty of a group if they can present themselves up as the "ego ideal" for their followers. A politician or, more accurately, the ideal one has of him, must be able to take the place of what his adherents wish to be or have. In other words, the figure he represents must stand for the narcissistic desires of his followers. Their collective identification with the same political authority allows supporters to identify one another and feel a sense of community and connection even if they would otherwise not have any interest in or perhaps even actively dislike each other. Freud works from the assumption that regressive infantisation is possible in groups in which the leader unconsciously assumes the role of the idealized father or mother figure from childhood. (Though Freud did not give enough weight to the fact that under certain conditions, groups can develop a specific structure that releases a great deal of energy and creativity. This can then serve to promote an increased capacity for reality).

The fusing of role and person

A leader who wishes to maintain power must therefore constantly strive to correspond to the narcissistically inclined collective ego ideal of the group he seeks the allegiance of. In reality, though, he will almost automatically fall short of this ideal. He must appear to be more politically potent, knowledgeable and human than he is in reality.

Politicians must develop a specific image that accommodates voters' wishes. With the assistance of media consultants, they need to align their demeanour, body language and rhetoric to fit this image. This requires an enormous amount of self-control which must be at least in part internalized to the extent that it no longer seems like an external constraint. The role and the person can increasingly merge to the point where the resulting self-alienation becomes imperceptible.

The group's belief in this narcissistic ideal the political leader represents can result in the desires it transfers onto him becoming confused with actual reality. This process can then fuel the politician's fantasies of grandeur that drive him to act to the point where they distort his view of reality. Where he recognizes the dubiousness of drawing on the allegiance of a group can engender distain from voters and adherents for whom he is forced to act out a role in a sense. If a politician stands for the ego ideal of his followers, a lack of political success, even if he is not at all responsible, involves the huge danger of this idealization breaking down. The thwarted narcissistic desires his supporters superimposed onto him can turn into narcissistically driven, frustrated rage directed at the leader. Once praised to the skies, he now takes a fatal tumble.

Once praised to the skies, he now takes a fatal tumble.

Thanks to his old noble family, outward appearance, excellent verbal skills and clever media placement, German politician Baron Guttenberg experienced a form of uncritical idealization by the German public. Adherents were drawn together through his idealization in the media. When he was exposed as a liar for cheating on his doctoral thesis, disappointment turned this idealization into extreme distain on the part of many. Many of his "fans", though, demonstrated their desire to continue the idealization of which they were so enamoured and deny any reality that contradicted it.

Why top political positions are still so attractive

Why is there still any interest in reaching the top of the political spectrum if individual freedom can be greatly restricted and the actual power to shape the social is much more limited than we tend to believe? Personal interest plays a role, of course, in bringing a person's political ideals, or the interest of the social group one identifies with, to the fore in shaping social reality. Someone might also seek entry to politics to further their own professional career. It can provide access to benefice and connections that foster private advancement. But political engagement is always, if nothing else, related to the satisfaction of narcissistic needs that exercising power promises. (See Wirth 2002) The narcissistic urge for public recognition is not just a central psychological criterion for pursuing power. Exercising power can also act as a very effective stimulus for a narcissistic experience of the self. A person who is constantly featured in the media can feel like a real somebody. When this narcissistic support system falls apart at the end of an active political life, it can cause a serious psychological crisis if a person has grown particularly dependent on it.

A person who is constantly featured in the media can feel like a real somebody

Their relationship to power dooms top politicians to enduring certain forms of loneliness and alienation from the self. If the deformations that are part and parcel of this process are not to gain the upper hand, politicians must maintain the ability to view the business of politics from a critical distance. They have to be capable of drawing the line on its unreasonable demands. This requires an inner autonomy that withstands the temptation of mass psychological seduction. In other words, politicians must be able to experience positive forms of loneliness that allow for distance from forms of co-optation. This kind of independence can only be achieved and asserted if they are capable of successful relationships with family members, friends or advisors who can offer support and assistance. Last, but not certainly not least, they require politically mature citizens who can confidently confront them as partners and critics.

A democratic atmosphere of constructive communication and debate is a requirement that forces politicians to undergo a consistent process of lively learning and changing social relationships. The business of politics is always threatened by inertia and empty repetitive routines. Individuals are relatively powerless against this: Only social movements that can force politicians to open up and create different relationships to reality and themselves can decisively counteract these dangers. The Student Movement from the 1960s, the Women's Movement, the Peace Movement, the Environmental Movement and perhaps the current Occupy Movement were or might be able to overcome the inertia of the political and bring politics closer to social reality and as such to the realities of the people. Such social movements can, given the right conditions, ensure that political institutions do not become houses of servitude for citizens and politicians.


Sigmund Freud: Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. Complete Works XIII, Frankfurt 1940

Walter Kohl: Live or be Lived. Munich 2011

Max Weber: Economy and Society. Tübingen 1956

Hans-Jürgen Wirth. Narcissism and Power. Gießen 2002

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