The 2010 midterm elections: An exercise in narcissism?

by Joe Ferullo

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It was a stunning shock to many: only two years after garnering a strong mandate from voters, Democrats and their president found themselves on the business end of an electoral shellacking. The midterm election result was a surprise to some for sure -- but not to many critical observers, including Catholics, of America's consumer society.

I know: you're rolling your eyes. These consumer complaints are overblown -- what can buying the latest iPod possibly mean for democracy? Over-indulgence has become the modern-day Satan: the bugaboo on which all can be blamed. I once agreed with that -- and then I read Jennifer Senior's recent essay in New York magazine on politics in our time: "The Benjamin Button Election."

Senior notes that several commentators called the mid-term elections a voter "tantrum" and says they have it more right than they know. The electorate, she says, is engaged in magical thinking and the anger that follows when the magic doesn't happen.

Angry at where the country is going? Vote Obama in 2008. Angry at him? Vote Republican in 2010. And just by pulling a lever, problems will be fantastically solved. If they are not, pull the lever in two years with even more anger.

There is no strategy to the process, no thought or reasoning. It is the reaction of rebellious toddlers.

At the root of this behavior, Senior writes, is narcissism.

Toddlers and adolescents rebel as the result of a tense mix of self-importance and insecurity. It's part of the maturing process. But when adults do this, that's narcissism.

"By definition," Senior writes, "narcissists are impatient, easily insulted, and aggrieved; they'd never dream of making sacrifices on anyone else's behalf, unless it simultaneously advanced an agenda of their own."

We are all capable of this, of course -- especially when we're under stress. But whole cultures are capable of this, too.

In 1979 Christopher Lasch wrote the breakthrough work, The Culture of Narcissism, -- about the spread of self-absorption in the United States.

In the years since, it seems, little has changed.

As Senior notes, last year Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell published The Narcissism Epidemic, which argued that the U.S remains stuck in the same self-referential closed world.

Among the evidence they unearthed: a study of 11,000 teenagers in 1951 found that only 12 percent agreed with the statement "I am an important person." The same study was done in 1989 -- and 78 percent agreed with that statement.

What’s happening? Senior isn't sure -- but a lot of Catholic observers would point to consumerism.

How can Americans not feel self-important and self-absorbed, when our economy and culture counts on that to succeed? Advertisements tell us we deserve the best, and that their products are the best. They tells us we need things we don't even really want -- because we're special. Nothing is said about earning these items, or about living within your means.

In this culture economic hard times feel like unjust punishment from an uncaring parent.

Suddenly, I can't have a bigger house or faster car, I can't have the latest smartphone or the largest TV screen. And it's not fair -- 'cause everyone's been telling me all my life I should have these things! I deserve these things! And now I can't have them?? Well, somebody's gonna pay for that!!

And so somebody should pay for it! The banks should be allowed to fail 'cause they just lied to everybody and made them feel all responsible and grown up with big loans and then took them away.

And the politicians? They gave money to the bad, lying people. They told me that I was the one I was waiting for, and I closed my eyes and I clicked my heels three times and I pulled the lever -- and I still can't get my new car.

So I'll vote for the other guys and show them. I will close my eyes and they will close the debt, save my social security, keep their darn government hands off my Medicare, cut taxes, and let me stay in my house -- but kick out my mean neighbor who doesn't deserve to live near me.

When finances took a nose-dive in 2008, some commentators thought it might lead to a re-thinking of America's consumer culture.

There was talk of Obama "treating us like adults," and even he (as Senior notes) quoted Corinthians in his inaugural address, asking us to "put away chilidish things."

It hasn't worked yet. Here's hoping it kicks in before 2012.

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