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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Power a test for male politicians

Scott Flegal

There is a famous quote from a letter written by John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton, an English baron in the 1800s, to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887. Acton wrote that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Legend has it that Lord Acton stated in response, “Great men are almost always bad men.” After watching the saga of congressman Anthony Weiner – only the latest powerful American figure to be felled by a sex scandal, it’s hard not to conclude that both men may have been right.

There are just so many of these things these days. We all know the next scandal involving a powerful man and one or more strange women is just around the corner. Congressman Weiner knows this, too. There is no doubt that part of his strategy in taking a leave of absence is the fact that in all likelihood there will be a new scandal to divert the public’s attention from his situation before his leave ends.

So why is it that so many politicians and powerful men in general seem so susceptible to being brought down by sex scandals? Part of the reason is biological. Scientists will tell you that men’s testosterone levels fluctuate in response not only to short-term competitive situations, but to perceived changes in status in a social hierarchy. In other words, at least some of our male elected officials are walking around with elevated testosterone levels. That makes them more prone to aggressive, and yes, reckless, behavior. Surely Weiner’s Twitter pic antics fall into the reckless category.

Power has an impact on our psyches too. Social scientists have described its impact as the equivalent of temporary intoxication. But unlike an intoxicated person, our politicians seem incapable of sleeping it off. This is no excuse for Weiner’s behavior, mind you. But it has to be a contributing factor in this amazing run of bad behavior by powerful men.

What is more amazing is that Weiner seems convinced that his actions were not unethical; that his behavior is unrelated to his qualifications for serving in Congress. Some might call this an ethical blind spot, and its presence among our elected officials is nauseating.

Jason Zweig, columnist for the Wall Street Journal, explored this notion several months back in a column that focused on active trading of securities during the financial crisis by public servants and their spouses. Those trades were not technically illegal, but there were some serious ethical transgressions involved. There was quite a bit of deception and disingenuousness in the answers of these individuals as they maintained they had not done anything wrong. Why, wondered Zweig, “do powerful people with so much to lose push so hard to squeeze out a little more gain for themselves?”

That question can easily be rephrased and asked of Weiner and other politicians in power, whose idiotic and unethical behavior caused them to crash and burn.

“Power makes people feel both psychologically invincible and psychologically invisible. Power focuses people on their own internal goals – blinding them, in the process to how others may view them,” Zweig wrote. Ultimately, scientists interviewed in Zweig’s article concluded that we would be doing members of Congress and their staffs and spouses a favor by passing a law that says they can only invest in index funds. In other words, given the impact of power on their decision-making, we cannot reasonably expect them to weigh their personal financial interests against their obligation to be fair to the general public. Apparently power and ethics don’t mix. Ahem.

So winning an election boosts testosterone. The power of the office generates feelings of invincibility and invisibility. Ethical boundaries are blurred, and blind spots arise. To that historic toxic mix we now add social media, with all of its potential for instant and somewhat anonymous communication, instant gratification and online hijinks. Trust me, this trend is going to get worse, not better.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook provide immediate access to all sorts of quasi-private information about all sorts of people. A lot of that private information includes photographs. Politicians have thousands of “followers” on Twitter, and “fans” on Facebook. Some of those fans and followers are women, and some of those women post photographs online. For Weiner, that powerful brew was too powerful for him to resist. With a cell phone camera and a few keystrokes, Weiner was able to do what it might have taken Bill Clinton weeks to accomplish. By the way, is there not more than a little irony in the fact that Clinton officiated at Weiner’s wedding last July?

The point here is not to excuse Weiner’s appalling pattern of behavior. He absolutely should resign. I’m merely trying to identify possible contributing causes to the pattern. While I cannot in good conscience suggest that our elected officials be banned from the Internet, I can suggest that those with heightened self-awareness exercise substantial restraint when they swim in those waters.

P.J. O’Rourke once wrote that “giving money to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” I think O’Rourke might agree with me that giving social media to politicians is every bit as explosive. The only difference is in the outcome. Our politicians blow themselves up.

Scott Flegal is a business lawyer and mediator. Visit him online at www.flegal.com or www.negotiationworks.org. Follow him on Twitter at hscottflegal@twitter.com and read his blog at www.scottflegal.com.