It’s a story as old as politics: man is corrupted by power and implodes his career in spectacularly arrogant fashion. Governor Rod Blagojevich, who earlier this week tried to sell Barack Obama’s senate seat, is only the latest example. But Blagojevich’s actions are beyond corrupt – they’re downright baffling. Why would he solicit bribes over the phone when he knew he was already being investigated by the FBI? And why has he refused to step down from his position since the scandal broke?
“Any right-minded person would be in a state of holy terror” while being investigated by the FBI, says Renana Brooks, a psychologist and director of The National Institute for the Study of the American Unconscious. “It’s pretty similar to how Nixon said those terrible things even though he knew he had tapes going.”
Blagojevich may not have seen himself as auctioning off Obama’s senate seat so much as acting as a tough negotiator.
Blagojevich is “almost like a cartoon version” of the “high-profile personality,” says Brooks, who thinks Blagojevich’s emotional justification of his behavior blinded him to the simple fact that he was doing anything wrong at all. “I want to do good, so what I’m doing is good,” may have been his train of thought, she says.
“I don’t think he’s going to sit there and consciously be aware that he’s breaking the law,” says Brooks. She thinks that inside his own bubble, Blagojevich may not have seen himself as auctioning off Obama’s senate seat so much as acting as a tough negotiator. “He would probably tell you that he wasn’t selling it.”
And even though Blagojevich ran for governor on an anti-corruption platform, he probably saw anti-corruption as a political principle, not a personal one. “He feels that he’s doing the right thing, that he stands for the right goal, so whatever he does, he’s doing it in service of the right thing,” says Brooks. It’s roughly the equivalent of driving around in a four-ton SUV with a Greenpeace sticker on the back.
According to Jack Dovidio, a professor of psychology at Yale University, the old adage “power corrupts” is not even precisely true. Having power simply makes individuals more likely to take action, whether that action is good or bad. Power makes a person’s inner seed of morality or immorality grow, says Dovidio, and an inflated sense of power can cause a person to lose their sense of wrongdoing.
Justin Frank, a psychiatrist and author of Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President says Blagojevich suffers from a kind of “magical thinking,” common to young children. He says the thrill of getting elected to a powerful position can “reactivate childhood fantasies of being a star, of being invincible, of being able to do whatever you want.”
We the people are complicit as well. “We as a society (with great help from politicians themselves) define politics as a profession with questionable honesty,” says T. Byram Karasu, a professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “We expect a politician to promise and not deliver, to lie, line their pockets, make quid pro quo deals, and mainly to do whatever is necessary to assure their election.”
These low expectations are part of what allowed Blagojevich to brazenly declare, “I’ve got this thing and it’s fucking golden, and, uh uh, I’m just not giving it up for fuckin’ nothing,” even while he knew he was being investigated. As Karasu puts it, “For a seasoned prostitute, there is no shame or guilt associated with their being merchants of the flesh. If caught, they spend a night in jail. Similarly, a politician who is caught for fraud/bribery will spend a few years in one of those Federal hotels and go back to their lives. It’s part of the game.”