In the 2009 book “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell make a convincing case that America is becoming infected with narcissism. They say there’s a growing number of people who have either narcissistic traits or full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder, a trend that has been increasing across all demographics since the 1970s, if not before.
The authors point to various causes for this rise: weak parenting, focus on self-admiration and self-expression instead of others, less community involvement, celebrity worship, the impact of the Internet and social media, and excessive materialism bolstered by irresponsible spending.
The Root Cause of Narcissism?
While Twenge and Campbell give some helpful advice on how to push against the tide of narcissism, I found myself frustrated as I read the book. They explain the problem and list various causes, but something was missing from their analysis. Yes, parenting is pathetic. Yes, we’re materialistic—we’re now the Gim-Me Generation. Yes, we have a culture steeped in self. But why did this happen? The causes they list seem secondary.
Certainly, as the authors cite, there were movements (e.g., the human empowerment movement and child-centered parenting philosophies) in the 1960s and ’70s that helped create the Me Generation, as well as shifts in social mores and values. Allan Bloom in “Closing of the American Mind” argues that a relativistic educational system has “impoverished the souls of today’s students.” Nihilistic German philosophies certainly played a role.
But values don’t suddenly change. Books and movements don’t catch fire out of the blue. Aberrant philosophies don’t instantly become acceptable. Something makes them palatable and attractive to people. What started the dominoes tumbling?
To find the answer, I decided to look further into America’s history—past the 1970s, past the 1920s, past the progressive era, and back to the beginning. There, among the building blocks of our nation, I found the answer. I discovered the rotten seed that has grown into American narcissism. It was there from our birth, festering. It’s part of us, something essential to being American.
The Problem of Equality
The cause of our narcissism is equality. Not equality before the law, where everyone is bound by the same legal code. That is a fundamental right and necessary for justice, freedom, and happiness in a democracy. I’m referring to equality of conditions—our economic well-being and social status, the material aspects of equality Europeans experienced when they broke from the caste system of their homeland, shedding aristocracy and an impenetrable class structure that denied them access to material wealth and limitless possibilities.
They were set free to achieve, accomplish, and accumulate according to their dreams. The servant had no master. The street sweeper could become a merchant. The poor could become rich. Families and groups didn’t define the individual or his future. All were equal.
The breakdown of the laws that stood in the way of opportunity was revolutionary, and we never want to return to those oppressive times. Living one’s dreams is part of being human, American, and free. Equality gave birth to joy and hope, creating a new way of living the world had never known. The individual could be his authentic self without being defined or confined by “others.”
But equality, like freedom, has its dark side. Just as too much freedom leads to libertinism, anarchy, and destruction, equality (or the expectation of equality) leads to entitlement, self-centeredness, isolation, idealism of human perfectibility and progress, autonomous individualism, materialism, and ultimately despotism.
As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “One must recognize that equality, which introduces great goods into the world, nevertheless suggests to men very dangerous instincts. . . . it tends to isolate them from one another and to bring each of them to be occupied with himself alone. It opens their souls excessively to the love of material enjoyments.” It makes him a narcissist.
We Kept the Evil at Bay, for a Time
In the beginning of our nation and for many years after, these potential evils were kept under control by an army of values and structures: political freedom, civic and political associations, family, media that formed connections between people, self-interest that led people to help others because they found it beneficial, and most important, religion.
Only the most perceptive of people living in those formative years understood the dangers of equality to the development of our nation and the necessity of these values to its health, but even they did not foresee how detached we would become from them. They believed the evils that lurked around the bends of America’s landscape would never be unleashed because its traditional values were unshakeable bulwarks and the equilibrium of our democratic ideals would remain steadfast.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Our values loosened under equality’s weighty temptations, and the evils of equality gradually broke free. The decline of these values, at times a trickle and at other times a flood, gave rise to a natural narcissism that we now see increasing at an alarming rate.
America’s Obsession With Equality
In Tocqueville’s work “Democracy in America,” which was published in 1835, he explains the negative effects of equality and how people prefer it even to their own freedom. “Democratic peoples have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they seek it, they love it, and they will see themselves parted from it only with sorrow. But for equality they have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion; they want equality in freedom, and, if they cannot get it, they still want it in slavery. They will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.”
We see more than enough evidence of this today. Equality is America’s golden calf, and freedom is its burning sacrifice: The rise of socialism on American soil, a high percentage of millennials who reject principles of liberty, the ardent following of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the justification for wealth redistribution and socialized programs like Obamacare—all are proof of our growing worship of equality.
Pervasive in our nation today is a hunger for material well-being, even if it’s supplied by the government. The individual, it’s believed, must be cared for in all things despite the cost to others (a narcissistic notion)—all in the name of equality. Many people think, “What is freedom if I’m not taken care of by the government? What does liberty matter when others have more opportunities and greater wealth than I have?”
This attitude is not a disdain for freedom, but a hatred of inequality. It’s perceived as injustice, and injustice cuts us to the core. Material “injustices” are so readily apparent to us that they become more important than freedom. We see every day whether someone has a bigger house, a better car, greater access to services. We don’t as easily see our freedoms being siphoned away by a growing government that promises equality in exchange for our servitude.
Equality Focuses On the Self
Unchecked equality naturally devolves into narcissism. When class structures are broken down and we are free to achieve and accumulate what we want, we become cut off from others because we’re self-sufficient. We don’t owe anyone anything. We expect nothing from others. As Tocqueville wrote, we form a habit of being isolated, as if our whole destiny is in our hands. We are no longer chained to others according to some class or family. Equality “breaks the chain and sets each link apart.”
“Thus not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors,” Tocqueville writes, “but it hides his descendants from him and separates him from his contemporaries; it constantly leads him back toward himself alone and threatens finally to confine him wholly in the solitude of his own heart.”
This is the rugged individualism of Americana. It’s self-reliance, self-sufficiency (more selfs!). You can see how this can lead to self-centeredness if left unchecked, as individuals are detached from families and groups. It’s all about number one. I can do anything. I can be anything. I should be anything. I should have everything. I should be famous. I am special!
Like Adam and Eve in the garden, we lust for more because we can’t tolerate anyone being greater than us. We’ll transgress any boundary to taste the fruit of equality. We’ll give up liberty, even risk dying, to tear down disparities of greatness, even those between God and man.
The focus on our own well-being, on having anything we want (because we can), becomes a top priority. Materialism takes root. Acquisition in the name of equality becomes a fundamental value, driving us ever toward what will satisfy “me.”
This Isn’t a Knock on Self-Government or Capitalism
Some might read what I’ve written and conclude that American democracy, capitalism, and individualism are the root evils. They might think I’m agreeing with those who bash our nation, Americanism itself, as if it’s a scourge. But that’s not what I’m saying. That’s not what Tocqueville was saying.
I’m not suggesting we abandon of our democratic ideals or capitalism, which fosters freedom. I am advocating a return to democratic equilibrium. We’ve lost this balance because we have abandoned the essential values that keep equality and freedom, acquisition of wealth and generosity, individual and community, in balance.
It’s losing these values that breaks the cord holding us together as a nation. Without exercising political freedoms by being involved in government at the local level; without maintaining the spiritual, communal, and eternal perspectives that religion offers; without fostering real-life associations with neighbors; and without valuing family cohesiveness and authority, which is the most fundamental community we have, we become adrift in materialism and narcissism.
Equality Leads to Materialism
Our obsession with material things, with money, fame, and fortune—or at least enough to keep us comfortable in our indifference—causes us to focus only on ourselves. Our personal well-being is paramount. Our personal comfort is everything. We live as if we’re royalty, aristocrats in our own minds. After all, isn’t this the promise of equality: elevation of the poor to that of the rich?
“When all the prerogatives of birth and fortune are destroyed, when all professions are open to all, and when one can reach the summit of each of them by oneself, an immense and easy course seems to open before the ambition of men, and they willingly fancy that they have been called to great destinies,” says Tocqueville. “But that is an erroneous view corrected by experience every day. The same equality that permits each citizen to conceive vast hopes renders all citizens individually weak. It limits their strength in all regards at the same time that it permits their desires to expand. Not only are they impotent by themselves, but at each step they find immense obstacles that they had not first perceived.”
Equality of conditions isn’t given. It must be achieved. When we get rid of privileged classes, Tocqueville explains, the doors of competition are spread wide. This presents new difficulties as competition leads to different outcomes. Old barriers to equality have been torn down, but new barriers have been erected. These barriers aren’t imposed on us from without; they come from ourselves and our circumstances in a life freely lived.
I’m not famous like Carrie Underwood because I can’t sing a note. I want to, but I can’t. My lack of talent is a barrier between me being equal to the singer in status and wealth. That’s true for all of us in many different ways. In such a society, we soon find we’re not much different in abilities from so many around us. Equality promised that we would rise to be great, to be and have everything we want, but that promise fails because we can’t all be great. This conflict between the desires equality ignites in our hearts and the means to satisfy those desires is, as Tocqueville said, “tormenting and fatiguing to souls.”
This makes us draw inward, causing us to focus even more on ourselves, on what we don’t have and on what we think we’re entitled to. We become narcissists. Anti-social, self-referenced, and even, at times, cruel. We rage for more, believing social injustice stands in the way of our promised equality. We demand for more government intervention to deliver equality’s promises, but it doesn’t work.
“Whatever a people’s efforts, it will not succeed in making conditions perfectly equal within itself; and if it had the misfortune to reach this absolute and complete leveling, the inequality of the intellects would still remain, which coming directly from God, will always escape laws,” Tocqueville notes.
Equality Unhinged From Values
In this rage for equality, we lose ourselves by focusing on ourselves. We obsess over our own image until nothing else matters—not other people, not the past, not the future, not even our freedom. We’ve lost our balance in life. We failed the test of equality.
I say we failed because equality is a democratic ideal, and a good one. Its evils come when we lose wisdom, abandon our values, and sacrifice our freedom for equality. Narcissism and materialism have become synonymous with Americanism not because of capitalist greed or too much independence. We’ve become a selfish, materialistic nation because the “taste for material goods and honest wealth” born of equality developed “more rapidly than enlightenment and the habits of freedom.”
When that happens, when these values lag behind or are gradually abandoned, “men are swept away and almost beside themselves at the sight of new goods that they are ready to grasp.” Narcissism grows. Envy festers. Materialism spreads. The Self becomes god.
“Democracy favors the taste for material enjoyments,” Tocqueville wrote. “This taste, if it becomes excessive, soon disposes men to believe that all is nothing but matter; and materialism in its turn serves to carry them toward these enjoyments with an insane ardor. Such is the fatal circle into which democratic nations are propelled. It is good for them to see the peril and restrain themselves.”
The Best Guard Against Equality’s Evils
The greatest remedy against equality-generated narcissism is the only thing that redirects a person’s heart and mind to something other than material enjoyments promised within a democracy. It’s the only thing that teaches that while life is to be enjoyed and material goods acquired for our benefit, this life is not all there is. Man is not merely matter. He is spiritual. The greatest remedy, therefore, is religion, or at least a theistic worldview that draws a person out from himself to consider something beyond his subjective, material experience.
“Most religions are only general, simple, and practical means of teaching men the immortality of the soul,” Tocqueville wrote. “That is the greatest advantage that a democratic people derives from beliefs, and it is what renders them more necessary to such a people than to all others.”
“Therefore when any religion whatsoever has cast deep roots within a democracy, guard against shaking it; but rather preserve it carefully as the most precious inheritance from aristocratic centuries; do not seek to tear men from their old religious opinions to substitute new ones, for fear that, in the passage from one faith to another, the soul finding itself for a moment empty of belief, the love of material enjoyments will come to spread through it and fill it entirely. . . . I would judge that its citizens risk brutalizing themselves less by thinking that their soul is going to pass into the body of a pig than in believing it is nothing. . . . Belief in an immaterial and immortal principles, united for a time with matter, is so necessary to the greatness of man.”
Tocqueville said that he was so convinced that Christianity should be maintained “within new democracies at all cost” that he “would rather chain priests in the sanctuary than allow them to leave it.” Religion is integral to a democratic nation because it fosters principles that prevent our virtues and ideals from transforming into vices.
We have allowed one of our greatest democratic virtues to become our greatest vice. It is feeding our narcissism and driving us to self-destruction and servitude. Equality rightly understood was meant to bring happiness and joy as we were free to experience material enjoyments like never before, to the benefit of ourselves and others. But from the very beginning, we became greedy for equality, letting go of the guiding hand of God and clutching the things of this world because we thought they would make us gods.
But the opposite happened. Not only did we fail to become gods, we are now at risk of losing our humanity. Equality’s seduction and satisfaction with material goods over higher spiritual and moral values is reducing us as a people. Ironically, as Tocqueville wrote, we are losing the art of producing the very goods we cling to; we are merely consuming them to no real benefit. Quality and beauty are lost.
If we keep going on this same path, we will no longer enjoy the material blessings of equality produced in our great republic. No longer will we discern their value, and our progression as a free people will cease. Instead, we will become like soulless beasts, wandering in the wilderness.