‘Sociopaths’? Really?

I know that Andrew Sullivan is a fan of hyperbolic rhetoric (“fifth column”, anyone?), and I also know that a lot of time I enjoy his hyperbole, even when I don’t agree with it. But the past few weeks of his tirades against the Clintons have gotten tiresome, and I say that as someone who was never a fan of the Clintons to begin with. But what really takes the cake is this post from today.

The trouble is: the Clintons will create mischief wherever they are. If Obama becomes president without them they will do all they can to undermine, destroy, and polarize him. The question is how one deals with sociopaths like them. It’s not easy.

Andrew, do you honestly believe that the Clintons won’t get behind Obama once it sinks in that they can’t possibly win the nomination? Does anyone really believe that Hillary will try to undermine Obama from the Senate or Bill from the lucrative corporate speaking pulpit? Of course not. Not that they’ll always agree with him or walk in step with him, but actively undermine? I doubt it.

I also really have to object to the characterization of Bill and Hillary as “sociopaths”. This is a term that people like to bandy about loosely, but let’s not forget that sociopathy is a real psychological disorder which is defined by the profession. While I’m no psychiatrist, I’m confident in my layman’s assessment that a former President of the United States and a sitting U.S. Senator are not sociopaths. Indeed, given the nature of the disorder, I’m also pretty confident that a sociopath would be incapable of achieving either office.

The Clintons have their faults, lord knows. But sociopathy isn’t one of them.

FILED UNDER: 2008 Election, , , , ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.


  1. Jay Wills says:

    From the authority you cited: “The essential feature for the diagnosis is a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”[1] Deceit and manipulation are considered essential features of the disorder.”

    They’re sociopaths.

  2. ftroop says:

    I work on a forensic psychiatric unit with murderers, arsonists, and rapists. In other words, there are quite a few sociopaths that I work with every day.

    To be sure, Sullivan’s teapot seems stuck on a shrill whistle, but it’s not quite as far-fetched as it sounds.

    Sociopathy is without conscience and often characterized by charm and deception. There are moments when I’ve wondered about transient sociopathic states in politicians, the Clintons especially, where they lie on the spot for self-gain. For example, their race-baiting and fully-conscious deception of the public for their own power seeking (the gas pandering). Bill lied through his teeth relentlessly, and Hillary seems prepared to destroy the party for her own ambition.

    Of course they aren’t actual sociopaths, but the rapacious, scandal-driven media and the competitive pressures of campaigning bring out the worst in our candidates. These pressures squeeze these all-too-human candidates to make dreadful choices and we can see their moral lapses only too clearly from the safe distance of our monitor.

    Anti-social personality disorder is just that, a personality disorder, which means it is doubly tough to treat because the person who has it LIKES the way they are and doesn’t want to change, unlike a schizophrenic who hates (usually) their voices and wants to get rid of them.

    The Clintons, having lived in a suffocating public bubble for decades now, may be indistinguishable in private than they are in their public, political lives. In other words, they may be functionally sociopathic at moments when their political careers, which is essentially their entire self, is on the line. Their personalities have been shaped so stringently by the odd, false life of a politician that they may have some sort of weird, as of yet diagnosed Axis II disorder.

    Ah, I know this is fanciful. But their ability to lie and contradict, relative even to other politicians, is shocking. They do it for self-gain. And gained, they have – making $100 million in just a few years of his post-presidency.

    Remember, not all sociopaths are Hannibal Lecters. Many are just con-men. If you think of that, Sullivan’s overheated prose is far more palatable.

    And remember that in politics, the biggest criminals get away with it: Nixon, Reagan (Iran-Contra), Bill Clinton, and Bush’s spectacular incompetence. The latter’s still a hero to many. Money and success, over time, sugarcoat the fact that many of history’s movers and shakers (elder Kennedy, for example, bootlegger/drug dealer; Andrew Jackson, racist general/indian fighter) showed many of the traits of sociopaths, who were above morality and sought their own fame above all else. Maybe not all of the criteria for the disorder were met, but quite a few.

    Plato’s thymos has a long history.

  3. davod says:

    Dick Morris is another guy who is wearing out his welcome. He is treated like an impartial commentator but I really wonder if he is not a paid shill for Obama (remember he did go to Africa to advise Obama’s cousin).

  4. Ugh says:

    Andrew, do you honestly believe that the Clintons won’t get behind Obama once it sinks in that they can’t possibly win the nomination?

    I think Andrew is reacting to the fact that it’s been quite clear for some time now that the can’t possibly win the nomination, and thus he’s casting about for an explanation for their current actions and antics.

  5. Beldar says:

    However one characterizes the intense motivation to acquire and wield power that is common to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and that universally explains every one of their actions over the past 30 years, that motivation guarantees that there will come a point at which Mr. & Mrs. Clinton and Mr. & Mrs. Obama will all make nice, and all will be forgiven and forgotten within the Democratic Party (at least on the surface).

    When that happens, Sullivan is enough of a sucker that he’ll probably think they’re all sincere.

    The genuinely interesting question — keenly analogous to that in 1960, when JFK had wrapped up the nomination, but so badly needed to improve his competitiveness in the South that he felt obliged to ask LBJ to take the Veep spot — is whether they’ll become running mates.

  6. Triumph says:

    The Clintons have their faults, lord knows. But sociopathy isn’t one of them.

    We easily forget that Hillary was likely behind Vince Foster’s murder.

    Both Clintons defrauded investors in the Whitewater scandal.

    Bill used Arkansas police to procure him hookers.

    And they trashed the White House before Bush took occupancy in ’01.

    This couple is sociopathic to the MAX.

  7. grampagravy says:

    If it walks like a duck…..

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    I think you may be giving Hillary to much credit. She might make a speech saying ‘beat McCain’, but I can easily see her not pushing very hard. The real question is not just does she stay neutral (aka not help) but actually sabotage the candidacy. Think Wright’s news conference on how that could be done while never saying anything bad about Obama directly. Perhaps she could praise him for his ability to get out the black vote and highly educated people while leaving the impression that it is only the blacks and ivory tower liberals who would support Obama.

    We just have to see what happens, but your faith in Clinton “doing the right thing” for the party and ignoring the pain to her own ambition is touching, even if it is likely naive.

  9. Eneils Bailey says:

    “The Clinton’s have their faults, lord knows. But sociopathy isn’t one of them.”

    I will not argue that point, either pro or con.

    But, if I was a lawyer, I would rather be on the side that prosecutes the charge, rather than defend.

    If you want to compare and contrast the Clinton’s to the Obama’s on these grounds, you have some interesting similarities.

    Both Bill Clinton and Berrack Obama seem to be rather innocuous, but interesting characters in their presence and ability to charm the masses.

    The driving forces behind these two are their women.

    Michelle Obama is ten times the bitch, with only a fraction of the intelligence of Hillary Clinton.

  10. Narcissists? Sure. Sociopaths. No.

    It is amazing that for so many people someone in opposition cannot be wrong or have a different set of assumptions or reasoning, but that they must be crazy. It seems Mr. Sullivan would feel right at home committing political activists and dissenters he disagrees with to mental institutions like the good old U.S.S.R. used to do.

    Sociopaths are dangerous. Really dangerous. I am certainly no fan of either Clinton and I believe many of their policies and proscriptions are dangerous, but they are not personally dangerous. Of course, Kathleen Willey may disagree somewhat.

  11. fred gill says:

    Andrew Sullivan is the sociopath. How can anyone even pretend he’s anything but a two-bit shill for his little god, Obama? One day people will ask how the Democrats came to nominate an unknown, untested and unaccomplished candidate for the highest office in the land and how jokers like Sullivan – one of the UK’s worst exports to our shores – could get away with smearing the most successful Democratic president since Roosevelt. I’ve been a loyal Democrat all my life but this election has called that loyalty into serious question. The left wing of the party has steadily picked losers for forty years now. Only when they didn’t get their way – with Carter and Clinton – have we won. Now they’ve gotten their way again, with the New Messiah. I guess if you keep throwing Hail Marys into triple coverage you’ll eventually complete one. But with any luck, not this time.

  12. ftroop says:

    Charles Austin seems to think the CLintons aren’t sociopaths because they aren’t dangerous.

    Who said they weren’t? By being incapable of admitting a mistake on Iraq and by deceiving the public on her record, by getting donors to waste money on her – it’s the same old story – the white collar criminal doesn’t seem as ‘dangerous’ to the average person even though the damage they do is far more sever and lasting.

    Is it more dangerous to rob a single drugstore or to perpetuate a foolish war for a decade so that billions are squandered and thousands die needlessly? I’d say THAT is pretty dangerous, wouldn’t you? I don’t think Charles thought his answer through very well.

    Charles should unpack his assumptions a bit. Here’s a starter: Consider that Hillary is both narcissistic (all events in her environment revolve around her and her needs) in addition to exhibiting moments of sociopathic loss of conscience that suits her ambition and self-gain.

    It’s not either/or. You can be diagnosed with more than one Axis II disorder and most patients on a psych ward often are. Antisocial personality disorder (Sociopathy) is often diagnosed alongside borderline disorder.

    But again, Charles makes the mistake of just assuming what he should have been arguing – many sociopaths bilk people out of money and are not physically dangerous although they wreak havoc in people’s lives.

    Charles writes with great confidence but with no argument at all.

    There are too many flaws in Mr. Austin’s point, but this is for starters.

    I will just say again that I don’t think Hill and Bill are sociopaths. But you could take some of their behaviors and tick off a good number of the antisocial checklist. I think it is by now a part of her psyche, as he has been in the public eye for so long, but the REAL test is not my (nor Charles’ utterly unsupported) assertions, but how Hill handles the next few months.

    Will she destroy Obama, the Dem chances for the Big Office in November? If so, then the prima facie case for her sociopathy gains more credibility. Her lust for power is what drives her and what pushes her to situational sociopathy, is how I’d put it. The CLintons don’t like to lose.

  13. Hmm… where to start. Well, there’s not enough time in the day, but I will note one thing. Regardess of how wrong or destructive their policies may be, the Clinton’s have thus far tried to achieve them with small “d” democratic means. That is the system we have and is completely orthogonal to whether they are sociopaths. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs have been a disaster, but it’s failure doesn’t make him a sociopath.

  14. Sarah Lind says:

    “…Indeed, given the nature of the disorder, I’m also pretty confident that a sociopath would be incapable of achieving either office…”

    Oh, really?

    Perhaps Mr. Knapp should read “Snakes in Suits,” by Robert D. Hare…an expert on the subject of psychopaths and sociopaths who are able to rise to great positions of power due to their ruthlessness and eager willingness to lie, cheat, steal…and not give a hoot who they destroy in the process.

    Go Obama!!! (And watch out for those snakes in pant suits.)

  15. Bithead says:

    My irony meter just melted.