We must be kinder and more altruistic, progressives say. The contemporary Left lionizes empathy above all virtues as the basis for a just and equitable society.
But behind these pleas for selflessness can lie darker motivations of narcissism and authoritarianism, a growing body of psychological research suggests. A Swiss study published in Current Psychology earlier this year found antagonistic narcissism and psychopathic tendencies to be strong predictors of left-wing anti-hierarchical aggression. Individuals displaying these traits are drawn to social justice causes, researchers posit, not through the pull of altruism but to satisfy their own ego-focused, even antisocial needs.
Historically, most scholarly attention has focused on Right Wing Authoritarianism. But a growing body of literature, especially in the past decade or so, is exploring how psychological traits correlate with political ideology — including expressions of authoritarianism on both sides of the political spectrum, where they overlap, and how they differ.
Previous research found that Left Wing Authoritarianism (LWA) powerfully predicts behavioral aggression and participation in political violence. Others found a strong correlation between Dark Triad Traits (Machiavellianism, Narcissism, Psychopathy) and virtuous victim signaling, or conspicuously projecting victimhood as a moral value, which researchers say individuals use as a means of non-reciprocal resource extraction.
The research does not suggest all progressives are narcissists nor that conservatives never are. Most psychologists will likely tell you narcissism knows no bounds, political or otherwise. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Political Science found people on the left and right to be equally narcissistic but with varying expressions, e.g., conservatives’ penchant for feelings of entitlement and superiority when it comes to issues like immigration, and liberal tendencies toward exhibitionism in the case of climate activism.
Entitlement and self-importance, the need to be great and be recognized for it, whether expressed in the tirades of a grandiose narcissist or the quieter machinations of a vulnerable narcissist, form a core of narcissism. But as the authors of the 2018 study point out, narcissism is “not simply a hyper-concern with one’s self; it is a distinct construct that groups an interrelated set of dispositions containing views of the self and others, cognitive styles, and motivations that guide behaviors, and it is a normal part of one’s identity.”
Increasingly, research showing how specific personality traits at the individual level correlate with behavior in political movements and at the macrosocial level can help us understand some of the chaos of the tumultuous times through which we’re living.
Given the current dominance of progressive liberalism, ostensibly driven by compassion, empathy, and the pursuit of social justice, researchers have taken an interest in how bad actors can infiltrate and leverage altruistic movements for nefarious ends — and where, in more subtle ways, well-intentioned activism can veer into authoritarianism.
Some progressives are genuinely altruistic in non-narcissistic ways. However, the major role that narcissism plays in today’s progressive movements is well-documented and interrogates the self-perception among many on the Left that they simply care more than conservatives.
If you, like me, are from the Left and consider yourself a highly empathetic person who values compassion, the events of the past several years and the current state of progressive politics can seem nonsensical — even absurdist. Compassion can’t begin to account for the precipitous rise of authoritarianism on the Left. So what’s going on?