Narcissism — by which I do not mean a specific psychiatric diagnosis but the bundle of attitudes and behaviors to which the diagnosis refers, the common moral failings that are magically transmuted into a medical condition — is a basic ingredient in democracy. You can’t make a democracy without narcissism for the same reason you can’t make banana pudding without bananas — it’s not the only ingredient, but it’s the ingredient that makes the thing exactly what it is. Freud’s detection of a father’s own dormant ambitions and latent desires in his hope for his children is confirmed by commonplace (though by no means universal) experience: If you have in your circle of friends a former quarterback whose life peaked on the varsity football team with a teenage son who also plays football, then you have seen this at work. (My Manhattan readers may think of stage mothers, with “mothers” in that expression having embraced members of both sexes long before it was fashionable to do so.) That is a situation which has only two possible outcomes, neither of them desirable: failure and disappointment or success and envy.
A politics of narcissism is a politics of envy. Narcissism and envy are not the same thing, but each is mixed up in the other. But the Freudian point absolutely stands here: When such specimens as Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lament “inequality” and spend their days dreaming up ways to make the wealthy less wealthy, they do not really do so on behalf of the class of people who work as waitresses at Denny’s or stock Walmart warehouses — they do so on behalf of the class of people who make comfortable six-figure salaries teaching at Harvard or park their Teslas in front of the Whole Foods while on one of those endless errands of “public service.” As Megan McArdle once put it, in Washington, “very rich” means “just above the level a top-notch journalist in a two-earner couple could be expected to pull down.” Barack Obama, one in a long line of Rolex-wearing class warriors, once promised not to raise taxes on people making $200,000 a year or less. Joe Biden, his senescent epigone (and another Rolex aficionado), has raised that to $400,000 a year — times are very good, indeed, for the power-adjacent class.