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Power, Bad Behavior and Who We Are

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Eliot Spitzer is running for comptroller of New York City. He's currently ahead in the polls. In 2008, he was forced to resign as governor of New York State after it was learned he'd repeatedly frequented prostitutes, even violating federal law by transporting one over state lines. He sent money to offshore shell companies to surreptitiously pay for these illegal activities.

Mark Sanford, as governor of South Carolina, in 2009 faced scrutiny after it was revealed he'd disappeared for six days to join his paramour in Argentina. He not only abandoned his post as governor (no one knew where he was), but misappropriated state monies for his own personal use. In May 2013, despite the initial public outrage at his prior scandalous behavior, Sanford won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to represent South Carolina.

Anthony Weiner resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2011, after repeatedly lying in public about his involvement in telephone sexting activities. We've just learned such activities continued until the summer of 2012 (he admits that; who knows if it's still going on?). According to polls, Weiner is ahead in the New York City Democratic primary battle for mayor. Despite calls to withdraw from the race, Weiner says he'll push on. People wonder why he would expose his family to public humiliation and shame.

But do these politicians possess a sense of shame?

Shame is a painful feeling arising from one's awareness of dishonorable, disgraceful or ridiculous behavior in the presence of others. It denotes awareness that others ridicule or disapprove of one's behavior. It differs from guilt which is a feeling of not having measured up to an internal standard. You don't need the disapproval of others to feel guilt.

So, certain questions arise: are some men running for political office today able to experience shame? Are they capable of feeling embarrassed, humiliated or disgraced? Or, are they insulated by some impenetrable emotional armor against cringe-worthy feelings that would cause most people to forever avoid the public eye?

Are today's politicians so narcissistically self-absorbed and so power-hungry, they've lost any sense of vulnerability to feeling judged as unworthy by others? Do they lack an internal barometer for self-evaluation? Do they even possess an inner core serving as an arbiter of propriety? Can they even imagine themselves as others see them -- pathetic, lying, deluded narcissists who feel entitled to wantonly betray the public trust?

Do they even care?

Does the fact that these men either have been, or may be elected to office, say something about us? Have we become so coarsened that ignominious behavior no longer disappoints voters? Have vitriolic radio talk shows and "reality" TV inured us to outrageous behavior? Do we care if the officials we elect lie, cheat, steal or mislead us?

Does anything truly shock us anymore?

Despite Congress having the lowest approval rating in its history, we reelect ineffectual incumbents. Is it worrisome that our federal government is paralyzed in partisan deadlock? Have we so little expectation of officeholders that we view politics as simply a sideshow; and if we vote at all, do we pull the lever based on nothing more than name recognition?

Do these societal questions have ready answers?

I think not; but we had better look at ourselves more closely. Great nations have declined due to a malignant confluence of these factors.

It's not just the politicians' bad behavior that has us where we are; but our own indifference could take us where we would never want to be.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that Mark Sanford resigned as governor of South Carolina. Sanford actually completed his term as governor in January 2011.