Brooks, Arthur C. “America’s Crisis of Civic Virtue.” Journal of Democracy 35, no. 2 (2024): 23-39.

The connection of rising narcissism to incivility is straightforward. Researchers have found that narcissistic people have an inflated sense of entitlement which makes them see slights and insults all around.53 They are easily aggrieved and feel victimized during everyday encounters.54 In a culture of narcissistic grievance, people are naturally classed as either aggressors or victims, which makes civility unlikely and causes almost any behavior to seem justifiable as self-defense.


An increasingly narcissistic populace naturally embraces narcissistic leaders. Indeed, researchers have found that populist politicians—a notably more common breed in recent years—tend to display signs of narcissism as well as Machiavellianism and psychopathy (the so-called dark triad of personality traits).55 It is hard to imagine anything more harmful to civility and honesty than a political system that rewards such people, as one might plausibly argue we do today. Further, these leaders are backed by a commercial infrastructure in social and conventional [End Page 32] media that promotes them simply because they draw views and clicks. Conflict sells.


Some might take the rise of populism in politics as evidence that democracy is failing. Others might interpret the commercial backing of populism as proof that capitalism harms democracy. Neither argument is correct. It is uncivil people supporting dark-triad leaders, and commercial exploitation—arguably, a case of market failure akin to pollution or crime—that make it worse. The most plausible root cause is the decline of civic virtue. Attacks on capitalism—or democracy—as the reason for our predicament are misguided.