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The transformation of Richard B. Cheney, current Vice-President of the United States, from his widely perceived persona as a reasonable, pragmatic, and effective realist while serving as President George H. W. Bush's Secretary of Defense in the 1980's, to his current position as perhaps the most excoriated political figure since disgraced President Richard M. Nixon, is -- as they say -- a cautionary tale.
Cheney, his public popularity even lower than the current President Bush -- technically his boss -- is today a remote and unapproachable figure scornful of the press, dismissive of his critics, contemptuous of reality, and single-minded in his pursuit of what seems to many a vision of empire and power so extreme as to verge on madness.
What accounts for this remarkable transformation?
It may be something so mundane as simply ascending to his position of extraordinary power as Vice-President, according to Stanford Business School social psychologist Deborah Gurenfeld.
Quoted in an article titled "Power is not only an aphrodisiac, it does weird things to some of us" in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 19, 2006, Professor Gurenfeld makes this telling observation:
Research documents the following characteristics of people with power: They tend to be more oblivious to what others think, more likely to pursue the satisfaction of their own appetites, poorer judges of other people's reactions, more likely to hold stereotypes, overly optimistic and more likely to take risks.The article quotes one of Gruenfeld's main conclusions:
Disinhibition is the very root of power," said Stanford Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist who focuses on the study of power. "For most people, what we think of as 'power plays' aren't calculated and Machiavellian -- they happen at the subconscious level. Many of those internal regulators that hold most of us back from bold or bad behavior diminish or disappear. When people feel powerful, they stop trying to 'control themselves.'Similar research points to the corrosive effects of power. For example, a study Dr. Gruenfeld and three other researchers carried out, "Power and Perspectives Not Taken", (summary at U.S. News and World Report) found that "...the more power leaders have, the harder it is for them to grasp just what the world looks like to the people under them."
If Gruenfeld and her fellow researchers in the academic community are correct, the Cheney transformation may be the result of a trap awaiting anyone who finds themselves thrust into a powerful position with few effective restraints.
All the more reason, one might suspect, to pay even greater respect to the prescience of our nation's founders who placed a system of checks and balances at the core of our democratic institutions. The current assault on that system makes the excesses of Dick Cheney and his putative master the extreme examples of what evil flows from disregarding our political heritage.