Most great thinkers have speculated about the kind of leadership that might give rise to a better society, analyzing it through what’s sometimes called a “normative” lens: What should we be doing?
In Leviathan, for example, Thomas Hobbes argued for a single, absolute sovereign to hold together the social contract. He was addressing a debate over how leaders should act—whether they should follow their citizens’ wishes or act in the interests of future generations, against current pressures.
Other thinkers have focused on the real-world, actual path to leadership, leaving justice and civic virtue out of it; a more “descriptive” lens. For example, Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, required reading at many college campuses, focuses on just that idea. How does power actually work? (Part of his answer was that power doesn’t always corrupt, but it does always reveal.)
Or take Niccolò Machiavelli’s well-known brand of statecraft:
Whoever desires to establish a kingdom or principality where liberty and equality prevail, will equally fail, unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits, and makes gentlemen of them, not merely in name but in fact, by giving them castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambition.
Machiavelli may not have had access to statistical analytic tools, but the cross-national data seems to back up his crony-focused approach, according to the four authors of The Logic of Political Survival.
Over the course of 500+ pages of formal game theory proofs and model testing, they make a strong case for what they call Selectorate Theory.
That book is a bit dense, so for the layperson, two of the authors—Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith—also distilled their findings into the far more readable The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.
Their idea is that governance—public or corporate—is driven by the self-interested effort of leaders to acquire and keep their power.
Under this lens, all policy decisions are a play for the loyalty of key backers, whether it’s the inner circle in a dictatorship or a whole populace in a democracy.
The logic of a leader’s political survival dictates all of the varieties of governments we see, from monarchies or corporate boards to communist states and democracies. According to Selectorate Theory, it boils down to the relative size of three groups:
The Nominal Selectorate (interchangeables), which has at least some small voice in choosing the leader. This is the pool of potential supporters.
Example: Millions of individual voters or small shareholders.
The Real Selectorate (influentials), who actually choose the leader.
Example: Senior members of the Saudi royal family or big institutional shareholders.
The Winning Coalition (essentials), whose support is critical both to gaining the leadership and to keeping it.
Example: A handful of board members and senior management.
Our starting point is the realization that any leader worth her salt wants as much power as she can get, and to keep it for as long as possible. Managing the interchangeables, influentials, and essentials to that end is the act, art, and science of governing.
The difference in the relative size of these groups determines how much a leader can get away with and what the quality of life is like for those at the bottom of the system.
Dictatorships are governments based on a small winning coalition formed of a handful of generals, bureaucrats and regional leaders. The real selectorate is also small, and drawn from a large population.
In democracies, the opposite is true: the winning coalition is large, and the real selectorate is almost as large as the nominal selectorate. This means that dictators can keep their jobs by handing out private goods to their cronies, whereas democratic leaders have to dole out public goods to maintain their power. That seems to square pretty well with observations in the real world.
De Mesquita and Smith place the governance of most publicly-traded companies on the dictator side of the scale. A very small number of people usually determine the political survival of a CEO – small enough that the CEO can maintain power by making this small group happy rather than working for all of the shareholders.
In cases where companies have large groups whose approval is essential for leadership, public goods like increasing share value reward everyone and become the focus of the leader.
Much of political theory has focused on what justice and civic virtue looks like, without much evidence of the way things really work. But to change the world for the better, it is not enough to take a philosophical position. Wishful thinking has never been a wise starting point.
De Mesquita and Smith conclude that leaders shouldn’t be taken at face value on their motives.
Appeals to ideological principles and rights are generally a cover. J.P. Morgan had it right: There is always some principled way to defend any position, especially one’s own interests.
They propose five rules to keep a hold on power in any system:
1. Keep your “Winning Coalition” as small as possible.
The smaller the symbiotic group of people beholden to you, the more efficient it is to retain leadership through giving private benefits.
2. Keep your “Nominal Selectorate” as large as possible.
You’ll want to keep your inner circle on its toes by having many people waiting in the wings to replace them. You also want a large tax base to draw from.
3. Control the flow of revenue.
State bankruptcy is a political crisis. It either means the leader cannot purchase political loyalty from key backers or, in a democracy, cannot afford pork-barrel projects to buy popularity.
4. Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.
And make sure you’re the only one with access to the treasury.
5. Don’t take money out of your supporters’ pockets to make the people’s lives better.
Starving illiterates don’t make good revolutionaries, whereas dissatisfied cronies can oust you.
As a ruler, your inner circle may include very few of the people who brought you to power in the first place. Your fellow revolutionaries may be too much in the habit of revolution to be safe colleagues going forward. As Machiavelli wrote in The Prince:
It is easier for the prince to make friends of those men who were contented under the former government, and are therefore his enemies, than of those who, being discontented with it, were favourable to him and encouraged him to seize it.
Much as we may wish it weren’t the case, the authors’ data suggest corrupt dictatorships or oligarchies handled in this way are actually quite stable and long-lasting.
As long as the leader offers more benefits to his essentials than they could expect from alternate leadership, the incumbent enjoys a large advantage, and coup attempts often fail. For example, from 1917 until the 1980s, all but one Soviet leader ruled until his natural death. The exception, Kruschev, was deposed after reneging on promises to cronies.
The three most important characteristics of a coalition are: (1) Loyalty; (2) Loyalty; (3) Loyalty. Successful leaders surround themselves with trusted friends and family, and rid themselves of any ambitious supporters.
Though the logic of politics cannot be changed, it can be applied to finding windows for change.
The beginning of a leader’s rule or his or her terminal illness mark unstable periods of the reign, particularly if an heir has not been assigned and groomed. Sometimes it’s a financial angle: Under severe financial pressure, even an autocratic leader may see that political reform holds the best promise of political survival.
(In Taiwan, for example, Chiang Kai-Shek expanded his own coalition, in response to various pressures, until one day he found himself in a democracy.)
If an autocrat’s “inner circle” feels that their future is insecure, they will be incentivized to improve the lot of the nominal selectorate in case they someday find themselves on the outside. Mobs may take to the streets or storm government buildings when they are encouraged to do so by someone powerful, like a military leader. And with this blessing from the inner circle, the power of the people can often topple the leadership.
While there is a lot of precedent for nasty regimes being overthrown, certain conditions are necessary to prevent another dictatorship from taking hold. Countries without the political curse of natural resource wealth are more likely to succeed in democratic revolution, because they rely on a well-fed and productive populace to sustain them. The overall structure of the populace and its underlying stability or instability, cohesiveness or disjointedness matters greatly.
And in the end, given that political regimes are extremely complex systems, some of this can simply be hard to predict.