• J.S. Mullen

Democracy and The Dictator’s Handbook

In their 2011 work The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith lay out five rules an effective dictator must follow if they are to remain in power:

1. They must keep their winning coalition as small as possible, i.e. those responsible for keeping them in power.

2. They must keep their nominal “selectorate” as large as possible, i.e. those who could replace their existing supporters.

3. They must control the flow of state revenue.

4. They must pay their key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

5. And they should not take money out of their supporter’s pockets to make the peoples’ lives better (Alastair and de Mesquita 17-18).

Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, with a little imagination and reformulation, it is not difficult to see that these same rules apply for elites in democracies, specifically our own here in the United States.

With regard to the first rule, keeping their winning coalition as small as possible, one of the only issues Republicans and Democrats agree on is their opposition to ballot initiatives designed to put an end to gerrymandering, or to introducing reforms like ranked choice voting that threaten their century and a half-duopoly. However, even if independent commissions drawing uniform district lines would make districts more competitive between the two parties, it is unlikely that even this would have any significant impact on the overall superstructure, for the parties largely choose their own candidates via informal internal primaries, and voter turnout in primaries is abysmally low anyway, allowing the party faithful to ratify their respective elites’ decisions. In any case, as an oft-cited 2014 Princeton study revealed, the preferences of voters have no measurable impact on public policy. For, as the political scientist Tom Ferguson pointedly explicated some thirty years ago in his “investment theory” of politics, one can correctly select the winner of a given congressional race over 90% of the time on the basis of looking at a single variable: who had the most money to spend – which illustrates that the real winning coalition, even in democracies, from a functional standpoint, is actually quite small, and has nothing to do with the voters, but is constituted solely of those who have the expansive sums of money necessary to finance modern campaigns.

In accordance with the second rule, maintaining a large body of potential replacement members of their winning coalition, we may imagine a reversal of roles, therefore: that the purported political elites, themselves mostly of the modest millionaire class, as well as their subordinates, constitute the actual coalitions of the real ruling class: the super wealthy and their technocratic managerial elites in the public and private sector. Should one attempt to deviate from the established party line, they will be immediately replaced by any number of the almost identical potential candidates eager to take their place. This holds as well for their intellectual legitimators in the media and academia. The swollen ranks of the un- or underemployed graduates of liberal arts universities are filled with those willing to elaborate and vigorously defend the ideologies of their respective elites. Should one or another become unwilling to do so, by internally or publicly questioning or contradicting their elites, they can be easily replaced. So too, at the bottom-most level of the electorate, voters themselves via mass immigration and easy paths to citizenship.

With regard to the third and fourth rules, controlling state revenue and rewarding coalition members, there is good reason elites of both sides have staunchly resisted any simplification of the tax code – or, even worse from their perspective, the adoption of a strict flat tax. For unlike actual dictators, who may openly expropriate the population via direct armed force and shower the proceeds upon their supporters, representatives of democratic states are forced to take more circuitous, opaque paths in rewarding their coalition members. Via subsidies, tax exemptions, loopholes, price floors, regulations, tariffs, easy money Federal Reserve policy, and the awarding of bloated government contracts, the corporate elites behind both parties have seen their wealth explode to incredible levels, while the poor and minorities have been placated by symbolic gestures, the rhetorical arabesques of social justice posturing, and meagre government handouts that never fail to ensure elite interests are protected, see “Affordable” Care Act.

Which brings us to the final rule, the one most difficult for representatives of democratic governments to consistently satisfy: not taking money from their coalition members to make the lives of the people better. We live in a state-corporate tyranny, what the political scientist Bertram Gross correctly identified as nascently developing over forty years ago as “Friendly Fascism,” or “Corporate Authoritarianism.” And it is here that hegemonic thought-control via media propaganda is of the utmost imperative, stoking docility or fear but in all cases compliance, and it has proven effective at marginalizing the angered nominal voters of both parties, be they members of the Tea Party, Freedom Caucus, or the so-called Democratic Socialists, all of whom were and are marginalized by the elites of their respective parties as much as possible.

There is a reason the politically aware middle class, the professionals and small business owning community, has grown increasingly hostile to their government. Competent and heavily taxed and regulated, they correctly understand their class position as that of ATM for the elites and resent it.

That the criteria for maintaining an effective dictatorship clearly apply to our own circumstances, it does not seem remiss to question the merits of American “democracy” as presently constituted; further, to wonder how long it will last, before, like virtually all dictatorships, it is finally and thankfully overthrown.

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