Does bad behavior = power and glory?

By Robert Becker

My squishy optimism sagged, having just finished Richard Condon’s scathing, witty, mesmerizing masterpiece, The Manchurian Candidate. If you liked the acclaimed ’62 movie, and delight in devilish wit, grab the novel: the satire and drama are darker, amusingly bereft of character redemption and confidence in human advancement.

Replace waterboarding with 1950’s brainwashing as the underlying metaphor – then cast Palin, Perry, or Bachmann as the Joe-McCarthy-style demagogue, and the book is current.  However well-made, no establishment ‘60’s film dare replicate the brash, authorial boldness, as Louis Menand captures it: Condon was a “a cynic of an upbeat type, not unlike Tom Wolfe: his belief that everything is basically shit did not get in the way of his pleasure in making fun of it.”   

And now, another blow to assumptions ours is a semi-rational universe – the jaw-dropping ascension of Newt Gingrich, that doyen of dishonor, as Joan Walsh quipped, “his baggage has baggage.”  Fringe voters must truly loathe the plastic, shape-shifting Mittster to raise this clown prince, Pompous Newt, as party messiah.  What are they thinking? Oh, not thinking – tantrum-tossing zealots grasping for straws.  Did the revoltingly righteous forget Newt already fell off a cliff this very campaign season, pummeled by staff mutinies?  Or misinterpret Paul Krugman’s bulls-eye jibe: Gingrich is “a stupid man’s idea of what a smart person sounds like”?

Six Deadly Sins on Display

What wonderfully mixed results: naming Gingrich springboards a vulnerable incumbent, jeopardizes the likely GOP takeover of the Senate, and confirms the GOP talent abyss.  His years of contradictions, inanities, and flip-flops aside, Newt is a virtual parade of the Seven Deadly Sins: his vainglory spawning gluttony, wrath, envy, sloth, and lust.  Only celebrated megalomania blunts despair.  Bad historian, wife-abuser, third-rate novelist, wealthy, hypocritical lobbyist, and twice-censured, overweening House Speaker-Beltway insider, Gingrich makes Romney seem bright-eyed and bushy tailed.

Reeling, I then stumble on two mild-mannered political scientists whose new book shreds any residual feel-good liberalthink, revealingly titled: The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics.  Say it ain’t so, but NYU authors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith urge, as neutral bystanders, that Obama’s re-election demands acting “a bit more like the tyrants he’s so proud of toppling.”

What, even more?

The logic of politics – in both democracies and dictatorships – is not nearly as complex as many think. Forget the intricacies of individual states, grand strategy, and the national interest. And for now, let’s forget about right and wrong. Indeed, the real, universal lessons of political life can be gleaned from how leaders survive and thrive when in power.

And they package chilling real-politick with simple rules, self-evident and hard to refute:

Don’t be fooled: Democrats and dictators alike do what best secures their hold on power. Although their methods may differ, just five rules shape how they govern. These rules identify the incentives driving survival-oriented leaders, whether of the Qaddafi or Obama variety.

Rule 1: Keep the winning coalition as small as possible.

Rule 2: Keep the selectorate [pool of supporters] as large as possible.

Rule 3: Control the flow of revenue.

Rule 4: Pay key supporters just enough to keep them loyal.

Rule 5: Never take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better.

Read their fine summary for details, but hold off parochial judgments about good vs. evil, or heroes rewriting history or progress: these cheerful Machiavellians sidestep goodness for winning, wielding and growing power.  Nor does their thesis ignore differences between circumstances: dictators command secret police to kill/torture/imprison at will, whereas presidents (and minions) must be (or appear) more procedural when enforcing Patriot Acts, crushing dissent and whistleblowers, plus authorizing rendition, contracts on unindicted citizens, or indefinite incarceration.

However nasty, few dictators boast our plethora of armed agencies – federal marshals, state cops, county sheriffs and city police plus FBI, CIA, all the military, and private security (free to pepper-spray and riot); even state and national park rangers may arrest with force.   And yet, they write, leadership relies on power:

All politicians are alike; how they are constrained differs. Just like autocrats and tyrants, leaders of democratic countries follow the Five Rules of politics as best as they can – they, too, want to get power and keep it. The conventional impression that democrats and autocrats are world’s apart stems only from the different constraints they face. Those who rely on a large coalition – democrats – have to be more creative than their autocratic counterparts.

Strangely enough, while bashing our facile assumptions about public good will or good intentions, this is for realists no prescription for despair or cynicism.  Now power has measurable dimensions, like gravity, framing for millions of ex-Obama fans how so much political capital was squandered.  Obama’s shortfall is dramatized by his current failure, midway through a horrendous recession, to oblige the top 1% super-rich to share, even acknowledge the larger community on which all treasure depends.

Why Bush Boomed, Obama Falters

This thesis explains fully how the myopic, autocratic Bush-Cheney gang fulfilled their agenda, except for privatizing Social Security.  Their winning-is-everything mindset, from the Florida election onward, understood 1) how to concentrate and reward coalitions in key electoral states; 2) sustain Rovian fear-mongering across the right and center; 3) control massive, sustained income redistribution that 4) rewarded W. supporters, both rich (less taxes, deregulation) and not rich (like torture-loving, chauvinistic belligerents); while 5) punishing hungry children, the poor, jobless, uninsured, minority, urban non-Republicans. W. the Compassionate Conservative never once asked his base to sacrifice for anyone else.

In contrast, violating core rules of leadership, Obama ditched his reform-change narrative for entrenchment, failed to deliver goodies to enough of his base, then offended a good many more, especially critics. Revealed by his 42% approvals, the worst for any modern incumbent, Obama the Unready never replaced his lost 15% support, a staggering blow impacting the 2010 disaster.  Visible to all, his pushing health care, Wall Street bailouts, and multiple wars, instead of Main Street jobs and growth, stripped his leadership of options.

Until we elect results-oriented, non-rightwingers who understand power, not Obama’s token symbolism, then rightwing ideologues executing politics as war will crush opponents.  The combination of reading Condon, plus Newt’s return from the dead, clarifies the problem: if justice, fairness, equity and community have standing, in their own terms, where are the frames, voices and movements, beyond OWS, to enact the hard-nosed facts of life presented in The Dictator’s Handbook?  Not apparently, in this White House.

4 replies »

  1. I agree roughly. My question is, “Why did Obama spend any time at all courting the red states? Why not slash aid to those guys, e.g., farm aid, and redirect it to the purple states?” In dictator terms, to make your faction rich, you take it from the other faction. The money he puts in there does no good–he’s not going to get any votes. Nor does it get to his supporters in those states, since red states reroute federal money to their constituencies. Is it optics, i.e., to appeal to moderates by not being seen to be a bully? That’s the only reason I can think of to offer up a penny of farm aid.

  2. First, he may be an inept leader, even about his own best interest. Why did he go out of his way, along with others on his team, to trash anyone left of Barney Frank? To show his centrism perhaps? Second, he never commanded the money flow as would a good dictator, again because he is inept and over his head. Third, he surprisingly won some “red” states, especially Indiana in ’08 so he may again (though I doubt it). When he pitches red states, he also forces the GOP to spend ad money in states they didn’t plan to. I suspect much of Obama’s misguided thinking has to do with keeping his selectorate (and donor base) as large as possible, taking for granted he will have 95% of the liberal vote (but not mine). Obama is unlikely to lose strong liberal states but he cannot survive losing all the big border states, like OH, PA, FL, NC, VA, NV, etc.

  3. Don’t believe it. If Obama wins SC, it will truly be a landslide — a deviant poll in my view. If Obama wins SC, then the Dems will keep the Senate and take the House — about equally likely.