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This Is Real: The Dictator’s Handbook


The Dictator’s Handbook was a frightening and fascinating read.  I came across it from a YouTube video that nicely summarizes many of its premises and consequences.

Appropriately, the book comes with the subtitle: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.

It’s a highly plausible analysis of political and other power structures, and what leads them to be more democratic — or more oppressive.  It also discusses why it’s difficult to have a dictator who is both benevolent and effective.  It’s written by a pair of political science professors, and filled with historical examples.

It was written a couple of years before the most recent US presidential election, but it has some… implications, nevertheless.

No dictators were harmed in the making of this book.

Who Are Your Supporters?

I won’t summarize the full book here, but the main principle is that dictatorships arise less because the dictator is evil and more due to the fact that the system constructed around them doesn’t allow much other choice.

From the leader’s perspective, there are three overlapping groups of people: the nominal selectorate, the real selectorate, and the winning coalition.  The nominal selectorate is the group that theoretically could support the leader (who I’ll just call a dictator from here on out for simplicity).  The real selectorate is the people who actually have the ability to do something about it, and the winning coalition is the minimum number of those that the dictator needs to form a government and take power.

To stay in power, the dictator must use the income they get from taxes and support to keep those supporters happy.  They can’t pursue their own agenda if they get booted out.

In a democratic system, the nominal selectorate is the set of people eligible to vote, the real selectorate is the group of voters, and the winning coalition is the minimum number of voters needed to win an election.  This means that the set of people the dictator has to please to stay in power is large, so they can’t abuse their power too much — that will get them voted out of office fairly quickly.

They can try to rig the system in their favor, to reduce the size of the winning coalition.  Gerrymandering is one way to do that, as is voter suppression.  The electoral college is another — mathematically, a US presidential candidate could win an election in a two-way race with less than 30% of the popular vote.

Dictators have a different set of problems.  Their winning coalition is much smaller — probably a group of military leaders and police, along with some bureaucrats for running things and collecting taxes, and maybe a couple of friendly oligarchs and revolutionaries.  The nominal selectorate may be much larger, but the real selectorate — the set of possible influencers — is generally quite small.  The dictator doesn’t have to take care of the people to stay in power, but he must take care of his cronies if he wants to stay there.

Corrupt At The Core

And this is where corruption comes from.  Fundamentally, the dictator’s supporters (and the democrat’s!) are trying to get something out of this deal.  Military leaders and big-time lobbyists can expect to get results, whether through public policies that help them out, or more directly dipping into the country’s treasury.

Either way, corruption, whether overt or in the form of pork barrel projects, is an appealing option to get money for your supporters.

This framework explains the resource curse as well: countries with oil or other valuable natural resources don’t need to tax their people to become wealthy.  All they have to do is support a small group — potentially of foreigners — to extract the resource.  They can then reap the rewards, pay off their flunkies.  They can completely ignore the good of the people because the dictator has no need of them, but he does need to make sure that his key supporters don’t feel shorted.  Foreign aid can work the same way.

How To Make Stuff Better

It’s not all doom and gloom, fortunately, though I would have liked this section to be more in-depth.  The authors end the book with a few suggestions about how to reduce the potential for dysfunctional dictatorship.  They’re largely targetted at countries like the US where most of their readers are likely to be enjoying the benefits of a relatively healthy democracy: minimizing gerrymandering and, for the US, eliminating the electoral college to force the winning coalition for the presidency to be as large as possible.

A touch ominous, given that this was written before the 2016 US election.

Another suggestion focused on foreign aid — which, once given, often goes to the dictator’s friends rather than his supporters.  Democracies give foreign aid less out of the goodness of their hearts, and more to please the voters back home.  To make foreign aid more effective at achieving a generous democracy’s real goals, they recommend putting the donation in escrow in some third-party location, to be released only when the hopeful recipient has achieved the desired goal.  One key example here was the hunt for Osama bin Laden; continuing to fail was an excellent way for Pakistan to continue to secure funding.

Throughout, they also discussed transitions — from dictatorship to democracy, or the reverse.  Some of their hopeful parts — such as the potential of the Arab Spring — haven’t been fully realized.

Others include the example of Ghana — which transitioned from dictatorship to democracy over the course of one man’s time as absolute ruler.  This was not because Jerry John Rawlings was an excellent person, but because political and economic factors drove him to it.  Regardless, the end result was a peaceful transition of power after Rawlings’ term limits ended, and a reasonably prosperous democracy.

Here’s hoping we see more of that in our future.

The only weak spot I see in this framework is that it doesn’t directly take into account people who aren’t in it for their own gain, or for the benefit of someone else.  “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” as Alfred said in The Dark Knight.

Yet, while idealists, fanatics, and other extremists may have other motives or goals… they still need money, influence, and support to achieve them on any larger scale.  They can only do so much to avoid the dirty compromises of politics.

It feels a bit like gravity, in a way.  You can do all sorts of things to work around it, but you have to take it into account if you want to get anything done.

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