One book that every student of politics ought to read, but that very few have, is The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. This book, based on the groundbreaking sociological text The Logic of Political Survival, lays out a set of five rules that any leader must follow, from Kim Jong Un to the President of the Homeowners Association, and goes through history explaining the rise or fall of leaders based on their adherence to or deviation from the rules. The book is full of endless reams of advice for the aspiring autocrat — for instance, never let your key supporters know that you are going to purge some of them without immediately doing it, or they will panic and kill you first — but these five rules are the basis of any solid regime. While it is very unlikely that President Biden has read this book (we’re sure he remembers how to read, right?) His long political experience has given him an intuitive awareness of these rules, and how to follow them. We will go through the list of rules, and look at how Biden has followed each one.
But first, a note on terminology, the authors of The Handbook use interchangeables to refer to members of a society who theoretically could have an influence on the outcome (in this case, potential voters) influentials to those who actually exercise this power (those who voted in 2020) and essentials to those who are members of the winning coalition (50% + 1 in the necessary states, plus the thousands of donors, aides, union bosses, and various other power brokers without whom neither Biden’s campaign nor administration could run.) With that out of the way, lets look at the rules:
- “Keep your winning coalition as small as possible. A small coalition allows a leader to rely on very few people to stay in power. Fewer essentials equals more control and contributes to more discretion over expenditures.” The book cites the example of Castro, who purged unnecessary members of his coalition as soon as their usefulness has expired. Che Guevara, for example, was necessary to Castro when taking power, but as soon as his usefulness had expired he was a useless member taking up valuable collation resources, and was thus executed. Joe Biden pulled the exact same thing, albeit with less bloodshed. During the election, he pivoted to the left, but ghosted BLM leaders as soon as he won. The progressive activists who helped him win were no longer necessary for him to govern, and keeping them as essentials would have taken political capital he needed elsewhere. Expect him to give some of the activists victories that cost him little political capital (such as culture war victories against the right, who, since they are not in the coalition, should be divested of as much wealth and power as possible) as we approach the midterms, and they once more become necessary. Incidentally, the Pro Life Evangelicals for Biden were treated in much the same fashion — throw aside as soon as they outlived their usefulness.
- “Keep your nominal selectorate (in this case this is the amount of people who could theoretically vote, which isn’t necessarily limited to eligible voters) as large as possible. Maintain a large selectorate of interchangeables and you can easily replace any troublemakers in your coalition, influentials and essentials alike. After all, a large selectorate permits a big supply of substitute supporters to put the essentials on notice that they should be loyal and well behaved or else face being replaced.” Biden has sought to do this in two ways: first, he has substantially relaxed enforcement of immigration laws, which will, in the long run, increase the number of people who are able to vote, meaning that each Biden supporter is more replaceable and, thus, cheaper to keep in the coalition. If they raise too much of a stink about something, just throw them out and get someone new to take their place. The second way he has done this is by pushing for a bill, H.R. 1, to substantially relax voting security measures, thus increasing the amount of interchangeables and speeding up the effect of the relaxation of immigration restrictions, which would otherwise take years to increase the amount of interchangeables.
- “Control the flow of revenue. It’s always better for a ruler to determine who eats than it is to have a larger pie from which the people can feed themselves. The most effective cash flow for leaders is one that makes lots of people poor and redistributes money to keep select people—their supporters—wealthy.” This is the logic behind the $2,000,000,000,000 spending bill (about 5% of which goes toward public health related stuff, hence why it is sometimes mislabeled a COVID stimulus bill.) Which aims to direct money into the hands of Biden essentials, as payment for services rendered (that is, their votes or campaign contributions) but what about the checks, many of whom will go to Trump supporters? Well, here is where the “control” part comes in. The government could have achieved the same net effect with much less administrative hassle by simply cutting taxes by $1,400 a person. So why do they bother taking our money, and then using some of it to pay us back? Because of control. If people are dependent on the government for their checks, if large portions of their money are taken by the government, and then given back to them at the government’s discretion, then they are controlled by the government. By taking control of what amounts to nearly 10% of pre pandemic GDP and redistributing it at will, Biden has sent a powerful signal to America about who, exactly, is the boss of whom. And if you don’t like it, well, shut up or Biden will take away whatever pork he put in the spending bill for you.
- “Pay your key supporters just enough to keep them loyal. Remember, your backers would rather be you than be dependent on you. Your big advantage over them is that you know where the money is and they don’t. Give your coalition just enough so that they don’t shop around for someone to replace you and not a penny more.” This is why $2,000 checks ended up by the wayside, they gave too much to members of the coalition, average voters, who didn’t bring enough to the table. It would seem that “just enough to keep them loyal” ≈ $1,400.
- “Don’t take money out of your supporter’s pockets to make the people’s lives better. The flip side of rule 4 is not to be too cheap toward your coalition of supporters. If you’re good to the people at the expense of your coalition, it won’t be long until your “friends” will be gunning for you. Effective policy for the masses doesn’t necessarily produce loyalty among essentials, and it’s darn expensive to boot. Hungry people are not likely to have the energy to overthrow you, so don’t worry about them. Disappointed coalition members, in contrast, can defect, leaving you in deep trouble.” This is why Joe Biden is willing to risk such a large stimulus without raising taxes to anything like the level necessary to pay for it, despite bipartisan worry from economists that this could lead to inflation, which would have disastrous long term effects on the economy. On the one hand, shrinking the stimulus bill any further would shortchange the coalition, which would be extremely dangerous, whereas raising taxes would also entail directly taking wealth from at least some Biden supporters, which would entail “taking money out of [his] supporters pockets.”
Since his election, Biden has moved swiftly to consolidate his control over the treasure, used it to pay off whoever he needs to pay off, and given the middle finger to both useless members of his coalition and those of us unfortunate enough to not be in the coalition at all. Lest you think that we can stop this by winning back control of the government, Republicans do this too, just with a different coalition. The difference is that I, and probably most readers of The Horn, are in this coalition, and are thus much more pleased when we are the ones getting paid off. As long as the government is allowed to stray beyond its basic functions of providing basic security and rights to its citizens, we will find ourselves in this same dilemma. In the meantime, I highly encourage everyone to read The Dictator’s Handbook, or at least to watch this viral video about it. Politics is all about power, and Joe Biden, despite his many flaws, is a master at wielding it.