As President Donald Trump and his allies have spent the past several weeks attempting to pressure courts, state legislatures, and election officials to overturn the results of the November presidential election, Americans have learned, in a Soylent Green–like twist, that their much-vaunted democratic institutions are actually made out of people. From the Senate majority leader to members of county canvassing boards, individuals are making decisions based on their own perceived self-interest about whether to support a defeated leader’s bid to hold onto power.
This observation shouldn’t be surprising to readers of political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. In their 2005 academic study The Logic of Political Survival and its 2011 mass-market adaptation The Dictator’s Handbook, they propose a model for why some leaders are overthrown and other survive, known as selectorate theory. In this model, leaders survive by keeping their “winning coalition”—the essential supporters who actually have the power to overthrow them—happy. The goal of politics is not to improve conditions for the population at large; it’s to extract resources from the population at large and give them to the leader’s winning coalition. And a smart leader always keeps the number of people whom they have to keep happy as small as possible. Despite the book’s title, its model applies to democracies as well as dictatorships. In fact, the authors argue that dictatorships and democracies don’t differ in kind, but instead, in the size each requires to maintain a leader’s winning coalition. Kim Jong-un only has to keep a small group of senior party cadres happy in order to survive. For a U.S. president, the winning coalition is the key voters in swing states who determine the winner of the Electoral College.
It’s a brutally cynical but often refreshing way to look at politics, and I was curious to see what Bueno de Mesquita and Smith made of Trump’s post-election gambit, and the degree to which he’s following the rules of the dictator’s handbook. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joshua Keating: So I was looking back at it, and the previous times I’ve gotten in touch with you guys, it was about Venezuela and Syria. So, I have to say it doesn’t feel great that I’m asking for your insights on American politics right now.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: We’ve become so similar to Venezuela and Syria.
Alastair Smith: Oh, rubbish, rubbish.
Bueno de Mesquita: Well, I hope it’s rubbish.
In your model, the winning coalition that keeps a U.S. president in power is the group of voters in swing states who actually determine the winner of the Electoral College. So, that group has now spoken. But how does selectorate theory explain what Trump is trying to do now?
Smith: I think Trump would like to believe that he depends on a much smaller winning coalition than he actually does. I think his policies were indicative of trying to reward a smaller group of people than the set of people he needed to keep happy. And that’s why he didn’t win.
Bueno de Mesquita: I think he’s going further than that. It’s—in a depressing way—extremely clever. He is trying to redefine the winning coalition as the set of people who certify the vote. And I don’t know how many there are across the 50 states. It’s probably in the neighborhood of two to three hundred, a very small number. And, it certainly has not occurred to either of us that these people have any power.
In one of our early books, we have a picture of an election in Kenya. At that time, they used what was charmingly called the “Queue Voting System.” People lined up behind the name of the candidate they supported. And then somebody went up and down the line and counted the votes. And there was a chalkboard in the front. And a person wrote the count on the chalkboard. In the photograph we have, it didn’t come out the right way. So, somebody crossed out the number, and gave the candidate they wanted a bigger number. That seems to be what Trump is trying to do. Trump is trying to make the people who report the vote into the actual winning coalition. He’s going to fail. The courts are not going to allow him to get away with it. But it’s horribly clever.
So, what you argue is that leaders—almost all leaders—do whatever it takes to stay in power. It maybe didn’t really occur to most American politicians before that canvassing boards or state legislatures could do something other than just certify whatever the voters decided. Now that Trump has shown that this kind of post-election campaigning is at least an option, is that going to change the calculation for leaders in the future?
Smith: I think there’s definitely lessons to be learned. No politician wants to have to keep more people happy than is absolutely necessary. I have a strong sense that Congress will try and shore up some of the rules and cover some of these loopholes. And state legislatures will try and rule out some of these laws. But it’s sort of a whack-a-mole game, right? [Leaders figure] out a way where they can be beholden to a slightly smaller number of people. And you try and fix that problem, because you don’t want the leaders to exploit them; they just find another. It’s like trying to get rid of tax loopholes.
But I think the lesson we got from this election was that the institutions are flawed and damaged, but you still need tens of millions of votes to win, even with the current system.
I’m always interested in the way you guys talk about public pressure and protest, and the relation between that and the way that decision-makers act. In this case, we’ve seen people heckling that Michigan state legislator at the airport. And clearly, at least some of what’s on these legislators’ minds is the prospect of mass unrest if the popular vote totals in some of these states are overturned. What role do you see public pressure playing in, let’s say, helping some of these key actors reach their decisions?
Smith: It’s not a protest per se in the U.S. that I think is important. The protest just makes it really clear to the legislators that there’s no way they can escape the full consequences of the law if they break the law. And so there’s no point even trying. And that’s what I always think about a lot of these things: If you thought you could get away with it, you’d give it a go. But when you know there’s no hope of getting away with it, you don’t even bother trying. I think deterrence is a very important thing.
Going back to the election itself, as opposed to the post-election drama, you write a lot about the political impact of natural disasters, and leaders in democracies can’t afford, politically, to let large numbers of people die in a disaster. That definitely seems applicable to the election we just had. Is there sort of selectorate-based logic to explain Trump’s lack of response to COVID?
Smith: Being protected from natural disasters or infectious disease, that’s a public good. And that’s something that people value in democracy. It’s a way of rewarding people well. Everyone in New Zealand is rewarded by the fact there’s basically no COVID in New Zealand anymore, right?
I think Trump’s problem was he saw this as predominantly affecting Democratic states. He must genuinely have had no idea how big this thing was going to get. Otherwise, if he knew it was going to get this out of hand, presumably, he would have wanted to do more.
Bueno de Mesquita: As Jared [Kushner] observed early on, this was a blue state problem. So, those are not votes [Trump] was getting. He didn’t care about them. He didn’t need those votes. What he needed, he thought, was a good economy. What he doesn’t seem to have understood is that you can’t have a good economy by just saying, “everybody go back to work,” when people are not going to go out and commit suicide exposing themselves to the virus. This is I think a classic example of that.
Smith: What would actually have been interesting, if Trump had won, would have been to see where the vaccine is going to get sent first. My guess would be that it will get sent to predominantly red states.
Bueno de Mesquita: Well, you know it’s not coming to New York. He just told us that.
Looking at your rules for survival for leaders, you could look at Trump and say he tried to follow many of them. He kept his winning coalition off balance; he shuffled people in and out of offices; he kept them in acting positions where they could be easily fired. He definitely rewarded loyalists. Given the criteria you guys use—where Lenin and Kim Jong-il are considered “good” leaders due to their ability to maintain power—how does Trump stack up?
Bueno de Mesquita: My guess is that had the pandemic not occurred, had he sustained unemployment under 4 percent while sustaining really low inflation, he would have been reelected. And I find that a horrible thing to say. But the reality is he got 10 million more votes in this election than he got in 2016. He had a random shock in the form of the pandemic. He did not handle that well. And he himself became sick, which is not a good thing for reelection. He wound up losing what was, at least for me, a much closer election than I expected. So relative to that, it’s a noisy process, but he did follow the rules rather well.