In the weeks since U.S. presidential election, many, very smart people have been giving out stellar recommendations on what to read in order to understand and resist the authoritarian nationalist politics that will undoubtedly be pursued by president-elect Donald Trump.

Since many of the recommended readings have been made by political scientists, economists, and others who have been studying these subjects for years, few of the suggested books are suitable for an educated beginner. If you are an engineer, artist, or nurse who wants to understand how political systems function and breakdown, starting with Vaclav Havel’s the Power of the Powerless (as inspiring a read as it is) may be overwhelming and, frankly, impractical.

But, luckily Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, both professors of politics at New York University, have come to the rescue. In 2011, they published a popular and accessible version of a larger and more scholarly tome they contributed, under the catchy title The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith explain that politicians in both autocracies and democracies are working with the same basic set of motivations — to gain and maintain power — and use similar tools to achieve these ends — the distribution of benefits to the people who have the means to grant and rescind their power.  

In a democracy, a large coalition of voters must see benefits from their elected leader. It is, as such, in the leader’s interest to supply his or her constituency with tangible public goods. By contrast, autocrats need only keep a small coalition of strategic supporters happy (the military, other would-be leaders) and, thus, have no need to actually concern themselves with the welfare of the ordinary people they purport to govern. This is why autocrats can survive for decades while their people starve — if they pay off the right supporters, little else matters.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith’s book makes the often obtuse world of politics accessible to the average educated reader, through dozens of concrete, real world examples (though it should be noted that some of these are already outdated). Of most significance for Americans living in the age of Trump, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith explain the strategies that autocrats use in order to limit the number of critical supporters to whom they need to cater. Among the autocrat’s strategies, which will sound familiar to anyone following current American political developments, is purging key supporters who helped him gain power (as they are often very politically powerful themselves) and using graft from major construction projects, in order to pay off coalition members.

The Dictator’s Handbook is a useful primer for those looking to better understand how democracy can begin to morph into autocracy, and stop the slide down this slippery slope. It is of the essence that every American, committed to preserving a democratic system, begin following current political developments, and calling out incidents, proposals, and policies that reflect autocratic political strategies. 

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  • BarkerJ

    I recommend “It Can’t Happen Here” by Sinclair Lewis (1935).