Robert Becker

Robert Becker
California, United States
January 01
Educated at Rutgers College (BA) and UC Berkeley (Ph.D, English) I left university teaching (Northwestern, U. Chicago) for business, founding and heading SOTA Industries, high end audio company from '80 to '92; from '92-02 I did marketing consulting & writing; from '02 until now, I scribble on politics and culture, looking for the wit in the shadows.

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DECEMBER 5, 2011 6:03PM

Does Bad Behavior = Power & Glory?

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By Robert S. 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 then last week, 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.

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the reason dictators and 'democrats' seem alike is that they are alike. not the same, but since neither are democrats in reality, and dictators often create a screen of formal legality, the result is that both are driven by the structure of oligarchy.

in reality, both are oligarchs: the structural difference between the chinese state and the american state is trivial. this assertion may surprise you, but both are one-party states ruled by a cabinet, with the acquiescence of a senate.

one party? gore vidal: "america is ruled by a political party comprised of a right-wing faction and a father right-wing faction." he was right. because he was right, obama promised to restore civil rights, and did not, to close guantanamo, and did not, and has actually extended military operations which have no justification and comprise war crimes.

it's true you can vote for one faction or the other, but since you can have no notion of what policy will result, this kind of voting is pointless, except to keep the easily deceived quiet.
I think Obama's not done yet, although that is a good book, if so too is Robert Greene's 48 laws of power, although, having no conscience might not work out as well as they think in the long run, my bet, although, there was some truth to the old saw,"Nice guys finish last."
great post! cain gone, and the newt just looking worse than ever if possible, its the morman - and then more Obama at the end of the day -

I like the boys take on bad boys - shamelessness is interesting to examine - I mean these guys must do several bad things a week for years to get to where they think they need to be, or have skull and bones/cia/mob partnership doing the dirty deeds dirt cheap - so you can follow orders when CAC.

And as far as Florida and Bush - this fix to decades to place - millions of voters to disenfranchise - the ultimate goal of the Great Repression - to put a fool in power that would make billions for the few.

As far as getting a good guy beyond dog catcher - good luck. He can catch a cold, bullet, or the clap before he gets to dog catcher in chief. Senator Bob of NJ is as smart a mob boss as I have seen in recent years - dirty as hell but clean as a whistle. And a RU law grad!
I watched him stand up on the side of the ILA - out of his district when he was in the house - you could almost smell him he stunk so bad of wanna be boss. But as far as I can tell he has the brains and balls to run an empire - just the kind of guy your authors describe from across the hudson...
Well done, Robert! One thing Bush had going for him was his confidence that he could manage perception (disclosed by declassified documents at the National Security Archive, through manipulation of the "liberal," "mainstream," or "lamestream" press. The New York Times would not permit its writers to say that Bush lied that there were no warnings before 9/11, that "we do not torture," that Iraq had WMD and could strike the east coast of the US with nonexistent chemical weapons delivered by nonexistent drones. They stopped pretending Bagdad Bush was a "straight-shooter" after Katrina but as far as I know no reporter has asked why he lied?