Barack Obama can't get away from talking about dictators. Four years ago, candidate Obama controversially asserted that his administration would be open to negotiations with autocratic governments like Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Today, responding to Republican criticisms that he has been weak or hesitant on foreign policy, the U.S. president's supporters are more likely to trot out the fact that three longtime dictatorships have fallen under his watch.
How much credit the president deserves for this is certainly open to debate. And in any case, the 2012 election is more likely to hinge on the high U.S. unemployment rate and the United States' sluggish economic growth than the state of Arab democracy or whether such democracy is advantageous for Americans. But it might still benefit the president to take a closer look at the factors that brought down Middle Eastern autocrats this year. And because "leading from behind" is no way to win an election, Obama might want to learn from their mistakes to help him in his own bid to retain power.
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.
At this point, you may be saying, "Hold on! If the U.S. president tried to act like a dictator he'd be out of a job in no time flat." You're right -- almost. Democratic leaders are constrained by the laws of the land, which also determine, through election procedures, the size of the coalition that they need in order to come to and hold power. Nearly everything leaders -- of all kinds -- do while in power comes down to knowing how many backers they absolutely need and how big a pool these supporters are drawn from. An American president, for example, doesn't need a majority of voters to choose him even in a two-party race. As Al Gore learned the hard way in 2000, the Electoral College is the determinant of how large a coalition is needed to be president. Placed just right, it is possible to win the presidency with just 25 percent or even less of the popular vote. While no candidate has yet achieved that minimum, a few have managed to win with just 30-something percent, and several have won even though another candidate got more votes.
Those voters who are truly essential get rewarded for their support; but how big their rewards are depends on how many substitutes there are for them. Think about it: Is your vote really worth the same as a Wall Street hedge fund manager or someone in a key swing state? The more substitutes -- we call them the selectorate -- the more cheaply comes the loyalty of essential supporters. The combination of coalition and selectorate size shapes a surprisingly large number of domestic and foreign-policy choices, choices that often can be said to deviate from what the majority of Americans want.
Coalition and selectorate size shape taxing and spending decisions; they determine the extent to which leaders follow corrupt policies or those aimed at enhancing the welfare of the general populace; and they explain variations in the limits on freedom and prosperity. 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.