Wilf Family Department of Politics Professors Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith maintain that leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don’t care about the “national interest”—or even their subjects—unless they have to.
Their work, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics (PublicAffairs, 2011), contends there is no difference between tyrants and democrats because governments do not differ in kind—but, rather, only in the number of essential supporters they need to stay in power. What holds them together, the authors posit, “is the logic of politics, the rules ruling rulers.”
“One important lesson…is that where politics are concerned, ideology, nationality, and culture don’t matter all that much,” Bueno de Mesquita and Smith write. “The sooner we learn not to think or utter sentences such as ‘the United States should do . . .’ or ‘the American people want . . .’ or ‘China’s government ought to do . . . ,’ the better we will understand government, business, and all other forms of organization.”
While the authors acknowledge they offer a cynical—but accurate—view of politics, they conclude that once we understand what brings leaders to power and keeps them there, “we will also begin to see how to fix politics. Politics, like all of life, is about individuals, each motivated to do what is good for them, not what is good for others.”