Under the old Soviet system, Boris Yeltsin had no chance of rising to power.9
His first effort at becoming a major player relied on a proposal every bit as foolish as the decision of Czar Nicholas to ban vodka sales. He sought to end Communist Party members' access to special stores, privileged access to the best universities, and other benefits not shared by the working people of the Soviet Union. Sure, that was popular with the masses but the masses didn't have much say in choosing who ran the Soviet UnionâParty members did. Mikhail Gorbachev, seeing that Yeltsin was a loose cannon, sent him packing. After this setback, Yeltsin only survived by being resilient and inventive in the face of a changed environment.
By the late 1980s the Soviet economy had stagnated. This left the recently promoted Soviet leader, Gorbachev, with a serious dilemma. Unless he could somehow resuscitate the economy, he was liable to run out of money. As we have seen, this situation can get leaders into serious trouble. In order to get the economy moving so that there would continue to be enough money, Gorbachev needed to loosen control over the people, freeing their suppressed entrepreneurial potential.
Economic liberalization wasn't a simple matter for the Soviets. It entailed giving Soviet citizens many more personal and political freedoms. On the up side, this allowed the people to communicate, coordinate, and interact, which can be good for economic growth. On the downside, allowing people to communicate, coordinate, and interact facilitates mass political protest. Gorbachev was no fool and presumably he knew liberalization could get him in trouble. Unfortunately for him, he was between a rock and a hard place. Without a stronger economy his Soviet Union could not hope to compete with the United States and maintain its superpower status. And more importantly he could not pay party members the rewards they were used to. To get a stronger economy he had to put his political control at risk, both from the masses who wanted a speedier path to prosperity and from within his coalition by those who feared losing their privileges. Gorbachev rolled the dice and ultimately lost.
First Gorbachev faced a coup from within his own coalition. In 1991, harder line antireform party members, fearful of losing their special privileges (a loss openly advocated by Boris Yeltsin), deposed Gorbachev and took control of the government. But then Boris Yeltsin, standing atop a tank in Red Square, ensured that the Soviet military would not fire on protestors who wanted reform. The mass movement, with Boris Yeltsin at its head, overthrew the coup that wanted to return to the Soviet Union's more repressive policies of the past. The mass movement returned Gorbachev ever so briefly to power, leaving him with a much diminished rump Soviet Union, and paving the way for the dissolution of the Soviet empire just a few months later.
Yeltsin, having gotten over his privileges fiasco, understood that he could not forge a winning coalition out of the inner circles of the Communist Party, but he could win over the apparatchiks by promoting greater budgetary autonomy for the Russian Republic within the Soviet structure. They could become richer and more powerful in Russia than they had been in the Soviet Union. In this way, Yeltsin picked off essential members of Gorbachev's coalition and made himself a winner. Yeltsin was, as it turned out, much better at working out how to come to power than he was at governing well, but that is a tale for another time.Coming to Power in Democracy
Most of the examples we have discussed so far have involved autocracies. Although generally much less violent, leader transitions in democracies operate via the same mechanisms. Just as in an autocracy, a democratic challenger needs to ensure the deposition of the incumbent, seize command of the instruments of state, and sufficiently reward a coalition of supporters so that they back her as the new democratic incumbent. Yet achieving these goals is quite different in democracies.
In some respects, it is an easier task. In a democracy it is less difficult, for instance, to detach supporters from the dominant coalition because democrats need such a large number of supporters. Leaders
rely heavily on public goods to reward their backers, but precisely because so many of the rewards are public goods that benefit everyone, those
the coalition are not much better off than those
the coalition. Furthermore, since personal rewards are relatively modest once the essential bloc is so large, loyalty is further diluted. The risk of exclusion from the next leader's coalition remains relatively smallâafter all, the next leader will need a lot of backers tooâfurther weakening the incumbency advantage.
Challengers succeed when they offer better rewards than the government. Given that there are so many who need rewarding, this means coming up with better or at least more popular public policies. Unfortunately, because it is easy to erode the support of the incumbent's coalition, it remains difficult for the challenger to pay off her own supporters.
When democratic leaders come to power they need to seize control of government, but there is not the frenzied rush that we observe in autocracies. In the United States, for instance, leaders elected in the November election are not sworn in until the following January. This lag gives incoming presidents time to prepare, nominating their cabinet and appointing people to positions that need to be filled. Originally the delay (which lasted until March) was required because leaders needed months to travel to the Capitol from the state that elected them. Contenders to become a new dictator or monarchs never extend the courtesy of waiting for their more distant kin to travel great distances to compete with them. Democrats lack urgency when assuming power because the democratic rules that determine that the incumbent has been defeated simultaneously create a coalition of supporters.Democratic Inheritance
Democrats, because they rely on a large coalition, cannot lavish great wealth on their supporters personally. They simply do not have enough money to go around. Instead democrats need to find effective public policies that their supporters like and reward their loyalty that
way. But this is not to say there are no private goods in democratic politics. There are. And this explains why dynastic rule is common even in democracies. It may be surprising to learn, for instance, that a careful study finds that 31.2 percent of American female legislators (and 8.4 percent of men) had a close relative precede them in their political role.10
Nearly 20 percent of American presidents were close relatives of each other. That's a lot more than chance and fair competition suggest.
Dynastic rule is commonplace in democracies for exactly the same reasons that it is popular among autocrats and monarchs. Who better to protect the wealth and prestige of the family than family members? Elected officials get to dole out money and enjoy power and money in return. They are as eager to see their progeny enjoy the same benefitsâand protect their own legacyâas Emperor Augustus or Carlo Gambino. And so it is that the Tafts of Ohio have held high office generation after generation. Ohio's governor from 1999â2007, Bob Taft, has an illustrious pedigree. His father and his grandfather were both US senators, his great grandfather was president of the United States, and his great great grandfather was attorney general and secretary of war. The Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, the Bush family, and many other American families also have long and distinguished political histories.
Of course, dynastic rule is more common outside of democracy. Even if you don't have the good fortune to be born into a political dynasty, you can come to power in a democracy if you have good, or at least popular, ideas. Good ideas that help the people are rarely the path to power in a dictatorship.Democracy Is an Arms Race for Good Ideas
Competition in democracies is cerebral, not physical. Killing foes works for dictators, but it is a pretty surefire path to political oblivion in a democracy. That's a good thing, from a moral standpoint, of course. But from a democrat's point of view, the corollary is that even good public policy does not buy much loyalty.
Everyone consumes policy benefits whether they support the incumbent or not. If a leader cleans up the environment or solves global warming then everyone is a winner, although of course the extent to which individuals value these things will vary. But past deeds don't buy loyalty. When a rival appears with a cheaper way to fix the environment, or the rival finds policy fixes for other problems that people care about more, then the rival can seize power through the ballot box. Autocratic politics is a battle for private rewards. Democratic politics is a battle for good policy ideas. If you reward your cronies at the expense of the broader public, as you would in a dictatorship, then you will be out on your ear so long as you rely on a massive coalition of essential backers.
Winston Churchill is certainly a candidate for Britain's greatest statesman. He is deservedly famous for his wonderful oratory. Yet patriotic rhetoric alone was not enough to defeat Hitler's Nazi Germany in World War II. Churchill did not just deliver rhetoric; he delivered policy results too. He convinced President Franklin D. Roosevelt to implement the Lend-Lease program that enabled a virtually bankrupt Britain to keep fighting. He converted the British economy to an efficient wartime footing and found ways to pressure the Axis powers on multiple fronts. He was fondly admired and praised by the vast majority of Britons at the end of the war. Yet Clement Atlee's Labour Party decisively defeated Churchill's Conservative Party at elections held in July 1945. Technically speaking, World War II, a war that Winston Churchill, as much as any single individual, might be credited with having won, wasn't even over yet. And already the people of Britain were ready to toss Winston out.
Churchill famously stated in November 1942, following Britain's victory at El Alamein, that, “I have not become the King's First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” British voters ensured he did not have to. Churchill offered the policies of continued austerity to make Britain great again. After six hard years of war, rationing, and sacrifice, these policies had little appeal. Atlee chose to promote the National Health Service and the creation of a welfare state over reestablishing international dominance. He won the battle for good ideas. Few would deny Churchill did a magnificent job and he was much loved. But it was Atlee who won.Coalition Dynamics
That democrats need so many supporters makes them vulnerable. If you can find an issue over which the incumbent's supporters disagree, then it will soon be your turn to lead. Divide and conquer is a terrific principle for coming to power in a democracyâand one of the greatest practitioners of this strategy was Abraham Lincoln, who propelled himself to the US presidency by splitting the support for the Democratic Party in 1860.
During the Illinois senate race in 1858, Abraham Lincoln forced Stephen Douglas to declare his position on slavery just one year after the Supreme Court's Dredd Scott decision made clear that Congress did not have the right to ban slavery in federal territories. Douglas was cornered. If he said that slavery could be excluded, he would win the election in Illinois but he would shake the foundations of his party; if he said that it couldn't, he would lose the election and thereby diminish his chances of being the Democrat's presidential nominee in 1860. Douglas declared that the people could exclude slavery and won the race, of course, but his response on slavery came at the expense of dividing the Democratic Party two years later in the 1860 presidential election, clearing the way for Lincoln's coalition to elect him president.
Lincoln, more than any other winner of the presidency, foresaw that he would not be popular among a vast segment of voters in the presidential election. He understood that his best chance, maybe even his only chance for election in 1860, lay in dividing and conquering. Had Douglas answered Lincoln's question with a pro-slavery response (that is, in support of the Dredd Scott Decision as the law of the land), he almost certainly would have lost the senate race to Lincoln. That might have kept the Democrats united in 1860, but it would have boosted Lincoln's prospects as the senate incumbent with a popular following. By answering as he did, Douglas guaranteed that his own party would divide over his presidential bid. With competitors Breckinridge and Bell contesting the presidency, Douglas lost his opportunity to win the southern vote, dooming himâand his Democratic rivalsâto defeat, even though Lincoln's vote total was slim. Lincoln
beat the divided Democrats with less than 40 percent of the popular vote and almost no votes in the South. Similarly, Bill Clinton, with just 43 percent of the vote beat the incumbent President George H. W. Bush (who won 38 percent of the popular vote) in 1992, in no small measure thanks to the run by H. Ross Perot (who got 19 percent of the vote).11
Lincoln understood that he needed to keep the coalition as small as possibleâeven in an inherently large coalition system.
Lincoln did not lose sight of this important principal as he sought reelection in 1864. Seeing that his prospects were not great, he maneuvered to expand the set of interchangeables and influentials so that he could forge a winning coalition out of those who previously had no say at all. How did he do this? He introduced absentee ballots so that soldiers could vote, with an especially important impact in New York. It is widely believed that the vote of soldiers carried the state for Lincoln in his 1864 race against General George B. McClellan. Lincoln was a master at using the rules of politics to his advantage, winning while being unpopular with a large swath of the American people.
In democracies, politics is an arms race of ideas. Just as the democrat has to be responsive to the people when governing, when seeking office it helps to propose policies that the voters like and it pays to want to do more (as opposed to less)âeven if the economic consequences are damaging down the road (when you're no longer in office). Satisfy the coalition in the short run. When democratic politicians lament “mortgaging our children's future,” they're really regretting that it was not them who came up with the popular policy that voters actually want. Sure, voters might feel guilty about the latest $1 trillion program, but see if they actually vote to reject it. With parents like that, what children need enemies?