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Authors: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

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BOOK: The Dictator's Handbook
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For sick and decrepit leaders, nominating a new heir can help them live out the rest of their life in power. Provided the essentials in the coalition believe the heir will retain sufficient continuity in the coalition's makeup, inheritance makes it very difficult for outsiders to offer essential coalition members more than they expect from the father-son succession.
Papal Bull - ying for Power
Some of the greatest stories and movies of all time portray how the outcome of whole nations, peoples, and faiths come down to the actions of a single individual. Whether it is Luke Skywalker wrestling with father issues or Frodo disposing of a ring, massed battles have only secondary importance compared to an individual's triumph. It makes for great fiction certainly, but such events happen in fact too.
For Christianity's first several hundred years, the Bishop of Rome—the pope—was a relatively minor figure even within the Christian community. Bishops were the arbiters of Christian practice and belief, but not until Damasus I, pope from 366 to 384, was the Bishop of Rome truly
elevated above all other Roman Catholic bishops, becoming the head of the western Roman Catholic Church.
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Eventually sainted for his extraordinary accomplishments, Damasus's actions were a case study in the manipulation of essentials, influentials, and interchangeables.
By the late 300s, the east had a seemingly insurmountable advantage in the long struggle between the eastern and western branches of Christianity. The apostles and, of course, Jesus himself, all came from the east. The holy places were in Jerusalem and Galilee and the nearby cities of today's Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. With such incontestable credentials, how could Christianity be seen first and foremost as anything other than an eastern religion? Damasus had the insight to find an answer. True, the apostles came from the east, but Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome and it was in Rome that they were buried. Thus he could argue that Rome was privileged by being the scene of apostolic missions intended to spread the word and by the profound example of martyrdom carried out of the east and to Rome.
Damasus made the compelling case that only the See of Peter in Rome could be the heart of Christianity because, as Jesus reportedly said (Matthew 16:17–20), “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Rome, then, must have a superior claim compared to the eastern Sees. On the surface, this may seem an explicitly religious argument—but powerful though it is, it obscures the coalition-building strategies that actually made Damasus pope and made the Roman Church the new locus of power.
Nowadays a new pope is elected by the College of Cardinals on the death of the pope. In Damasus's day, the method was different. The interchangeables—the selectorate—consisted of all of the Christians in the Roman diocese. The influentials included at least the local clergy and other bishops from the province. Defining the winning coalition—the essentials—is where the tale of Damasus's success must begin.
Damasus had a rival for election as pope, Ursinus. Ursinus was popular with the lay Christians and with much of the clergy. Damasus,
in contrast, enjoyed the support of the aristocracy. Both men had worked closely with the previous pope, Liberius. When Liberius was exiled to Berea by Emperor Constantius II in 354, Damasus, like Ursinus, followed him into exile. Unlike Ursinus, however, Damasus wasted no time returning to Rome, abandoning Liberius, and throwing his support behind the antipope Felix II who was favored by the emperor. This most assuredly helped cement Damasus's popularity with the controlling classes while alienating the lay Christian community and clergy.
With Liberius dead, parallel papal elections were held, resulting in both Damasus and Ursinus claiming election. Ursinus was chosen by the faithful plebian worshippers and Damasus by the powerful. Riots ensued, leading to a bloody massacre in which 137 people were slaughtered in the basilica of Sicininus, a popular Roman church. The city's prefects—the secular leaders of Rome—stepped in and restored order by establishing Damasus as the one and only pope. They dealt with the threat Ursinus represented by exiling him to Gaul. So it was that Ursinus's larger coalition of lay worshipers was defeated by the smaller, but much more powerful, support coalition behind Damasus.
Damasus did not come by his upper-crust backing by accident. We have already seen that he had supported Felix II over Liberius. He assiduously pursued support from the upper classes of Romans, many of them pagans, before (and during) his papacy, thereby ensuring their loyalty to him in return for his loyal pursuit of policies that benefited them. Damasus, for instance, made a habit of cultivating the upperclass women of Rome. His detractors, noting his close associations with Rome's leading ladies, accused him of adultery (and murder). He was exonerated thanks to direct intervention by the emperor himself. His promoters, in contrast, note that he converted many aristocratic pagan women to Christianity and they, in turn, brought their husbands into the fold, thereby expanding the selectorate and perhaps the influentials in Rome's Christian community. That, of course, was good for the growth of the Church, but it also was good for Damasus's ability to secure and hold power. He relied on a small coalition—unlike Ursinus—and he worked on drawing that coalition from an enlarged set of influentials and interchangeables.
Being a sophisticated strategist, he also worked to further expand the set of interchangeables by reaching out to the Christian masses of Rome. This could only help him shore up his political power and his discretionary authority over Church funds, discretionary authority he later used to build important public works and to employ (Saint) Jerome to write the Vulgate, the first accessible Latin translation of the Bible, which further solidified the pope in Rome's ability to dictate the meaning of the gospels.
How did Damasus expand his appeal to the masses—the interchangeables—many of whom had opposed his papacy? It seems that many of the recently converted lay people of the declining Roman Empire missed their many pagan Roman gods. Damasus recognized that these same people seemed happy to substitute the many Christian martyrs for those gods. Damasus focused his energy on discovering the burial places of martyrs and erecting great marble monuments. Some of his monuments and inscriptions to martyrs can still be seen in Rome to this day.
Damasus's efforts bore fruit. He won over and expanded the Christian laity, gained support among the upper classes, and even captured the support of the emperor himself, who endorsed Damasus's view of the preeminence of the See of Rome. On February 28, 380, Emperor Theodosius declared that everyone must abide by the Christian principles as declared by “the Apostle Peter to the Romans, and now followed by Bishop Damasus and Peter of Alexandria.”
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Damasus understood what to do to come to power and how to retain it. Indeed, after his ignominious road to election as pope, he did good works from the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church and achieved sainthood for himself. The door to his coming to power was opened by the errors of Liberius, his predecessor, who alienated the emperor instead of cultivating him as an ally. Damasus did not make that error. He built a small winning coalition drawn from an expanded set of influentials and interchangeables, thereby ensuring loyal, long-lasting support for himself and his papacy. And, in the process, his battle for power shifted Christianity away from its Eastern origins and set it on the path to becoming a Western faith.
Leaders, like Liberius, who fail to do the right thing, provide opportunities for someone new to come to power. But remember, what
constitutes doing the right thing must be understood from the perspective of a potential supporter; it may have nothing to do with what is best for a community or nation. Anyone who thinks leaders
do what they ought to
do—that is, do what is best for their nation of subjects—ought to become an academic rather than enter political life. In politics, coming to power is never about doing the right thing. It is always about doing what is expedient.
Seizing Power from the Bankrupt
As it turns out, one thing that is always expedient is remaining solvent. If a ruler has run out of money with which to pay his supporters, it becomes far easier for someone else to make coalition members an attractive offer. Financial crises are an opportune time to strike.
The Russian Revolution is often portrayed through the prism of Marxist ideology and class warfare. The reality might be much simpler. Kerensky's revolutionaries were able to storm the Winter Palace in February 1917 because the army did not stop them. And the army did not bother to stop them because the czar did not pay them enough. The czar could not pay them enough because he foolishly cut the income from one of his major sources of revenue, the vodka tax, at the same time that he fought World War I.
Czar Nicholas confused what might seem like good public policy with bad political decision making. He had the silly idea that a sober army would prove more effective than an army that was falling-over drunk. Nicholas, it seems, thought that a ban on vodka would improve the performance of Russia's troops in World War I. He missed the obvious downsides, however. Vodka was vastly popular with the general populace and, most assuredly, with the troops. So popular and widely consumed was vodka that its sale provided about a third of the government's revenue. With vodka banned, his revenue diminished sharply. His expenses, in contrast, kept on rising due to the costs of the war.
Soon Nicholas was no longer able to buy loyalty. As a result, his army refused to stop strikers and protesters. Alexander Kerensky
formed Russia's short-lived democratic government after toppling the czar's regime. But he couldn't hang on to power for long. His mistake was operating a democratic government, which necessitated a large coalition, and implementing an unpopular policy—continuing the czar's war—thereby alienating his coalition right from the start. Lenin and the Bolsheviks made no such mistakes.
The czar fell once there was no one to stop the revolution. Louis XVI suffered much the same fate in the French Revolution. Successful leaders must learn the lesson of these examples and put raising revenue and paying supporters above all else. Consider Robert Mugabe's success in staying on as Zimbabwe's president. The economy has collapsed in Zimbabwe thanks to Mugabe's terrible policies. Starvation is common and epidemics of cholera regularly sweep the country. Mugabe “succeeds” because he understands that it does not matter what happens to the people provided that he makes sure to pay the army. And despite regular media speculation, so far he has always managed to do so and to keep himself in office well into his eighties. He has reduced a once thriving agricultural exporting nation into one that depends on foreign aid. Mugabe is certainly horrible for what he's done to the people he rules, but he is a master of the rules to rule by. Where policy matters most, when it comes to paying off cronies, he has delivered. That is why no one has deposed him.
Silence Is Golden
We all grew up hearing the lesson that silence is golden. As it turns out, violating that basic principle is yet another path by which incumbents can succumb to their political rivals.
The incumbent's advantage in offering rewards disappears as soon as coalition members come to suspect their long run access to personal benefits will end. An incumbent's failure to reassure his coalition that he will continue to take care of them provides competitors with a golden opportunity to seize power. Houari Boumediène was able to seize the Algerian presidency from Ahmed Ben Bella in 1965 after Ben Bella foolishly opened his mouth. Silence would have served him better.
Ben Bella achieved fame both on the soccer pitch and as a war hero. He joined the French army in 1936 and, while posted to Marseille, played for their professional soccer team. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the
Médaille militaire
for his gallantry during World War II. After the war he joined the struggle to liberate Algeria from France. He became a popular figure in the independence movement and was elected president of Algeria in 1963. But despite his many talents, he made a serious mistake. On June 12, 1966, he announced that there would be a politburo meeting a week later and that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss three major issues: (1) Changes in the cabinet; (2) Changes in the army command; (3) The liquidation of the military opposition. He then left Algiers for Oran.
This announcement was tantamount to telling his essential supporters that he was getting rid of some of them. Since he did not say who was to go, he created a common interest among the whole group in getting rid of Ahmed Ben Bella.
Ben Bella's foolish announcement was just the opening that Houari Boumediène needed. No one was certain who would be replaced, but given Ben Bella's sweeping statement, clearly many would be. In this unforced error, Ben Bella threw away his incumbency advantage and left Boumediène a week to organize a plot of his own. Ben Bella returned to Algiers the day before the scheduled meeting and he was awakened at gunpoint by his friend, Colonel Tahar Zbiri. Boumediène grasped his opportunity and the essential supporters defected.
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Silence, as Ben Bella learned far too late, truly is golden. There is never a point in showing your hand before you have to; that is just a way to ensure giving the game away.
Institutional Change
There is a common adage that politicians don't change the rules that brought them to power. This is false. They are ever ready and eager to reduce coalition size. What politicians seek to avoid are any institutional changes that increase the number of people to whom they are beholden. Yet much as they try to avoid them, circumstances do arise
when institutions must become more inclusive. This can make autocrats vulnerable because the coalition they have established and the rewards they provide are then no longer sufficient to maintain power.
BOOK: The Dictator's Handbook
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