World Building Politics

I’ve been reading The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics, which has totally changed my perceptions about politics. Of course the first thing I thought of was the most recent US Presidential election. It makes perfect sense now. But the second thing I thought of was how useful this is for worldbuilding in novels.

The premise is this: leaders always do what’s in the best interest of keeping them, personally, in power. Forget about greater good, serving constituencies or creating value for shareholders, instead think about who got them into power and who is keeping them there. The authors cite three main groups that affect a leader’s ability to stay in power:

  • Essentials – Essentials are the people that leader absolutely requires to maintain his/her position. Leaders have to provide benefits to their essential backers. If they don’t, or if the benefits don’t have sufficient value, they quickly find themselves overthrown as their backers withdraw support. The more democratic a society, the larger this group of essentials will be.
  • Influentials – Influentials are others with power who need to be pacified in order for the leader to maintain power. Leaders have to use a combination of tactics from rewards to negotiation to threats to keep these infuentials from accumulating enough power of their own to threaten the leaders’ power base. The more democratic a society, the more fluid this group is and the more diverse the incentives a leader needs to gain their compliance.
  • Interchangables – Interchangables are ‘the people’, who make up the majority but individually have little to no power or influence. However, collectively these interchangables need to be kept passive, or a leader risks a widespread grass-roots revolt. This is where public policies come in. If a leader’s people feel well-cared for, they aren’t likely to organize in the numbers required to remove that leader from power. The more democratic a society, the more influence this collective of interchagables has on a leader, since the popular vote plays a big role in who ultimately is selected to hold political office.

So, you want to create a realistic political system? Or corporation? Or even powerful family group? Start by identifying the leaders. Then ask yourself who their essential backers are and what those backers want from their leader to keep providing support. Identify what the consequences would be if the leader became unwilling, or unable, to provide the things their backers want.

Once you know that, the other two groups and their relative importance becomes clear. Influentials are going to be the high-level allies and opposition, what they want and how the leader has to help or hinder them to maintain control. Your interchangables will be everyone else, and their content or discontent with their current circumstances will determine how likely they are organize against the leader or back a different leader in a bid for control.

The book goes into far more detail about how these forces work on the world stage and in board rooms for multi-million dollar corporations. It’s a fascinating read. What we often see as corruption is rooted in a leader’s fundamental need to reward essentials and control influentials. I highly recommend the chapter on international aid. Here’s a hint – it has nothing to do with helping people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean aid money is a bad idea. Often, it’s very good politics.



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