Heavy is the Head

October 18, 2009

Alright, I watched some Glenn Beck clip. Check out the first three minutes (before he starts talking again):

Of course, Anita Dunn should have expected some faux-outrage over this kind of thing. Whenever you talk about Mao, you really ought to at least mention that Mao was responsible for the deaths of 60 million of his fellow countrymen (that’s more than Stalin).

But, basically, Ms. Dunn is right. Really successful political leaders are successful because they think outside of the box. Too many people take things like term-limits as given. If you’re King, you’re king for life. If you’re President of the USA, you can be only be president for eight years. But, as one of my favorite political philosophers, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, points out, staying in power is a lot more complicated than that.

Leaders like Fidel Castro, Muammar al-Gaddafi, Adolf Hitler, Michael Bloomberg, and other famous politicians understand that term limits are a soft constraint on your ability to stay in power. If you can’t manage to stay in your current job, there’s even the Vladimir Putin option.

In general, I think that a model in which legislated term limits are the true and only limits on power leaves out extremely important factors. My father, for one, believes that Supreme Court justices can basically do whatever they want after being confirmed. But the strange thing to note about the Supreme Court (and this is just something I’ve heard from reputable sources) is that their decisions closely track public opinion. This suggests that, even if we don’t quite understand the mechanism by which Supreme Court justices seek to stay in power, there is something at work here.

And hey, Mao was obviously really good at achieving his main objective, which was to stay in power. I mean, think about it, Mao’s opponent’s attack ad practically writes itself:

“Under Mao’s administration, somewhere between 40 and 70 million Chinese were killed or starved to death due to policies enacted by the Chairman. That probably wouldn’t happen under my administration.”

But Mao was savvy, so he probably got his people out there with a reply like:

“When we took over the leadership of this country, we inherited a huge mess caused by our predecessor’s wasteful and backwards policies.  But under Chairman Mao’s leadership, China has successfully made a good leap… nay, a great leap, forward, and our current projections show continued progress in the years to come.”

And that’s how you take control of your message.

By the way, just so we’re clear, Mao was truly one of history’s greatest monsters.


3 Responses to “Heavy is the Head”

  1. tripinchina Says:

    Of course Mao was a monster, and she should have mentioned that.

    But my quibble lies with her military history: turns out he was a really shitty general. He used his career on the battlefield to maneuver up the CCP hierarchy, often leading his men to certain doom rather than be seen capitulating to more experienced generals of whom he was jealous. Then he would manipulate and extort those above him when they tried to get rid of him. It certainly was opportunistic “thinking outside the box” which I suppose Ms. Dunn is pointing to — but quoting him from 1947 and then obliquely suggesting that his individualism fueled some sort of military brilliance, rather than than genuine egomania, is at best wildly misinformed and at worst extremely dishonest.

  2. Good point, Thomas. I hadn’t really thought to question the history, since I certainly don’t know anything about the events that led to the communist takeover of China. Though in retrospect, anyone who has played Starcraft or similar games knows that the policy she is advocating just never works. When you say, “Hm…I might not have enough manpower to do this. Ah, screw it, I’ll just throw all my troops at their base,” that is how you decimate your army.

    But yeah, I guess only being good at one thing, getting and keeping power, is another trait that Mao has in common with the 20th century’s other worst dictators. Hitler’s generals knew they couldn’t win in Russia and wanted to surrender and spare as many lives as they could, but Hitler refused to believe that they could lose.

    Of course, I have to acknowledge that the German soldiers who died in this prolonged fighting very likely would have died as Stalin’s prisoners of war anyway, but Hitler didn’t give them the chance to find out.

  3. Rrrobert! Says:

    So the thing about the Court is, you’re not really talking about the Court so much as the justices in it. So when you say something like “their decisions closely track public opinion” you have to clarify what you mean. The New Deal Court, for instance, was not at all bound by public opinion, and went around limiting Commerce Clause powers all kinds of willy nilly. The Warren Court was significantly ahead of its time on the civil rights front. If the Court of the last years has closely tracked public opinion, it’s largely because O’Connor closely tracked public opinion (and to a lesser extent Kennedy), while the other justices largely voted in predictable ideological patterns (Thomas and Scalia, in particular, would probably have no compunction about reining in Commerce powers that enable extremely popular programs).

    If you want to paint it as a product of someone’s self interest, you actually want to look at Presidents. Presidents who want to change the ideological balance of the court have to spend a lot of political capital to do so. Presidents who want an easy confirmation so they can spend their capital on other things appoint justices who aren’t too far outside the bounds of public opinion.

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