More gruel
Three and a Half Kinds of Power

Three and a Half Kinds of Power

A bright-eyed Freshman landed in Dr. Timothy O’Neill’s Intro to Politics class at Southwestern University in the fall of 1988. I was braced for an expanded version of Schoolhouse Rock, a dive into the mechanics of our political system. What I got was a copy of The Godfather and an intellectual acid bath. It’s tough to truly understand how a bill becomes a law without understanding the nature of power. Dr. O’Neill made us start at the beginning, with lessons not just in power but in the lifelong value of reasoning from first principles.

There are moments when the status quo fails, when our unquestioned assumptions of how things work lead us into dysfunction and gridlock. Conservative, liberal, progressive, or other, no established dogma offers a credible route back to the stability we took for granted in previous generations. Before throwing our weight behind one bold plan or another, it would be wise to revisit first principles. In politics, that starts by winding back to the most fundamental questions of all. What is power? And how does it work?

Power is the motive force of the universe, the ability to make something happen. Political power is the capacity to influence others’ behavior, to leverage the massive potential of collective action toward an outcome. Everyone has power. In isolation, devoid of purpose, plan or coordination, that power is largely inert. The penniless addict asleep on a street grate has power. If he didn’t, we wouldn’t hire police to hustle him out of the park. Though everyone has power, few use their power effectively. None of us achieve a fraction of our potential power absent the alchemy that converts our individual will into collective action.

On a visit to an ancient cathedral tour guides will describe art and architecture. What a studied eye sees in those sculptures and buttresses is political power carved in stone. We are social creatures. Every great work of a human hand, from a cell phone to a poem, rises from an environment shaped by political power. From the time we settled into villages we have never escaped the reach of politics.

Power can be exercised in three major forms: authority, persuasion, and coercion. Woven among them is an unstable half-element, the most human and volatile expression of power, insanity. We are not rational creatures. We cannot be counted on to optimize and reason and act from sane objectives. Every calculation based on the three forms of power is stalked by the unfaithful shadow of the fourth.

Types of power should be understood in terms of their cost and utility, not just the methods or habits of their exercise. Cost should be understood in terms of what it takes to acquire that power and the price of exercising it.

Authority is power that rises from position. We train children to “respect authority,” teaching them to do what the teacher says simply on the basis of that teacher’s role. When we see sirens in our rearview mirror we pull over in respect for the authority carried by a set of symbols and emblems. Kings, and Presidents and Popes are able to issue proclamations which will be reflexively respected by millions by virtue of their office. Authority is expensive to accumulate but cheap to exercise. It is both the glue and the lubricant of civilized order, the power we most take for granted. Authority lost creates a political vacuum with often frightening consequences.

Persuasion is the form of power we like to pretend is dominant in our system. Persuasion is the voluntary assent to cooperation, usually through reason or alignment of interests. Sometimes what it takes to bring several parties’ interests into alignment is a bribe, some form of quid pro quo. Perhaps the term “bribe” is too pejorative, implying an abandonment of principle in favor of economic gain, but it pays (so to speak) to use the most direct, unalloyed terms.

Persuasion in the form of a winning argument sounds noble. It fits our self-image as a nation built on Enlightenment principles, in which autonomous individuals come together to shape our collective destiny on the basis of reason. Persuasion in this logical form is perishingly rare and fantastically expensive to exercise. As a channel for power, rhetorical persuasion has negligible practical importance. Rhetorical persuasion is almost exclusively deployed within relatively small, trust-based groups of largely like-minded people. On larger scales, quid pro quo, or bribery if you wish to call it that, is much less expensive, much more effective, and as a consequence much more common. Almost all persuasion in politics is based on economic interests.

Coercion is violence or the threat of violence. Coercion is highly effective, but expensive not just in the short term, but in ways that compound over time. Deployed on a large scale it tends to not only have diminishing returns, but corrosive social effects that limit the horizons of collective action. The swing of a baton or the pull of a trigger are cheap in pure resource terms, making them attractive options for challengers seeking to establish power. Though pulling a trigger is a cheap way to obtain power, it is also a cheap way for you to destroy whatever I power I gain. Violence bears latent costs, explaining why those in power seek to replace coercion with authority or persuasion at the earliest possible point in their rise.

Then there’s the volatile fourth kind, the half-type – insanity. Authority is, “Do as I say because of who I am.” Persuasion is, “Do as I say, because it’s in your best interests.” Coercion is, “Do as I say or I’ll hit you with this stick.” Crazy is, “Do as I say, because purplemonkeydishwasher.” The Politics of Crazy is the politics of irrationality, the power of those operating beyond the reach of logic or deterrence.

Insanity translates into power by nullifying the calculations behind the other forms, replacing them with the screeching unpredictability of a player willing to undermine even their own apparent interests in pursuit of some goal. Often, that goal is itself opaque, confusing or insane.

Liberated from rational fear of reprisal or failure, crazy can operate in a realm of limitless ambition. Costs and utility of crazy are hard to quantify. Sometimes, if leveraged merely as theatre, its price can be de minimis. Put into action its damage can be catastrophic. Incorporated into policy, it can exact a dripping toll of aimlessness, a kind of wandering skew occluding desired outcomes. Insanity is a volatile, dangerous, half-form of power, but it remains essential and it sometimes works.

A power strategy premised on the irrational protected the world during the Cold War. “Mutually Assured Destruction” was lunacy, a shared promise that any provocation could lead to total human annihilation. One might say that it worked, as the US and the Soviets navigated decades of lethal tensions with barely a shot fired between them. However, key to this use of insanity was a perverse assumption of rationality on both sides, a rationality which fostered the rise of institutional curbs, communication mechanisms and deterrents that protected the world. Crazy isn’t always so containable.

Two small states, North Korea and Israel, have built their power around the unstable fourth element. Surrounded by large, hostile powers, both have developed a deliberately ambiguous nuclear capability, hyper-militarized societies, and reputations for disproportionate violence. Each in their own way demonstrates the utility and the escalating cost of irrationality on a political system.

Of course, the exemplar of the power of crazy is terrorism. The 9/11 attacks were illogical on nearly every level. There was no tangible military or political objective to be achieved. The official goal of Al Qaida, removing US forces from the Arabian peninsula, has never been in sight. Yet that relatively inexpensive action triggered predictable if similarly irrational responses from their targets which proved far more destructive than the attacks themselves. Harm inflicted on the US, by the US as a consequence of 9/11, hasn’t ceased to accumulate. Under the right conditions, insanity can be chillingly rational.

No sustained, successful power strategy can fail to incorporate all three and a half types in some balance. Strategies vary based on their emphasis, and that emphasis is influenced by available resources, circumstances and competition. In lieu of a textbook, our Intro to Politics class used three novels, The Godfather, All the King’s Men, and The Last Hurrah. Each story presents a unique combination of the three and a half kinds of power, but The Godfather holds a particular resonance for our era. It unfolds in an environment defined by the relative dearth of legitimate authority available to the players. Lacking access to the cheapest, most stable forms of power, characters were pressed to leverage coercion and insanity in primary roles with frightening effects.  

We live in an age of diminished central authority. A B-grade Hollywood celebrity could perhaps leverage more power with a carefully constructed Tweet than the Pope could deploy via an encyclical. When established institutions lose their relevance and the cheapest channels of power close down, the field is left open for coercion and insanity. Those who rise from the muddle of a failing social order are those most willing to act in ways that seem, in the moment,  unreasonably destructive, dangerous and erratic. This is the Politics of Crazy. We missed our opportunity to thwart its rise, now we must reckon with the Politics of Crazy in full bloom, ensconced in the center of our most powerful institutions.

Charting a path back toward political stability begins at the beginning, revisiting the fundamentals of power. Where institutions are weak, authority is weak. Where authority is weak, successful public policy will adapt in ways that allow decentralized cooperation, like the behavior we see in markets and in social media institutions. We cannot simply vote our way back into an institutional order that no longer functions. Stepping back to revisit first principles can help us find the combination of tools necessary to reestablish stability in a changed environment.


This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.


  1. Re: Your paragraph on 9/11, I think you underestimate the rationality of bin Laden. Yes, you talk about the lasting damage he and the other Saudi’s did, but that was not some unforeseen byproduct. To terrify the U.S. into the reactions that followed were indeed hoped for, and as you said, not unexpected.

    I remember the day after going into the office the next day, and listening to 3 managers talking about the attacks. I stopped, and said “welcome to Fortress America”. They looked at me like I had two heads. They had no idea of what that meant. And yet, here we are, 17 years later, with a despot in charge, further isolating the U.S. from the rest of the planet.

    bin Laden got exactly what he hoped for. You can call it in bad taste, or any number of things, but bottom line, bin Laden and his crew may have the all-time world record of application of asymmetric power.

  2. Another great addition to your opus! 🙂

    Everyone likes to quote Machiavelli’s famous phrase: “It’s better to be feared than loved” but they conveniently forget the second, equally important part: “but worst of all is to be hated.” Fear is a rational response. Someone who fears you will bend to your will because they know that if they don’t they’ll be destroyed. But hatred is a passion, with no rational calculation. Someone who hates you will never submit to you regardless of whatever rational reason there might be to do so. And you will never be able to control him. It’s a great summary of your argument about how insanity throws all the previous calculations out the window.

    Also, you make a great point about authority: while ostensibly it’s backed by coercion, the truth is that authority never actually has as much power as it claims to. It couldn’t *actually* exert control if people simply refused to listen. This was the primary basis for Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance techniques: you didn’t have to fight against coercion. You merely had to stop accepting authority. And if they bring their violent coercion to bear, let them do it; while it might break a few bodies and arrest a few people, it will never be enough to actually maintain their authority.

    The moral benefit, that you don’t need to engage in violence, or essentially become your enemy in order to defeat it, is only a secondary political benefit (although Gandhi would probably argue that’s the primary benefit, and the political benefit was second 🙂

    This is why people who argue that Gandhi’s technique worked with the British because they were fundamentally good people who could ultimately see the righteousness of his cause, whereas he would have been ineffective against Nazi Germany because they would have had no problem killing everyone, are wrong: even the Nazis would never have been able to build enough gas chambers to kill every Indian, nor would they survive if Indian farmers / laborers simply stopped producing the goods that the Germans needed, i.e. Gandhi’s swadeshi movement, in which Indians simply stopped producing the goods that Britain needed, and made what they themselves needed instead. This significantly reduced British imports into India and their resulting profits. This was such a powerful part of the independence movement that the spinning wheel was incorporated into the Indian flag.

    (Also, I’d argue the British “moral” value is much overestimated by Brits looking back with rose-colored glasses. While many Brits were indeed horrified by colonial abuses and supported Indian independence, the vast majority had no problem doing whatever was necessary to maintain their “jewel in the crown”. At the end of the day, Britain didn’t relinquish India because Gandhi made them see the immorality of their ways; they did it because Gandhi made them see just how much it would cost to keep India under their control).

    I think Gandhi’s elevation into a holy man obscures the hard-as-nails, brilliant but supremely practical political strategies he advocated. And the core of his understanding was that there was no way an occupying force of ~100k British could rule ~300mil Indians, unless the Indians willingly accepted their authority. All you had to do was refuse their authority, without firing a single shot yourself, and you will win, because they will always run out of bullets before you run out of bodies.

  3. Hi Chris

    You are being very “American” again
    Your “model” with the flag and pledges of allegiance and the police using deadly force at traffic stops is very rare

    We simply don’t have that sort of thing – and most people would associate a “pledge of Allegiance” – and your flag and your worship of the military as comic banana republic stuff

    We seem to get on very well with “consensus” as the driving force

    1. I find the division of “types of power” to be impractical. Authority requires both coercive and persuasive power. Coercive, persuasive and Authority, etc etc. The only power which can operate alone IMHO is persuasive, but that relies on reason, which have noted is often unreliable. Most political revolutions only occurred historically after the respect for existing Authority has been discredited and the fear of Coercion diminished. While Insanity may be viewed as, “a player willing to undermine even their own apparent
      interests in pursuit of some goal.” that is solely because of a misunderstood “apparent” interest. Humans act in accordance with THEIR perceived self interests, not an outsiders. That is the only reason it appears “Insane”. The discrediting of almost all Authority in our social institutions has been a slow, long-lasting process. I think it strange that this development alarms anyone. What should alarm them is when persuasion is impossible to to tribal divisions and Authority has been discredited, Coercion appears to be Insanity to opponents because the “interests” are misunderstood.

    2. Duncan-
      I think you live in NZ, right? Don’t you celebrate ANZAC day? That’s not your independence day, or a battle fought on your shores, or even a victory. It’s a day that your military got annihilated by the Turks in a pointless battle that had nothing to do with the security of your own country. And yet your government has managed to make it a celebration about the military glory and geopolitical power of New Zealand (And those Aussies :-). If that’s not military propaganda in service of institutional authority, I don’t know what is…

      1. True – we celebrate a military disaster

        But we are still much more a society that chooses to be a society than the USA
        No pledge of allegiance for kids who are too young to choose
        No (or a lot less) mindless support for the military

        And we don’t celebrate the glory of war on ANZAC day – we celebrate the sacrifice made which is an entirely different thing

      2. “And we don’t celebrate the glory of war on ANZAC day – we celebrate the sacrifice made which is an entirely different thing”

        Sort of like Americans saying “thank you for your service” and honoring military personnel during football games? Or is that jingoistic and silly while ANZAC day isn’t?

        What about the sacrifice in Gallipoli do you celebrate? That your govt was hoodwinked by Winston Churchill into sending troops to be slaughtered in a battle that had nothing to do with NZ’s security?

        I’m not trying to attack you, but celebrating “sacrifices” accomplishes the same thing as celebrating “victories”: it’s serves to glorify the military whether they win or not.

        One of the prime sources of the mystique surrounding the French Foreign Legion is their Battle of Dien Bien Phu, a disastrous fiasco in which French commanders sent their troops to die when they had already decided they were leaving Indochina. Yet the FFL still reveres that battle, and the French revere the Legion for being a part of it.

        Anyway, we’re getting off on a tangent, but I think you haven’t probed your society deep enough if you think you’re immune to the ways nationalism and jingoistic displays are used to increase a govt’s sway over its people.

  4. Idea: authority is always or almost always one of the other two-and-a-half types. We respect police because we believe in the system that will hunt and punish us if we decline to stop. The same applies with governments. Deference to religious leaders in areas where the religion isn’t comparable to government exhibits insanity, or as Harari put it in Sapiens, an imagined order that allows humans to cooperate in groups larger than 150.
    The only true deference to authority I can think of exists mainly in families and small groups.

    1. Why do people stand for the anthem? Why do schoolchildren put their hands over their hearts and recite the pledge of allegiance? Why does anyone ever do what a teacher tells them to? Authority is so pervasive that we seldom even recognize it in action. Yes, it often operates in conjunction with coercion, but it never possesses a fraction of the coercive force that people imagine. It’s my favorite because it’s so cheap and powerful.

      No one alive in ancient Egypt or Medieval Britain possessed enough coercive or persuasive power (money or violence) to make people build the pyramids or assemble a cathedral. Authority takes time to develop, it gets enveloped in culture and religion and mythology. People come to believe that it is irresistible when it is in most cases quite brittle. Religion has always been central to authority. Apart from the 20th century totalitarians I can’t think of a powerful authority existing without it. And the degree of coercion those 20th c totalitarians were forced to deploy kind of demonstrates the point. In a secular environment, I’m not sure you can establish enough cultural weight behind authority figures for authority to become a very useful tool. That problem is evident all around us, as our central institutions lose their power. We may end up missing it.

    2. Could “habit” be considered another form of authority?

      How many times have progressive elements have been told to not rock the boat?

      I suggest, historically, just about any excuse will work as long as people aren’t willing (or not interested) in causing change. “It was good enough for my father’s father, it is good enough for you” worked for a long time.

      Do people obey laws because of respect for authority? fear of punishment? How about a discipline (habit) of behaving as you expect others to behave?

      Chris, you are right that we may end up missing it, but the other side of the coin is that too many people want a central authority to do their thinking for them.

      Central Institutions may be a necessary evil, but it is more evil than not if people let the authority overrule independent thought and individual sense of right and wrong.

      It is wrong to demand that people must stand and pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth. Just as it would be wrong to keep people from praying to a pair of wooden sticks in the form of a cross.

      Having rules for efficiency of operation (for groups of more that 150) is one thing, trying to force them into group think is another thing entirely.

      1. Children can be expected to defer to adults for obvious evolved reasons. And once certain patterns are set they usually continue for life.
        As dfcord suggests, identification with a flag can be akin to a religion. The main candidate for a difference is that religions usually rely in part on holding up falsifiable claims about physical reality as infallible. I think this difference has something to do with what you’re highlighting as “insanity”. Every group has “myths”, or imagined orders, but not all myths are created equal. Some myths allow for diverse and innovative societies, and others fear discovery and novelty.
        And I suppose I can get on board with that taxonomy. So long as the church is encouraging marital fidelity, respect, empathy, good parenting tactics, etc. I’m sympathetic to it and don’t need to classify it as “insanity”. When it’s trying to crush belief in climate change and labeling all outsiders as evil, and in doing so creates a bunch of acolytes who are susceptible to Trumpism, we have a problem on our hands.

        I think there is something to habit – the status quo – having power. Not that progressives don’t use it too when they can; I’m thinking of Social Security and opposition to UBI but I could also point to Chris’s writings about Democratic corruption and the lack of political competition in cities.

      2. ***Could “habit” be considered another form of authority?***

        Habit is a manifestation of authority, and probably the cheapest element of its power. In the realm of power, authority is like magic. When you can use it it’s just spectacular. But it takes forever to accumulate and its easy to overplay it and ruin it.

      3. The “magic” of authority may appear spectacular but it is often too easy to figure out how the trick is done.

        It may have taken quite a bit of coercion and/or persuasion to get people to become coal miners. However, once done, would-be-dictators like Trump can just promise to “bring back coal” to those who want to believe it can be done.

        The same goes for the good-old-days when white males dominated women who were relegated to being barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen and non-whites were forced to live in ghettos and could only get low-paying jobs.

        Hopefully, this is the last gasp for those trying to return to the good-old-days.

        Conservatives, by definition, tend to want to maintain the status quo. Progressives, by definition, tend to try changing things for the better (at least their version of better).

        What do we call people who want to change things back? Regressives?

  5. It is said that the Oracle of Delphi claimed no man was wiser than Socrates. To me, that fable indicates no one can be wiser than people who know they don’t know.

    It takes an certain amount of insanity to proclaim certainty in an uncertain reality.

    Unfortunately, I have found that a lot of people find thinking for themselves as being to difficult. It requires listening to considering opinions you don’t want to believe can be true.

    Thank you Chris for providing a place to have intellectual discussions and debate.

    Unfortunately, Kedx, Trump may need to stick around a little bit longer before the lesson truly sinks in. Someday people will regret and try to deny they ever supported Trump. At least that is my hope.

    1. Certainty is indeed impossible, but in my experience people who invoke this maxim most often are themselves among the most certain. They invoke the impossibility of certainty as a means to tear down more open-minded and inquiring people, and lower them to their own level as ideologues.
      The argument goes something like this:
      1. Certainty is impossible
      2. Knowledge is impossible (reached by obfuscation and greasy use of terms)
      3. All theories are equally good
      4. I’m as smart as you (subtext: at worst I’m as dumb as you but actually I’m not because I have Universal Truth on my side)

      Maybe the solution is to be uncertain but also to recognize when someone knows much less than you do. You’re uncertain, but you know your view is more plausible.

      I hope for regret and denial among the Rs as well. Shame can be constructive if applied properly.
      This sort of attitude, even as metaphor, would be counter-productive if applied to any/all Republican voters, but on the level of leaders and politicians I’m reminded of Inglourious Basterds:
      “But I do have one question. When you get to your little place on Nantucket Island, I ‘magine you’re gonna take off that handsome-lookin’ S.S. uniform of yours, ain’tcha?… That’s what I thought. Now that I can’t abide… I mean, if I had my way… you’d wear that goddamn uniform for the rest of your pecker-suckin’ life. But I’m aware that ain’t practical, I mean at some point you’re gonna hafta take it off. So. I’m ‘onna give you a little somethin’ you can’t take off.”

  6. Chris,

    Your argument conflicts with itself:

    Rhetorical persuasion is almost exclusively deployed within relatively small, trust-based groups of largely like-minded people.


    A B-grade Hollywood celebrity could perhaps leverage more power with a carefully constructed Tweet than the Pope could deploy via an encyclical.

    Also, I feel you neglect the rhetorical power of both the image and the passage of time.

    What I got was a copy The Godfather

    as a channel for of power

    1. Re the rhetorical power of the passage of time

      Say a newly elected head of country takes the throne. Interested groups of the governed keep their eyes on the throne. Time passes, their situations don’t change. Over time and without bribes, the throne-watching groups become persuaded of a specific political situation.

      Re the rhetorical power of image

      There’s a reason the SPCA uses images of broken dogs to raise funds. It works. A photo of a black guy being beaten by white nationalists in a parking garage is also persuasive, no caption required. Images of black people altered by white nationalists certainly seem to persuade some.

      At one time, the original old coots — Plato, Socrates, et al — told us that logical thinking and the speaker’s good character were persuasive.

      Now that the human race has entertained both Nazis and Trump in a relatively few decades, it’s time the old coots and scholars admit they don’t know what persuades anyone of anything — unless it’s knowledge of a deep, dark hole in the human psyche willing to demean, even kill, for no logical reason at all.

      1. That issue of time as a factor in social calculations is interesting. It’s the achilles heel of economics in particular. It’s difficult enough to form a sensible theory of how a social process works. Trying to describe the ways it moves and develops on a timeline becomes maddeningly tough. All of the economics I was taught back in the stone age was premised on “a point in time.” Once you put those models in motion on a timeline all the assumptions start traveling in crazy directions that ruin the model.

        We know so little.

      2. Bobo, thank you for your comments.

        I agree we have compelling evidence humans are quite capable of illogical, destructive “evil” behavior.

        As individuals, we have a choice as to whether or not we will be part of the problem or part of the solution.

        I suggest the wisdom of dealing with the situation is to recognize, as Chris posted that “we know so little”.

        “To thine own-self be true” is my main philosophy.

        Even if it means allowing myself to be forced to drink hemlock.

      3. dfcord, I agree we choose how much we will participate in the demands of civilization. It seems convenient, soft even.

        For some of us, a mere glimpse of how painful in can be without strictures — and the rule of law, for example — convinces us it is the only logical choice.

  7. I’ve sadly spent too much of my life dealing with people who deploy ‘insanity’ as their primary form of power to control people and the environment around them. For a large swath of society, Trump was a horrific shock to the system. For me, to paraphrase TV Tropes, Trump’s election was just another Tuesday. The thing about ‘insanity’ as a control mechanism is that its whole power is based on everyone else believing the person deploying it is actually insane. Most people, though a combination of rationality and cowardice, don’t question or stand up to the insane for fear of being harmed. The best thing I’ve found I can do with people deploying ‘insanity’ when other methods of intervention aren’t available is to just call their bluff. If they are going to go ‘insane’, then I might as get my money’s worth from the fireworks display. Sometimes that does mean you get a knife welding crackpot, but most of the time you get , one, spoiled person who learned early on that a temper-tantrum will get them everything they wanted and no one in authority during their formative years slapped them down for a screaming fit or, two, a person who is really good actor and should have been in Hollywood. I get the feeling that the anonymous NYT op-ed, Omarosa’s book, and Woodward’s book are all about trying to trip the the Trump bear trap trigger so that Trump’s bluff is called. It doesn’t matter if Trump is actually insane, a little boy pounding his fists, a great actor, or some combination of the above because he HAS to be dealt with no matter the cost.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.