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.