The Logic of Political Survival: Summary & Review

The Logic of Political Survival book cover

The Logic of Political Survival (2003) introduces and explains the selectorate theory of politics, providing a framework to analyze the power dynamics of politics, wealth distribution, leadership, and the true Machiavellian thinking that governs politics.

Bullet Summary

  • It’s not so much about good or bad leaders, it’s about incentives and aligned -or misaligned- incentives
  • The well-being of the population increases when the leader needs them -and their vote- to stay in power (usually happens in large-suffrages and democracies)
  • Democracies with universal suffrages are generally the best system to ensure widespread well-being


About The Authors: Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is a Professor of Politics at the New York University. 
He is also the author of “The Dictator’s Handbook“, which is the popular and more marketing-friendly version of “The Logic of Political Survival”.

Politics Is All About Staying in Power

Character plays a small role in de Mesquita’s framework.

On the difference between rich and well-governed democracies and badly-run autocracies, he says:

Good fortune, serendipity, or the “right” political culture may be the reason that some societies are ruled by civic-minded leaders and others by ogres.
Surely some people are more civic-minded than others.
Perhaps democracies have the good fortune of having a disproportionate share of the world’s civic-minded leaders or of honest citizens. A pleasant thought but almost certainly false.

And then:

The differences in the performance of political leaders can be explained without any appeal to civic-mindedness or national character or culture.

Instead, all leaders want is to remain in power.

Says Bruce Bueno de Mesquita:

leaders are interested in enhancing their own welfare and so seek to produce what their supporters want.
The phrase “their supporters,” however, is not shorthand for the citizens of the state. The behavior of leaders arises from their own self-interest in holding their positions. If that coincides with or is compatible with the welfare of the citizenry, many will benefit. If the welfare of a leader and the welfare of the society are at odds—and our theory and data will indicate that they often are—it is more likely to go well for the leader than for society.

This is the central thesis of the book. 
And, as far as I am concerned, the authors proved that thesis -and, on top of the numbers, it also well aligns with people’s psychology and drives, so I take it for good-.

The Three Puzzles of Politics

De Mesquita opens the book with three “open puzzles” that conventional political science does not answer.

They are:

  1. Autocrats outliving democrats: Why do autocrats last in office about twice as long as do democrats, even while delivering poorer governance and living conditions?
  2. Why universal suffrages and election in autocracies: Why would any authoritarian state adopt universal adult suffrage as part of its political system? What value could leaders, elites, and ordinary citizens derive from rigged elections that everyone recognized as meaningless?
  3. How does democracy even emerge: How does democracy emerge? Is there a path to it, and could there be a path back to autocracy or monarchy?

The Players of Political Power Dynamics

The groups are:

  • Disenfranchised, or the people without citizenship and/or no voting rights have little say in political power dynamics (unless they join a revolution).
  • Selectorate: the set of people with a say in choosing leaders -at least nominally- and with a prospect (very small in autocracies, up to 50% in democracies) of gaining access to the winning coalition (which can entail special privileges doled out by leaders).
    Politics appears to be evolving so that the selectorate, roughly the citizenry, gradually expands to take in more and more members, thereby reducing the size of the disenfranchised group.
  • Winning coalition: the subgroup of the selectorate who maintains incumbents in office and in exchange receives special privileges. If enough members of the winning coalition defect to a rival politician, the incumbent loses office.
  • Leadership / incumbent: The smallest set of individuals is the leadership, which makes decisions about gathering and allocating resources. 
    The leadership can also be a small group of people, and not necessarily a single individual.
  • Challenger: prospective substitute leaders. They want the power and leadership, and seek to persuade the winning coalition to switch to them. The inability of the challenger to guarantee that the prospective defectors will always be members of his winning coalition is a substantial advantage for the incumbent leader.
selectorate theory for political power dynamics

Selectorate Theory

The selectorate theory focuses mainly on two groups when we look at politics from the leaders’ perspective: selectorate, and winning coalition.

Say the authors:

We believe, however, that the infinite variety of real-world institutional arrangements can be distilled into just two critical dimensions: the selectorate and the winning coalition.

Selectorate is defined as:

The set of people whose endowments include the qualities or characteristics institutionally required to choose the government’s leadership and necessary for gaining access to private benefits doled out by the government’s leadership.

And winning coalition is defined as:

A subset of the selectorate of sufficient size such that the subset’s support endows the leadership with political power over the remainder of the selectorate as well as over the disenfranchised members of the society.


Affinity is the idea that there are bonds between leaders and followers that both can use to anticipate each other’s future loyalty.

In the selectorate model, affinity is simply a preference for one individual over another.
It might be due to the nature of personal preferences, bloodlines, ethnic belonging, political affiliations, etc.

Affinities are important, however, in a model based on self-interest, affinities take a second stage to public and private goods in the decisions of leaders, challengers, or members of the selectorate.

My Note: affinities can take center stage in some cases
This is also another mostly true, yet not always true generalization. In some cases, like in revolutions driven by idelogies, affinities can take center stage -at least until when the revolution is accomplished, then it’s back to normal business-.

selectorate theory predictions

Source: The Logic of Political Survival (The MIT Press)

Why Autocrats Survive Longer

In the beginning, being an autocracy is more dangerous.

But past a few years, autocrats last longer than democrats.

Why so?

Explain the authors (redacted for brevity):

Leaders in small-coalition systems have a greater incumbency advantage than their large-coalition counterparts, especially if there is a large selectorate.

Political survival for leaders in large-coalition systems depends on the provision of public goods, and he is readily deposed by a challenger offering better public policies.

For leaders in small-coalition systems, survival depends on their ability to credibly promise access to future private goods.
This ability grows as a leader’s tenure increases. Therefore, while it is initially difficult for small-coalition leaders to survive, it becomes easier the longer they remain in office

Why Large Suffrages Bring Prosperity: All About Incentives

Remember that:

Those who are neither the leader nor members of the winning coalition derive benefits only to the extent that the government provides public goods. They enjoy none of the private benefits that coalition members get.

Leaders make three related sets of decisions:

  1. They choose a tax rate 
  2. They spend the revenue raised in a manner designed to help keep them in office (particularly by sustaining support among members of their winning coalition)
  3. They provide various mixes of public (for everyone’s consumption and well-being) and private goods (distributed only to members of the winning coalition)

Keep in mind that leaders want to reward those who keep them in power and don’t care nearly as much about anyone else.
When the people who keep the leader in power (winning coalition) increase, the size of the private goods gets diluted. And once the size of the winning coalition reaches a critical mass,  leaders are expected to shift their effort from the provision of private goods, to public goods that benefit all in society.

So large suffrages by choosing and keeping the leader in power “force” leaders to take care of a large swath of the population, decreasing private goods and corruption, and increasing general well-being.

Why Autocracies/Monarchies Becoming Democracies Are Stable

Democracies tend to be stable because the only incentive to go back to autocracy is on the leader’s side.

For the leadership and winning coalition, it’s a risk to abandon democracy (and a large winning coalition).
How can they be sure they will be welcome in the autocrat’s winning coalition, and not booted out or killed?
Furthermore, they already have a good life in a democracy, since democracies tend to afford good standards of living, so the risks of helping a democratic leader become an autocrat are too big.

And of course, the electorate and the general population always prefer democracy to autocracy.

So once a critical mass is reached for winning coalition’s size, the tendency for the winning coalition is to push to make that winning coalition larger, not smaller. And once a large coalition is established, it’s difficult to ever go back.

Large Selectorates With Small Winning Coalitions Empower Leaders

Remember that:

Coalition members, those who get the most power and private benefits, are drawn from a larger pool of “eligibles” called the selectorate.

Coalition members always want to remain in the winning coalition because that means lots of power and private goods for them.

They can be tempted though to switch to a challenger to the leader if he offers more power or private goods.
But switching is always. 
However, how big that risk is depends largely on the size of the selectorate.

Says de Mesquita:

The larger the selectorate relative to the winning coalition, the smaller the chance that a given member of the current leader’s coalition will be included in the challenger’s new winning coalition and so continue to receive private benefits.

This explains the existence of rigged election: it increases the size of the selectorate, which makes the winning coalition more fearful of being booted out, and thus more submisssive, compliant, and loyal to the leader.

Says de Mesquita:

In political systems characterized by small winning coalitions and large selectorates—as is common in many rigged-election autocracies—supporters of the leader are particularly loyal because the risk and cost of exclusion if the challenger comes to power are high.

Rigged elections are a leader’s power move.

And the opposite is true:

Conversely, in political systems characterized by large coalitions and large selectorates—as is common in many democracies—supporters of the leader have weak bonds of special privileges and so are more willing to defect.

And that’s why democratic leaders don’t last long.

The Incentives of War

Democratic states wage fewer wars.

Evidence suggests a few tendencies:

  1. Tendency for democracies not to fight with one another
  2. Tendency a tendency for democracies to fight with nondemocracies with considerable regularity
  3. Tendency for democracies to emerge victorious from their wars
  4. Tendency to use more peaceful conflict-management processes when democracies fight each other 
  5. Tendency for democracies to experience fewer battle deaths and fight shorter wars when they initiate conflict
  6. Tendency for transitional democracies to be more likely than democracies to fight one another
  7. Tendency for major-power democracies to be more constrained to avoid war than less powerful democracies.

Is it because democracies are naturally more “good” and virtuous?
Not really, says de Mesquita.

It’s because democratic leaders who must be voted and elected face higher risk in war, so they tend to avoid them. 
They prefer a peace settlement, even if it’s not ideal, rather than risking a war.

They do pick wars though against easy to beat opponents, since the risks are lower.
And democratic leaders pour far more resources in war efforts because they have to win in order to survive.

Autocrats instead can afford to lose a war and still remain in power. That’s why they have more light-hearted approach towards war.

The Arabian Nights: When Leaders Depends on Few People, Oppression & Kleptocracy Are The Norm 

I quote a whole passage as an example of real-life application of selectorate theory:

The vast Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties of the caliphate, which stretched from Spain through North Africa and much of the Middle East, were the epitome of a small-W, large-S system.

Their political structure and operations appear to have been designed to redistribute wealth from the poor to the rich through taxation.

It was a system in which kleptocracy was an essential characteristic of rule.

Effectively, the selectorate in the caliphate dynasties were the Arab nomads, whose number varied from 100,000-200,000 at the time of Muhammad’s initial conquest to several million in later dynasties.

To attain and keep office, the caliphs required support from two groups. The first group consisted of the leading provincial governors, senior administrators, and senior generals. Given the pool of at least several hundred thousand potential supporters, the caliphs rarely had problems filling such positions.
In addition to relying on these secular supporters, the caliphs depended on a religious group, the Ulema, for their legitimacy.

Unlike its contemporary Byzantine rival, the Islamic religious organization was decentralized, and while the caliphs needed approval by a proportion of the Ulema, they were free to pick supporters from within the Ulema.

Competition within the Ulema to join the coalition meant caliphs never had problems attaining the requisite religious endorsement.

In contrast, to be crowned Basileus in Constantinople required the support of the head of the Orthodox church.
While both Byzantium and the caliphate were small-coalition systems, this difference in selectorate size—that is, between needing the support of the religious leader in one case, and needing the support of a religious leader in the other—profoundly altered the functioning of these polities.

The larger selectorate in the caliphate led both to a lower turnover of leaders and to a greater number of rebellions in the caliphate as compared to Byzantium (see Finer’s comparison of the stability of the two systems on pp. 702-704).
The kleptocratic ability of the caliphate was truly staggering.
Finer (1997, 724) reports central government revenues for 918-919 as 15.5 million dinars, of which a colossal 10.5 million was spent on the caliph’s household.

It appears the luxurious excesses of the Arabian Nights were no exaggeration (Mather 1947). While it is hard to scale the value of 15.5 million dinars, it must have been a massive amount given the sheer size of the empire and the extraordinarily high taxes imposed.
Truly, the caliphate epitomized the high-taxation, high-kleptocracy approach indicative of a small-coalition, large-selectorate political system.

More Wisdom

  • Hobbes was wrong, Machiavelli was right: Hobbes’s confidence in monarchy was mistaken and Machiavelli’s, author of “The Prince“, was right: a republic is best for promoting freedom and institutional stability is correct
  • Democratic leaders must be careful with force: “leaders with large winning coalitions must be careful about using force. All leaders face a higher risk of removal when they use force, but the added risk is much greater for leaders with large winning coalitions.”


On the necessity for a political apparatus:

Make no mistake about it, no leader rules alone. Even the most oppressive dictators cannot survive the loss of support among their core constituents.

On promises VS realities once in power:

Innumerable other revolutionary leaders promise democracy, freedom, and equality. They offer peace and prosperity, but they all too often deliver corruption, poverty, and despair.

Zorro is fantasy only:

Terrorism and revolution make little sense for coalition members. After all, the current arrangement is giving them access to private benefits. Zorro or the Scarlet Pimpernel are the fancies of fiction and rarely a reality of politics.

On the disenfranchised:

They have comprised the vast majority of people throughout human history. They often are the cannon fodder of revolutions and wars.


  • Looking at politics through the lenses of total individual’s rationality is inherently a reduction of complexity (“homo economicus”)

The selectorate theory posits rational players who seek to maximize their interests.

While that’s often largely true and it applies very well to large systems and to the most disparate situations, the “homo economicus” is also a simplification of reality.

Also see “Misbehaving” by Richard Thaler, which is the story of how psychology improved on the economical models based on perfect individuals’ rationality.

  • Based on the premise that everyone wants to remain in power for power’s sake

This is not really a “con”, but more of a “limitation” of the approach.

And I’m pretty sure that power-hungry premise is valid the vast majority of times.
However, I can imagine there are some exceptions of leaders who were called upon to serve, but really just wanted to live a simpler life.

Those exceptional cases are not addressed in “The Logic of Political Survival”, albeit the author themselves are aware of this limitation, plus also provide a great reason as to why those are very rare exceptions: 

We have no doubt that many people value other things above political survival. It is just that such people are not likely to find themselves in high office and so need not overly occupy our interest.

And they’re largely right.

  • Some examples felt a bit forced

The authors say that Leopold, being a good king at home and a ruthless dictator in Cong proves that it’s selectorate incentives that drives the leader’s behavior.

Yet, they never consider that Leopold might have cared more about Belgians than distant Africans. 
Or that he might have felt a responsibility as a king of a Belgium for his subjects but not as an owner of a foreign land.

Same as for the Rome and Carthage example, with Rome supposedly fighting harder than Carthage in Italy because of its political structure.
But that fails to take into account that Rome was fighting at home, and fighting for its life, while Carthage was managing an expedition in a faraway land.
Naturally the foreign expedition was lower priority for Carthage’s political leaders.

  • Jumping to conclusions on xenophobic movements?

Say the authors:

These differences in immigration rules provide a partial explanation for the rise in right-wing xenophobic movements in Germany and France, but their relative absence in the United Kingdom and United States.

Trump’s election and the wall seem to prove that it’s not true that xenophobic movements are absent from the US. Albeit he might be right circa the extent of those movements, or about their roots.

  • Better editing would help

Some concepts repeat over and over, and the book could have been much shorter, and delivered all its enlightening wisdom in a smaller package.

The “three puzzles” in the opening chapter weren’t also very clear, since beneath each were nested several different questions and topics.

  • The “She” dictator

Man, talking about “political correctness”.

The authors do such a wonderful job to explain the true nature of power, and human nature and rip apart all the politically correct BS that some democratic leaders share.
And then, in the same book… Fall for this modern political correctness thing of using the pronoun “she” and “her” at every single sentence.

Now, quick: how many female dictators can you name?



Thoroughly well researched and eye-opening, “The Logic of Political Survival” is a must-read to understand politics, as well as human psychology and general power dynamics.

One of the most eye-opening, red pill book I’ve ever read.

Also read:

Or get the book on Amazon