Moisés Naím on the New Dynamics of Political Power

Moisés Naím

Moisés Naím is a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an internationally syndicated columnist. He served as editor in chief of Foreign Policy, as Venezuela’s trade minister, and as executive director of the World Bank. He is the author of The End of Power: From Boardrooms to Battlefields and Churches to States, Why Being In Charge Isn’t What It Used to Be and most recently, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century.

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But what we have now is something that has not been sufficiently discussed, sufficiently understood, which is a criminalized state of which Russia is an example, in the Balkans we have some examples, in Latin America Venezuela stands out as an example. And that is essentially that the state becomes an organized criminal organization. An organization that essentially uses the structure, strategies, tactics, modalities of organized crime.

Moisés Naím

Key Highlights

  • How 3P Autocrats Use Polarization, Populism, and Post-Truth to Consolidate Power
  • Why do People Elect Autocrats
  • Naím’s Personal Evolution in his Ideas on Power
  • The Rise of the Criminal State
  • Naím discusses Putin, Russia, and the War in Ukraine

Podcast Transcript

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Today’s guest is Moisés Naím. He is a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an internationally syndicated columnist. He served as editor in chief of Foreign Policy, as Venezuela’s trade minister, and as executive director of the World Bank. But many of us remember him as the author of The End of Power. His new book is The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century.

Our conversation explores how autocracy is different in the 21st Century, how it poses a unique challenge to democracy, and yes we do discuss Putin, Russia, and the war in Ukraine. But what I found most fascinating was when Moisés walked me through his intellectual development in how he thinks about power. It’s a powerful and personal account. So, let’s get started. Here is my conversation with Moisés Naím…


Moisés Naím, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Moisés Naím

Thank you. Thanks for inviting me.


So, Moisés, I’ve actually listened to a lot of your interviews and I notice how almost everybody asks you about Donald Trump. And you’ve got a very funny response. You always say, ‘I’ve seen this movie before, but in Spanish.’ And you’re referring to the rise of Hugo Chávez in your country of Venezuela when you say that. So, why don’t we start there? When did you recognize the danger that Hugo Chávez posed?

Moisés Naím

Well, after he was a democratically elected, he immediately developed habits and ways of governing that sounded and felt undemocratic. And in the book, I have a script, if you will, that is followed by these autocrats and he was following it, you know, the demonization of the media and the opposition, denying that anything good happened before his arrival, describing the past in ways that are terrible. So, it started little by little. You know, these new autocrats that I discuss in the book are not event autocrats. You know, it used to be that you had coup d’états and shifts of power, the military taking power. It was an event. You know, a bunch of generals with dark glasses go on television and declared that they are running the country period. And that was an event.

That still happens, you know, from time to time. We just saw it in Burma recently where the military junta just took power. That was an event even though there was some longer context to that. But what I’m aiming at is the description of a process. The backsliding of these democracies into autocracies doesn’t happen one day with one event, but happens as a process in which a lot of small things, some of them invisible to the naked eye, that happened deep inside the administration, deep inside Congress, deep inside the Supreme Court. You know, little things or big things that happened that you have to be very watchful.

And so, stealthiness is part of the process of backsliding. And then all of a sudden you discover that the president is directly or indirectly controlling all of the checks and balances that are designed to define a democracy and designed to curtail the power of the chief executive.


Now, when Donald Trump ran for president, up until he was elected, I really didn’t think it was going to happen. When Hugo Chávez declared his candidacy for president, I can’t imagine that anyone took him seriously. He had been let out of jail for literally trying to stage the kind of coup you just described doesn’t happen as frequently anymore. Did you believe that Hugo Chávez was going to take power and even after he was elected, did you think it was going to turn out as badly as it did?

Moisés Naím

One of the occupational hazards of a columnist like me is that wrong columns and big mistakes are on the record. And I was on the record saying that I didn’t believe that Hugo Chávez would last very long because his policies were so drastically severely at odds with what was the norm in the country and what was necessary in the country that I said, you know, ‘This guy cannot last.’ He was also attacking in very undemocratic ways the basic institutions of democracy. So, I wrote a column saying that, you know, we should give him his full term in office, let him govern. And unfortunately, you know, his successor will inherit a mess, but we will continue to have a democracy in which, you know, the different political parties alternate in power.

Well, big mistake. Hugo Chávez was in power and now his successor, his anointed successor, is in power for over two decades and with no indication that there’s going to be a regime change. So, you know, yes, you’re right. It was very clear to me at the time that that was impossible and then it happened.


Well, I’m sure you weren’t the only one at the time. I want to kind of pivot over to what makes today’s autocrats different. In the book you write, “In their quest for absolute power today’s aspiring autocrats are duplicitous in ways their 20th century predecessors seldom needed to be.” So, Moises, what makes today’s autocrats different from their predecessors?

Moisés Naím

Technology, society, distribution of power, the ways in which power is acquired, used, and abused and sometimes lost. And by technology not only, importantly, of course, you have to include internet and social media and all the platforms. The internet, we were told, was a tool of liberation in which democrats around the world would use to coordinate their actions and work challenging the dictator in their country or the autocrat. And well, yeah, that happened. But we also saw how the autocrat also learned to use the internet and then social media.

We were told that the internet was going to provide us more information than ever. That we will have access at very low cost or at zero cost, in principle, to all the information in the world. And will be very well-informed individuals and citizens and voters. Well, it happened, but in the way that we know that social media has been used as a weapon against democracy. In many countries it’s highly amplified and empowered by what is called post-truth, which is one of the three Ps I discuss in the book: post-truth, populism, and polarization.


So, why don’t we dive in just a little bit more into that? Because when I think about the ideas of populism, post-truth, and polarization. It feels like they’ve always existed and it feels like they’ve always existed together in a lot of ways. Like when I think of the rise of Adolf Hitler, when I think of the rise of Mussolini during the last major rise of autocracy, they tended to use these same exact types of tools. What makes those tools different in the 21st century than somebody like a Hitler or a Mussolini who would apply similar types of tools?

Moisés Naím

Absolutely. That’s a very important question and in the book, I go out of the way to stress that these three strategies or approaches have always been with us since time immemorial. Populism is nothing more than the modern expression of divide and conquer, a very old, approach used by old politicians and the military and tyrants around the world. And so, they have always existed. Polarization which is a clashing of different interests and perspectives and behaviors and identities also existed. And post-truth was traditionally called propaganda which is the use of misinformation and manipulation of information at the service of the regime. Hitler, you brought him up, had a Ministry of Propaganda headed by Goebbels.

So, what is new is that now that propaganda is not just managed and used and relied upon by governments, but we have millions of individuals that are participating in the process. In some ways, in very constructive ways, in other ways that are very destructive way anti-democratic ways. But what is new is how these three set of tools are intertwined and reinforce each other and become very potent. And again, technology is part of that, but the other part of that is this is a truly global phenomenon we see not just in the heart of Europe, but also see it in the United States, in the Western hemisphere, in Africa, in Asia, and so on. It’s truly global. And so, there are many features of novelty on these three sets of tools. But the core is, as you said, very old.


So, one of the things I notice about the 3P autocrats is that they very much embrace elections. I don’t know if I want to go so far as to say all of them do. I mean, I think we could debate whether or not a politician like Xi Jinping falls under a 3P autocrat or if we’re only talking about populists like Viktor Orbán or Erdoğan or some of those others, but I do think elections really do differentiate a lot of these politicians of today. The way that they don’t get rid of elections. They seem to thrive on them and they not only get elected, but oftentimes they get reelected multiple times before the elections no longer remain free nor fair.

In the book you write. “the 3P autocrats became popular because of their authoritarianism, not despite it.” That was one of the most striking lines in the entire book for me. It’s jarring. It just catches me off guard. Why would people support a candidate because of their authoritarianism?

Moisés Naím

So, let me unpack your question. There are actually a couple questions there. First, is elections and I’m finishing up a new research project in which I became curious about the frequency of elections, because it seemed to me that there were a lot of elections. So, I started studying and there are two facts that are complex to reconcile. One fact is that the number of people in the world that live in autocracies has increased and those that live in democratic regime have been decreasing for the last 15 years. Larry Diamond, a professor at Stanford, calls this a democratic recession. So, on the one hand, then you have democracy in decline. On the other hand, and this is the result of my research is that there are elections everywhere, all the time, for all kinds of things.

The world is in an election mode. All the time. And, you know, from President, Prime Minister, members of Congress, Governors, state and local authorities, judges – Everything. I bet you that as we speak there is some kind of election going on somewhere. How do you reconcile declining democracy and a booming election mode? The answer there, of course, is that a lot of these elections are sham elections. They have all the theatrics of elections. They have all of the institutional characteristics of elections. But we know who’s going to win by wide margins because the elections are tricked. Saddam Hussein systematically got 92% of the vote, same Qaddafi, same Vladimir Putin, same Nicolas Maduro. And then once you have that, you know, it trickles down to everybody. So, elections are very often a sham and very often tricked.

And so, the question then becomes… Why do they do it? Why do they need to do that? Why does Putin need to go through all the contortions: institutional, legal, political, international, communicational… All kinds of things he had to do in order to stay in power looking like a democrat. Well, because he needed legitimacy. Legitimacy is a most needed condition in politics and is in very short supply. Legitimacy is the authority that the voters bestow on a leader or a group of leaders to give them the authority to govern them. You become legitimate because a bunch of voters decided that they trust you. That’s legitimacy and legitimacy is in short supply in the world.

There are many kinds of sources of legitimacy. But two relevant for this conversation is the legitimacy that is derived from the origin of this power. So, the origin is an election and that gives you a lot of legitimacy. If you win an election, you’re very legitimate. But there’s another kind of legitimacy that depends on your performance. You might have won the election, but your performance is terrible. And the people are very unhappy and they don’t like what you’re doing. So, you will become illegitimate in many ways. So, your legitimacy decreases.

Well around the world, in this time and age, it’s very hard to be successful governing. Governing has become… has always been hard, but now is harder than ever. We are going through a bunch of crises, a bunch of situations that are unprecedented. It’s very hard to be a successful head of state or elected official. And so, they try to find anything that will help them gain some legitimacy.


So, I find that elections are an important part of the 3P autocrat. It is something that really differentiates them from autocrats in the past like, I don’t know, a Russian autocrat in the 19th century would have just thought elections were crazy. They wouldn’t have considered them at all. But many of the autocrats today, Nicolas Maduro, many others, like I said, thrive on those elections. They depend on them for legitimacy, like you just said. But there are still autocrats that exist that seem to have some of the characteristics of the 3P autocrat that don’t depend on elections. Do you think that Xi Jinping fits the mold of a 3P autocrat? Are there other autocrats that you think of that don’t use elections that fit the 3P autocrat archetype?

Moisés Naím

Of course, there are many. The Iranian theocracy, they’re just pure dictators.


is it a 3P autocrat though or is it more of a different type, even an older style of an autocrat?

Moisés Naím

One can safely say that they use the tools of the 3Ps. So, Xi Jinping has used populism and a lot of. his policies, in some cases, have been highly populist. He has also increased polarization. Remember he had this big campaign against corruption which probably was necessary and welcome, but small detail there was the people that went to jail were his critics, not his supporters. And in Saudi Arabia, they also went big time after corruption, but it essentially was to make sure the critics, would not be too powerful. So, we have polarization in these countries and we have, of course, use of alternative reality which you would call post-truth. And we have seen China using post-truth. We have seen Egypt using it. We have seen Lukashenko in Belarus using that. These are pure dictators, but, you know, why shouldn’t they use the tools of the 3Ps.


So, as I’m reading your books, you obviously refer to the idea of power in a lot of your work and a lot of your ideas, but at the same time, it feels a lot more like a metaphor sometimes to me than a realized concept. So, I’d like to take a moment to just take a step back and allow you in your own words to describe power.

Moisés Naím

Let me do two things. I’ll give you a conceptual answer. And then I will give you an experiential answer. The conceptual answer is that the definition of power has not changed. It is what it has always been. It is the capacity of one individual or institution to make others do or stop doing something. You know, we can make it as complicated as one wants and recite the historical scholars, Foucault and, you know, we can go into that route of parsing that detail, the definition of democracy. But there’s an agreement that as a basis, what I just described, the capacity to make others to stop doing something or stop doing something now or in the future is a definition everybody agrees.

So, once you have that then you ask, ‘Well, where are the origins? What are the sources of that?’ And that has changed. The basic definition has not changed, but the sources and the constraints and the ways of using democracy have changed. That was the theme of my book, The End of Power, that essentially looked at the forces that were fragmenting, weakening power around the world making it harder to use. The central conclusion of the book is that power had become easier to acquire, harder to use, and easier to lose. That is a conceptual answer to your question.

If I may, briefly, let me give you my personal experience. It started when I was in government in Venezuela. I was the minister of Industry and Trade and also we call it fomento, development, and it was very complex. It was very difficult. But something that really stuck with me is a lack of proportion between what people thought was my power and what it really was. It was a big disconnect between what people expected and assumed that I could do and what I knew the constraints I had…. I felt very constrained. Then I went after being a minister, I went to the World Bank and I became an Executive Director of the World Bank, a position that put me in touch with governments and government officials and heads of state and ministers from around the world

And I made it my business to always ask how they felt about power. And it was incredible to discover how each of them felt that they were deeply constrained. That there was, you know, this, lack of proportion between responsibilities and authorities and resources. And the capacity to make these things happen was exaggerated. And they were deeply constrained. After that I left the bank and I started looking at globalization and I was at the time the editor of Foreign Policy magazine and our interest was to try to understand what were the surprising new links that were happening as a result of deeper integration around the world.

And as I was studying that I caught my eye that some of the early adopters, the most effective early adopters of the opportunities created by the new world were criminals. And I started studying criminals and the transnational criminal networks just to understand globalization because they exploited the opportunities of globalization in a way that was faster, deeper and more effective than any other entity that was globalizing. You know, we were at the time in the late 90s in which everything was going global – religion, some politicians, ideologies and companies, and hobbyists, and terrorists, criminal cartels. Everyone was going global.

And so, by looking at the criminal cartels, the transnational criminal cartels, I got a very interesting perspective on what was happening. And the essence of what was happening is that these cartels were winning the wars against, government. No government could show any success in fighting drug cartels or people trafficking cartels or money laundering. And so, who had the power there and how? And so, that led me to try to understand what were the determinants of power and who had it, who was using it, who was losing it? And so, I have been tracking it. And as a result of that this is the new book, The Revenge of Power, that tries to understand the first book. The End of Power was looking at the forces that weaken power. This one looks at the forces that strengthen and concentrate power.


So, you just mentioned about how criminalization was one of the leaders in globalization and that’s a theme that comes through in your recent book. But it’s also something that we’re dealing with in the real world right now with Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I mean, I don’t think that there’s any other country that fits the archetype of the criminal state better than Russia and it’s a topic that a lot of people have recognized. Jan-Werner Müller, in his recent book, wrote, “Involving others in criminality, compels their loyalty to the regime.”

I mean using the idea of making people feel that the only choice is to break the law, to be able to succeed, to be able to survive inside of a regime makes it so that you become complicit even in that criminality. How does that criminalization really transform the way that politics works and power works for just ordinary people?

Moisés Naím

So, let me answer that with the evolution of a concept and where it started and where are we now. And that is the concept of corruption. It all started with corruption. And essentially very often one talks about the corruption of this or that regime and this or that individual. It essentially has to do with somebody inside the state, inside the government in cahoots with somebody in the private sector quote, unquote outside the government that they collude in order to extract rents either by stealing 20% of the highway that was built or by changing a permit to build somewhere through the zoning. And just by changing the zoning you add several million to your pocket. There’s a long list of corruption based on this collusion between outside the government agents and government officials. So, that’s corruption.

But then in some cases it got really big, huge, and we started calling them kleptocracies. Very often we referred to African cases in which the dictator and his family and cronies and the military just looted the country. And their main purpose was, of course, lining their own pockets and becoming very, very wealthy. But they didn’t use the criminality and the corruption to go beyond stealing. But what we have now is something that has not been sufficiently discussed, sufficiently understood, which is a criminalized state of which Russia is an example, in the Balkans we have some examples, in Latin America Venezuela stands out as an example.

And that is essentially that the state becomes an organized criminal organization. An organization that essentially uses the structure strategies, tactics, modalities of organized crime and is embedded in the state. It’s not that there is a different agent outside the state. And they’re not just using the money to enrich themselves. That’s a top priority to make a lot of money for them and their cronies, but they don’t stop there. They use criminal behavior as a tool of statecraft. They use criminality at the service of the foreign policy. For example, they use it to repress and harass and sometimes assassinate adversaries and critics at home whenever. So, criminalization, the criminalization of the state, becomes a tool of statecraft. And that is very different because there is the profit motive, but also there is the power motive and the use of organized crime as a tool of power.


Also reminds me of Tom Burgis’ book, Kleptopia, where he draws direct lines of how people in countries that are not by their nature corrupt become involved in the criminal process, because you’re filtering money from one place to another. That the next thing you know the money’s in Great Britain. The money’s in the United States and the United States then becomes complicit in the criminal behavior Itself because it’s financing and fueling some of those behaviors. Do you think that some of the sanctions that are being placed on Russia that are effectively decoupling it from the world economy, do you think that that has the potential to help cleanse some of the liberal democracies from some of this criminal behavior?

Moisés Naím

I surely hope so. I do hope so. I have seen and been very frustrated by watching the tolerance that democracies around the world have for public officials and politicians from other countries. Spain is a painful example for Venezuelans, because the level of thievery, corruption, and stealing that went on in Venezuela. Before being the catastrophe that it is today, Venezuela was one of the world’s leading producers of oil. So, there was a lot of wealth that accrued to the state that was essentially stolen by Hugo Chávez, by Nicolas Maduro, his successor, and the families or friends in the military. And that money is being enjoyed and invested and used in Spain. A lot of it.

You know there are whole neighborhoods in Madrid that used to be the poshest neighborhoods that are now filled with Venezuela thieves elegantly dressed living in mansions with big cars, but they all use stolen money. The same you can say with London, very often called Londonstan, because you know, all the oligarchs have a lot of their wealth there. And again, we have seen the chasing of the mega yachts and the mega yachts running to the Maldives too hide or the private jets and all that.

So, I do hope. I do hope, if not a solution, but at least we will end up not having such a peaceful coexistence with thievery and looting one’s country. And Russia has been an extreme case of this. I did write several years ago an article in Foreign Affairs titled “Mafia State” where I described all of this, but at the time I didn’t – I didn’t have it as clear. The notion of moving forward beyond corruption, beyond the kleptocracy, even beyond the mafia state to what is now the criminalized nation that uses organized crime as a tool of statecraft.


So, staying on the topic of Russia. In the book you’ve got five different battles that you say that we need to win. And one of those is the battle against the big lie. Vladimir Putin’s clearly been using big lies to be able to make the claim that the war in Ukraine isn’t even really a war. I mean, we were hearing weird stories about the perceptions that people in Russia actually have about what’s going on in Ukraine day by day. Joe Biden though, before Russia actually invaded Ukraine began a process of refuting the big lie, standing up against it, disclosing information from the intelligence services to combat Putin’s dishonesty. Do you think that Joe Biden provided a template to overcome the big lie?

Moisés Naím

I hope so. I surely hope so. And I hope that this is another of the silver linings of this horrible tragedy. But let me just amplify the examples because it’s not just Vladimir Putin lying about the history of the Balkans. We have George W. Bush lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We have Boris Johnson, the prime minister of Great Britain today, who lied concerning Brexit. There was hard data on that and a lot of studies that show that it was a catastrophic idea. It was a very bad idea. And yet they changed the numbers. There was a big lie behind Brexit. And, of course, we have Donald Trump’s big lie concerning the fact that he lost the election and he just made millions of Americans convinced, persuaded that the election was stolen.

So, the big lie is a bigger story than what we see now concerning Putin. To finish I think it’s very important that we increase the costs for the big liars to be practitioners of that art. The fact that you tell a big lie and nothing happens, it’s terrible. And so, we need to increase the risks and the costs it cannot be that just, you know, ‘Oops, I lied about a very substantial, important transcendental matter of state. But, you know, oh, sorry. Oops. You know, let’s move on.’ No. There should be more consequences for those that use these big lies that are transformational, that are very important, that are geopolitical in nature.


Now, you just mentioned that George W. Bush and Boris Johnson had provided examples where they participated in the big lie or big lies of their own. Are you jumping to say that they are also 3P autocrats or are you saying that even people that are not 3P autocrats can normalize some of this behavior and make it easier for somebody who is to be able to seize power and hold on to it?

Moisés Naím

Yeah, that’s a good question. It’s easier to answer for those that are no longer in power that, you know, had a term in power. George W. Bush was in power, but we didn’t see some of this criminal behavior. We did not see what we describe as the behavior of the 3P autocrat. You know, he may have used propaganda and manipulated information, but not at the levels that we have seen Donald Trump doing it, for example. And I don’t think anybody’s accusing Barack Obama of being a 3P autocrat. So, you know, it has to do with a respect for democracy. Not trying to undermine, stealthily undermine, the checks and balances that they find in democracy. That’s the test.


So, in the book, you write, “What’s at stake is not just whether democracy will thrive in the 21st century, but whether it will even survive as the dominant system of government, the default setting in the global village. Freedom’s survival is not guaranteed.” Earlier this month, Freedom House published it’s Freedom in the World survey where we now have 16 straight years of democratic decline. And that happened before Russia invaded Ukraine. Has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a turning point in the democratic recession? Is this something that’s going to make things worse or does the West’s response, mark a turning point that maybe things are bound to get better?

Moisés Naím

It depends on how it ends. And things are in flux as you and I speak. Things are happening both in the corridors of power of all the countries involved and on the ground with the shelling and the bombing and the refugee crisis. So, we are in the midst of this tragedy and it’s not clear how it is going to evolve. What we know is that Russia, if the sanctions, the very serious sanctions, that have been imposed on Russia by Europe, the United States, Japan, and many other countries, Switzerland, and others, if those sanctions continue, in the next five years Russia is going to be much, much poorer and Russians will be much, much poorer.

Some of them will be willing to go to the streets and public squares and protest against the regime. And from what we have seen historically Putin’s behavior when threatened is to unleash very, very damaging painful inhuman attacks So, one can expect if Russia’s standards of living plummet, as it looks like it’s going to happen, if the sanctions are sustained there is going to be a horrible repression by Vladimir Putin and his government against the Russians that are protesting, not just for their standard of living, but for their freedom. And is this tragedy, at the end, good or bad for democracy? Is what’s happening in the capacity of Europeans to work together and unite for the first time and act swiftly and not bureaucratically? Will this yield a better world in which democracy is more protected? Well, it hinges on what happens in the next few years.


Well, thank you so much for joining me today. Your book, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century has been on my radar for months now. And I was so glad to be able to read it and it just did not disappoint. Thank you so much for writing it.

Moisés Naím

Thank you very much for those kind words. You know, writers never know if what their writing was going to be okay. And comments like yours matter a lot. Very encouraging. Thank you so much.

Key Links

The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century by Moisés Naím

Learn more about Moisés Naím

Follow Moisés Naím on Twitter @MoisesNaim

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22 thoughts on “Moisés Naím on the New Dynamics of Political Power

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  1. Thank you for this fascinating conversation. I confess I was somewhat surprised by Mr Naím’s key take-away on the personal experience of power (~19:40 in the podcast), which is captured in the single word, “constraint!”. (e.g. “And it was incredible to discover how each of them felt that they were deeply constrained.”) This struck me as surprising, because I had thought this was a platitude of the exercise of power within a “normal” (non-3P) democratic context. The “textbook”, if you like, is C.P. Snow’s novel The Corridors of Power (1964) which, even if it was less successful in critical terms for its artistic vision, nonetheless captured something essential about the limits of power for democratically elected office bearers.

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