The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why power attracts the wrong kind of people

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s actions in office, including curbing the independence of the courts and cracking down on Muslims, have led Freedom House to downgrade India’s status to “partly free.” (Photo by Gagan Nayar/AFP via Getty Images)

Why do bad people so often gain power? Why do we let them? And can anything be done to ensure that leaders are better people? These are the seminal questions Washington Post columnist Brian Klaas seeks to answer in “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us.”

The need is acute: Autocracy is on the march. Democracies have been dying — largely at the hands of their own elected leaders — for the last 15 years. Take Narendra Modi, who won reelection as prime minister of India in 2019, only to arrest politicians across Kashmir, clamp down on the independence of courts and businesses, and challenge the citizenship of many Muslim Indians. The world’s largest democracy was downgraded to “partly free” in Freedom House’s rankings last year. The same trajectory is afflicting democracies around the world, including Hungary, a country that Tucker Carlson has offered as a positive model for the United States.

Leaders anointed as reformers frequently start well but end badly. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, a year into his tenure, for making peace with Eritrea but is now starving hundreds of thousands of his citizens to bring a restive region to heel.

Why do so many leaders become authoritarian, violent or corrupt?

With a deft literary hand, Klaas describes how positions that offer power and possibilities for enrichment feature incentives that attract the wrong sort of people, through headings like “How Our Shoulders Shaped Society” and a cascade of stories — about the authoritarian leader of a homeowners association, a “megalomaniac janitor,” a “cannibal emperor” and the Doraville, Ga., police department’s M113 armored personnel carrier. His warnings would be more disturbing were they not delivered with such verve. Being so entertained, we can lose sight of the fact that police agencies whose recruitment ads feature military tanks and violent SWAT teams, and presidential roles with low oversight and heady possibilities for procurement contracts for family members, are going to pull the expected kinds of people into the recruitment pool. Meanwhile, while narcissistic psychopaths are rare, they are drawn to power and are very good at using charisma, manipulation and intimidation to get it. So they are overrepresented in leadership positions.

But we must also blame ourselves. The stone-age minds of voters evolved for eons to deal with hunter-gatherer societies but have been forced to address modern politics for only an evolutionary nanosecond. Klaas shows how ancient instincts reward height and overconfidence. Our poorly suited psychology also makes us prefer members of our own group — however unqualified — to far more able “outsiders.” Hence the importance New Yorkers attach to whether their leaders eat pizza correctly. Particularly when countries have broken into two opposing teams, this stone-age rule of thumb works against good leadership. As Milan Svolik has shown, voters claim to love democracy, but they love their own side just a little more — and a multitude of small choices that help one’s party can hurt democracy and lead to its degradation.

The unintended consequences of bad people seeking power and the public rewarding them explain why voters often throw the bum out — only to elect someone even worse. This poses a major problem for anti-corruption efforts, which too often shine light on sleaze and assume that voters will take it from there. In Italy, after judges in the “Clean Hands” campaign found corruption in all the major political parties, media magnate Silvio Berlusconi ran as an outsider. In his years in office, he curbed the country’s fight against the mafia and changed laws to save his business empire from legal scrutiny and himself from jail time. In Brazil, “Operation Car Wash” similarly uncovered graft across the political spectrum, ushering Jair Bolsonaro into power — now he’s under investigation for potential money laundering in his acquisition of Brazil’s coronavirus vaccine.

In 2016, about 70 percent of Americans believed that the economy was rigged against ordinary people and that the system unfairly worked for wealthy elites. When such sentiments are high, voters often look to wealthy candidates who, they assume, don’t need to enrich themselves. Many Americans voted for Donald Trump hoping he would “drain the swamp.” But corruption isn’t determined by need. Trump’s administration added more ooze to the quagmire.

Well-designed systems, Klaas claims, can rein in bad individuals. Diplomats from countries lacking the rule of law, for instance, regularly flouted parking rules in New York City when they had diplomatic immunity. But as soon as New York started to enforce traffic violations, the worst offenders cleaned up their acts quickly. Enforcement is crucial.

Another lesson is the importance of deepening and broadening competition. In the village of Stebbins, Alaska, “every [police] officer — every single one — had been convicted of domestic violence. . . . How could that have happened?” Klaas asks. “The Stebbins residents who were qualified didn’t apply.”

Yet Klaas, an associate professor at University College London, fails to bring his deep understanding of global politics to bear on the really tough problems. His stories offer ample tactical tweaks, such as improving recruitment to make jobs more attractive to better people, or rotating leadership posts and using randomized integrity tests focused on those at the top to catch those who can do the most harm.

His ideas are pitched at a level suited to business boardrooms. But for anyone seeking political improvements, Klaas sidesteps the hard questions. If a system is attracting a disproportionate share of corrupt politicians, they must be good at seducing voters, and voters reelect them. So how do you attract better people and get them elected? Moreover, Klaas ignores how dangerous it is to be an honest leader in a dishonest world. How can a country keep good leaders safe if they are surrounded by a bevy of vested interests keen to see them depart? What would it be like to be the one nonviolent cop in Stebbins? Klaas also overlooks anti-corruption campaigns, though his findings provide good reasons that their efforts should expand beyond exposing wrongdoing to recruiting more honest (and maybe tall) candidates and convincing voters of their worth.

Klaas’s failure to take on these tougher points provides little guidance on how to accomplish change. But his love for a rollicking tale yields a fun and entertaining book.


Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us

By Brian Klaas

306 pp. $28