Does the current state of the world seem overwhelming? Do our leaders often seem to be all about themselves and not about us? Is it easier to turn on a sitcom rerun than to sit through the news because we feel so helpless to change what’s going on?
You’re not alone. Brian Klaas, a columnist for the Washington Post Assistant Professor of Global Politics at University College London, and author of the new book “Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us” (Scribner 2021; $28), has taken on the task of interviewing more than 500 world leaders from the best to the worst– to answer questions like the following. Does power corrupt or is it that corrupt people are drawn to power? What personality types are drawn to power? Why are so many dictators sociopaths and narcissists? And why do even good people, once in a position of power, become authoritarian?
Here is a brutal fact that will make you reach for remote and flip to an episode of “Green Acres” where the biggest problem of the day is whether Arnold the Talking Pig can take that trip to Hawaii he won.
Democracies are dying with more and more countries sliding towards authoritarian rule says Klaas who writes that there are no countervailing forces.
Indeed, Klaas who created and hosts the award-winning Power Corrupts podcast, says “There’s nothing that rewards being a sober moderate who believes in democracy and tries to govern by consensus.”
Describing democracy as being like a sandcastle, one that can be easily wiped out by a big wave or successive small hits, Klaas gives Turkey as an example.
“Initial coverage of Erdogan’s 2002 election was positive, showing him to be someone was a populist who would shake things up, go up against the elite and status quo, and bring democracy to Turkey,” says Klaas who looked back through New York Times archives to highlight how that country has changed for the worse. “For 19 years now, he’s chipped away at democracy instead.”
Though the book’s subject matter might seem dull, it’s not. Klaas is a strong writer with a sense of humor and he is very capable of delivering telling anecdotes that reflect the changes a democracy can encounter and how quickly that can happen in a compelling way.
“If you lose the battle for democracy, you don’t get to battle for taxes, infrastructure, healthcare, or any of the policies that change lives,” says Klaas, who earned a MPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford (New College) and an MPhil in Comparative Government from the University of Oxford (St. Anthony’s). “In the places that I’ve studied where democracy has died, it’s still dead pretty much everywhere.”
How to fix it?
Klaas suggests becoming active. Call your congressperson or senator, run for local office, become politically active, and in general, participate in making changes to bring about change.
“That’s the type of activity that ultimately can transform the political system at the national level,” he says.
But there’s no time to delay.
“If we don’t fix it in the next two to four years,” he says, “it probably won’t get fixed.”
Follow Brian Klaas’s podcast Power Corrupts.