A is for Adventure Time and Abe Lincoln: A PRIMER ON LEADERSHIP (Part 4)

Read PART 1 here, PART 2 here, and PART 3 here.

Part 4: A-Holes and Atreides – How many can you handle?

These are always the options on the table when someone is dissatisfied with a system, particularly a government system: Fix it or break it.

Fixing it will take time, effort, and focus from a number of groups. Breaking it takes significantly less of those things by far fewer people. Unfortunately, those willing to threaten to break it can always make this loom over those who want to fix it. That’s basically the point of a filibuster. One of the best, and truest, lines in the book Dune is by Paul Atreides: “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.” Or, less eloquently in the film: “He who can destroy a thing, controls a thing.”

Yes, I picked the movie over the series. Deal with it.

If you control what people need, they’ll give you things not to keep it from them. This is basic economic supply and demand. If they won’t give you what you want, then you won’t let them have what they want. In the case of the Dune universe, where all interstellar travel is dependent on a steady supply of  the spice melange, which can only be found on the desert planet of Arrakis, the ability to destroy Arrakis processing plants gives one control over essentially all of humanity. To quote the film: “He who controls the spice, controls the universe!”

And a meme was born

Now, pretend that what people need is to have a basic government system providing the groundwork for interaction with other people in order to procure goods and services and a basic level of stability that comes from preventing outside invasion. What would you give to someone not to break that? What if ask you to give up something fundamental, like, say, representation when imposing taxes? Well, then you might have to break the system.

Dictators have fancy clothes.

The problem is, unless you have the right people rebuilding it, breaking it usually just leads to a lot of suffering, and the final system is often not a huge improvement on the prior one. Look from the Roman Monarchy to Republic to Empire. Look at the French revolution that included The Reign of Terror and Napoleon becoming emperor (and he wasn’t even THAT bad of one, despite his attempts to conquer the world). Look at the fallout from the death of Alexander the Great or Ramses II. Hell, look at many of the former members of the Soviet Union. Or, in fiction, take a look at Dune. After Paul Atreides leads the revolution, he ends up becoming an even bigger source of genocide than the preceding empire, all in the name of doing what he believes is necessary (killing 61 BILLION people). You’d think that’d be enough, but his own son, Leto Atreides II, proceeded to be a genocidal dictator for 3,500 years, in the name of keeping humanity on the only path he believes will keep the human race going. These two both took power after “breaking” the system before them.

Of course, the United States itself is, mostly, an aversion of this: After we got through trying the Articles of Confederation and dealing with Shays’s Rebellion, our Constitutional Democratic-Republic was a much stronger system than we had broken, to such a degree that other systems began to turn towards it. This is because, whether you agree with all of their decisions, we did have a group of very intellectually (if not at all culturally or racially) diverse, but very intelligent, people working on it. That’s why it’s managed to handle such a massively changing world over the last 200+ years with relatively few major alterations.

Now, the reason why they were able to make such a strong new system is because they had a very large pool of knowledge about the previous systems. Ideas were submitted about basically every form of government from Egyptian God-Kings to French… God-Kings. Okay, not everything had really advanced a ton, but they also discussed all the other things that had been proposed, and why those models had failed/what had worked. It turns out that looking at an accurate picture of the past is a HUGE part of making good major decisions about the future, something that Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton will definitely tell you. Hint, f*cking Hint, American Education System.

Maybe enough schooling would tell us this quote’s by George Santayana.

But what’s the biggest benefit from this model of government? Well, it does really well on the “a**hole test.” What’s the “a**hole test,” you ask? Well, don’t ask that, I’m only just now making it up. Short answer: It’s how many a**holes it takes before your government starts making life miserable for everyone.


In a Dictatorship, it just takes 1 a**hole, and no one willing to stand up to that a**hole. A dictator can make life miserable for everyone except his army, and still be in power. In a Monarchy or an Empire, it’s pretty much the same thing, except that you usually have a family of a**holes. Granted, the dictator/emperor/king/whatever is usually more of a product of the people than a power themselves.

Which is why killing the dictator doesn’t usually solve the problem. Another one comes.

In a pure Democracy, it takes 51% of the country to be a**holes, but then they can absolutely devastate the 49%. In a pure Republic, it takes 51% of the appointed officials to be a**holes, but, they also can’t be too bad, because they will need to keep the people appointing them happy, and those people usually have to answer to a larger group of people. They can still be bad, but they can’t usually be “murder everyone” bad.


In a straight Democratic-Republic, those 51% of elected officials really have to keep at least 51% of their population happy enough to keep them… or at least not unhappy enough to get rid of them. And therein lies a huge distinction: Most people won’t be unhappy enough to vote for the other candidate, and they surely won’t be unhappy enough to try and engage in the system as a candidate or an advocate.

Add a Constitution which prevents certain forms of oppression or restricts power, and basically all of these are improved and require significantly more a**holes, because the individual a**holes are less effective.

Now, let’s check America’s a**hole test (sorry readers from other countries, but America First *checks historical notes for usage of that phrase* Scratch that, I’m just lazy): We have three branches of government. We elect 2 of them. The other one is appointed for life and has no allegiance to the population, only, theoretically, to the Constitution which protects the minimum rights of the population. If we have an a**hole President (like the King of Ooo), then the Legislature can get rid of them or overrule their vetoes. If we have a majority a**hole Legislature (in both houses), then the President can veto them. If we have an a**hole Legislature and an a**hole President, then they still can’t do anything unconstitutional without the Supreme Court overruling it. If we have an a**hole President, a majority a**hole Legislature, and an a**hole Supreme Court majority, well, then we deal with it for a few years and vote them out (hopefully). In the meantime, we have ways to slow down the amount of a**holery that can be inflicted in a short time.

This was clearly about government branches.

Now, we’ve had most of these scenarios a few times. We’ve only had the really bad one a few times (depending on your definition of a**hole). The biggest one was probably in 1856-1860, when the Supreme Court, influenced by the President-Elect, made the Dred Scott Decision. Then, in the next 4 years, the President made no effort to try to reconcile the two sides of the now much more pressing slavery issue, and in fact, tried to sabotage much of his own party, which meant the legislature could not deal with the panic of 1857 correctly, making everything worse for everyone… except for the people in the administration who were making bank (and the South, who didn’t suffer much from the panic and now didn’t have to consider any black person a citizen). Unfortunately, it turns out that having all three branches being a**holes didn’t work out well in general (see the Abe Lincoln part).

*It is worth noting, however, that, until the secession, this actually was the system working as it should: People were dissatisfied with what was happening in the nation, another option presented itself, and they took it. In fact, of the 4 candidates in the election of 1860, 3 were pretty much campaigning on setting America on a different path (only Breckinridge supported a position that Dred Scott could be allowed to stand). Unfortunately, 11 states decided that, despite having benefited massively from the government for the last 4 years while they had the majority, they were going to leave now that things might not be going their way. They chose to break the system, rather than try to work with it and the other side chose to try to keep them from breaking it.

AisFor4Alcohol.jpgNow, what does this a**hole test have to do with Leadership? Well, much like a famous quote about alcohol, leaders are the cause of, and solution to, a**holes getting into power. Because leaders are the only thing capable of galvanizing those who are unmotivated into dealing with a**holes, or convincing a**holes NOT to be a**holes. That’s the entire point of leadership: To get people off their butts. That’s why, in addition to the earlier qualities of being able to see the bigger picture and being able to make decisions in crucial moments, one of the most important qualities of an effective leader is the ability to get people to do things. The problem is that people mistake this for the primary qualification, and it ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT BE. Just because someone is persuasive or confident does not mean they actually know what they’re doing.  In fact, if someone is super confident in what they’re doing, it usually is a sign that it’s A) not a great idea and B) they’re not a good leader. This means that they’re probably not going to lead people against the a**holes, but convince people to just BE the a**holes.

For examples of that played out through fiction and reality, come back tomorrow.

Welcome to the Grouch on the Couch’s ABCs. This will be a monthly series until I can get a rhythm going… and figure out all of the letters. F*ck you, you try finding 26 topics connected by letters.

For some other work by the Grouch on the Couch, check out my reviews. If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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