A is for Adventure Time and Abe Lincoln: A PRIMER ON LEADERSHIP

Part 1: A Very Strange Election Day


You know this scene. It’s the end of election season. The race is between: a woman with a shady history of international spying, who is surrounded by rumors of potentially huge violence that has mostly been covered up, and who has been part of the entrenched government for basically as long as anyone can remember; and an outsider “businessman” who lies frequently and blatantly, who has a history of immoral activity bordering on the cartoonishly evil, and whose followers range from those who hate the entrenched power to those with an essentially religious devotion to him. While the woman’s supporters can be extremely corrupt, bordering on devilish, the outsider is being helped by a foreign power, even though the businessman might not have directly solicited it. While everyone assumes that the election will go to the woman, even leading her and her supporters to not treat the race all that seriously, the outsider ends up winning!

Congratulations, it’s 2015, and you’ve just watched “Hot Diggity Doom” on Adventure Time! You’ve just witnessed the election for Princess of the Candy Kingdom of Ooo.


Wait, you thought it was something else? Weird. Well, let’s have a look at the candidates, shall we?

AisFor1BubblegumPantsuitPrincess Bubblegum is the current head of the Candy Kingdom. She is part of the upper class and has been forever, she’s directly responsible for the current state of the Candy Kingdom (which isn’t bad, although the perception is that it is), and she is science-first to the extent that it often offends her “faith-based” magic-using subjects. She also has committed near-complete genocide (of sentient robots), has cameras placed to spy on all of her citizens as well as every foreign government she can(justifying it with “I’m PB, I spy on everybody”), sabotaged the weaponry of a foreign sovereign nation, and literally commands sandworms while referencing her kingdom as an “eternal empire.” If you don’t see the references in the last one, read Frank Herbert’s Dune series: It’s not flattering to her.

Granted, Paul Atreides definitely went bigger.

AisFor1BubblegumElemental.pngBubblegum is the ultimate representation of entrenched government actors. She seems sweet, but secretly, she’s done things that are objectively horrifying. As the audience, we see why she does them, so we can understand why she’s done things like: Create a psychic monster that could easily have conquered the worldrob a series of artifact sitesforce a citizen to sacrifice himself and then clone him to even it outimprison a small child seemingly foreverabduct another small childorders the arrest and imprisonment of a ton of completely innocent peoplekill dozens of her own sentient creationsuses her own brother as a power source for the kingdom, and, oh yeah, threaten to start wars over personal insults on at least 2 occasions. Hell, when she gets turned into an elemental embodiment of the sanguine temperament (happiness, love, excitement) she ends up trying to enslave the rest of the world OUT OF LOVE. Again, since we see the motivations, most of these things, in context, seem reasonable. But, if you don’t, like most of the candy citizens, it seems like she’s just a scary monster of a woman who shouldn’t be trusted, even if she has kept the kingdom going. Despite this, she has enough faith in the system to believe that her people will do the right thing. After all, they’re “mercurial, but they’re not dillweeds.”

Pictured: Not Dillweeds?

AisFor1KingofOoo.pngOn the other side is the King of Ooo, her businessman opponent, who is not, in fact, the king of anything. He just calls himself that as a form of self-aggrandizement, which plays well to his followers. Among his statements are“Now, I hear you asking, ‘King of Ooo, how can you be so wise?’ I’ll tell you how. Did you know that I am 8000 years old? Could be.” That’s probably the best statement to sum him up: He makes it sound like his followers are praising him (most of them just don’t like Bubblegum), then he makes up an absurd claim that has no support (he’s actually significantly younger than Princess Bubblegum), and, just to keep people from being able to call him on it, walks the claim back with “could be.” It’s a textbook  way to gain support from the weak (most of the candy kingdom), the desperate (James’s mom), the emotionally driven (Jake the Dog), or the angry (Starchy). Granted, the textbook being more Mein Kampf than How to Win Friends and Influence People. He also goes the absurdist route with “Now, Princess Bubblegum — she says she hasn’t gone rogue. She says she’s not a wild dog thirsty for blood. She says she’s not a literal baby masquerading as an adult woman. She says a lot of things. Princess Bubblegum, you don’t make sense!” This works because, truthfully, Bubblegum doesn’t actually try to talk to any of the regular citizens much. She talks down to them, which just upsets them. Granted, she is significantly smarter than all of them, but most of them are too dumb to know that, and the King of Ooo correctly casts her as being out of touch with the common concerns. Now, it also helps that the King of Ooo is being bankrolled heavily by a foreign power (who is secretly trying to overthrow the Kingdom), which was arranged by his shady campaign manager.

That’s what the people who supported Bubblegum forgot. Even if the King of Ooo doesn’t actually care about the people, and he is just a conman seeking power and fame despite his absolute lack of qualifications for them, he does at least address the things that the citizens care about that the entrenched power appears to be ignoring. For example, the fact the Bubblegum banished a citizen for mutating himself to save her (his mother misses him, something Bubblegum clearly never considered).

The Sad Mrs. James

Sure, James, the now-mutant, was annoying and knew what he was signing up for when he agreed to work for the kingdom, but that doesn’t make it any easier on his loved ones. It’s a tough balance to strike, but anyone who wants to be a leader cannot completely disregard how their citizens will feel about their actions, even if they’re necessary to take anyway. Bubblegum shows little to no respect for the feelings of the candy people, saying only “Trehh! Boo,” and believing that being right is the only thing that matters, even if she’s perceived (justifiably) as being a criminal, out-of-touch, or uncaring. While the King of Ooo may be an open criminal (to the point that he threatened a child, admits he did it, claims that he is now sorry, and everyone should move on), extremely stupid, and a bit racist against non-candy people (though he himself is made of earwax), he at least pretends to listen to the concerns of the people that Bubblegum ignores. In that way, he’s gaming the system better than Bubblegum, because he knows it’s about the image, not the reality.

The King of Ooo, reclining on a child he tried to orphan, in order to win points.

After she loses, Bubblegum snaps a bit. She comes down from her tower, finally, and calls all of the people dillweeds. She tells the King of Ooo that he is a dillweed, his shady secretary that he is a dillweed, and that the mysterious foreign backer that the secretary brought in to help is a dillweed. “[Y]ou’re going to dillweed this place into the ground!”


She then turns on the citizens for voting him in, only to stop with a horrifying realization:

They actually ARE too stupid to know a good leader from a bad one.

Moreover, that she’s the reason they’re that stupid. She has been ruling the kingdom forever. She literally made these people and runs the education system that’s supposed to make them able to make good decisions. She is the entrenched power. She kept them stupid because it was easier to deal with and rule over the stupid (we later find out this is because the smart inevitably try to overthrow her for their own selfish reasons). This is the punishment that the entrenched power has earned itself by a failure to realize its own vulnerabilities and duties to the citizenry. Ultimately, they don’t see her ruling as objectively good, only a sum of morally-questionable actions, and they want change at any cost, not realizing how much that cost will be. She even has the sad realization that “it’ll probably take a really long time for the candy people to realize a bad ruler is worse than a good ruler.” Essentially, Bubblegum has done this to herself.

And that’s the issue with entrenched power: It benefits from a less-active, less-observant, and less-informed population… for a while. Usually, right up until the population starts to actually grow seriously dissatisfied with the entrenched power. Then, sh*t’s gonna go South for them, because you now have a less-informed population picking between “same-old thing” and “anything else,” and they might pick “anything else” regardless of its form. In fact, they might just search for the thing that least resembles “same-old thing,” forgetting that some of the qualities of the entrenched power are not negative. In fact, they might be necessary to be a good leader.

Part 2: Alternate Tracks- On Leadership and Trolleys

Most of you are probably familiar with the Trolley Problem, and now there’s an episode of The Good Place about it, but, for those who aren’t, here’s the gist:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

  • Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  • Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.


What do you do?

It’s a tough question, to be sure, and, originally, it was arguably harder. Here’s the older form of the problem that’s more directly tied to the point of this article:

Phoenix Wright: Ace Ethicist

Suppose that a judge or magistrate is faced with rioters demanding that a culprit be found for a certain crime and threatening otherwise to take their own bloody revenge on a particular section of the community. The real culprit being unknown, the judge sees himself as able to prevent the bloodshed only by framing some innocent person and having him executed. Is it an ethical course of action? Should you do it anyway?

These are usually phrased as tests of ethics, but they also can, and should, be used as tests for leadership. The difference is what you’re looking for: A perfectly ethical person is not necessarily going to be a great leader, or vice-versa. You’re going to be focused not just on why they reached a conclusion but also how they reached it. Here’s how people will answer:



A non-leader will try to avoid the decision. They’ll try to stay out of it, or they’ll pick the course that requires the least action, because it puts them under the least scrutiny. They don’t want the responsibility. This is usually associated with the answer of “I’ll do nothing, because then it’s not my sin.” People are dead, but you didn’t kill them, so it’s someone else’s fault because you chose not to choose. In Adventure Time, this is the average candy kingdom citizen.



Note: A bad leader is not inherently a bad person, though it often works out that way. A bad leader will put the responsibility on everyone else, but still be the one making the decision and getting the glory when things go right. Why couldn’t the people on the tracks have freed themselves? Why is the mob not listening to reason? In Adventure Time, this is the King of Ooo. Literally. When the first tragedy strikes the Kingdom following his election, he immediately questions whether or not it was his fault (IT WAS), but responds with the eloquent: “Once again, my saintly nature has compelled me, unthinking, to assume the burdens of others. But a true justice demands a true accounting. And truly this is all Bubblegum’s fa-aa-aa-ault!”


Augustus got results

Note: A good leader is not inherently a good person, though it often works out that way, at least in retrospect. A good leader will have an answer by the time that the switch must be pulled, or the man must be executed. They may not pull the switch, but they will make a decision and take the responsibility onto themselves for the consequences of a person or people dying. They’ll accept the legal challenge for it. They’ll know that they are the one responsible for the death, no matter what. In Adventure Time, this is closer to Bubblegum. She usually makes the decisions, and she takes responsibility for the Candy Kingdom’s welfare and safety. At many times during the series she risks her own life and happiness just to make life better for her citizens, even though they often directly call her a jerk for the way she does it. She may do things that are questionable, but she doesn’t shirk her responsibility to do them.

She’ll be on the front lines of almost any fight


What makes a great leader is something that has been, and will continue to be, debated without end, but within this framework, I submit that the answer is: Someone who will know they’re not only responsible to the person or people killed, but to all the people who are impacted by it. You’ve just taken away a friend, a lover, a brother or sister, whatever. You had to make that decision, but you also have to accept that there is NOTHING you can say that will justify it to them. You may have saved 10,000 lives at the expense of 1, but you understand that, to the family of that 1, you made the wrong decision, and to the families of the 10,000, they’ll quickly forget it because life moves on. You get less credit than you deserve, and you take more blame than you deserve. That’s part of leadership. You have to understand that, and you have to make the decision anyway. This is a nightmare, and it’s why so few people have the fortitude to do it. Most just have to separate themselves and only accept the responsibility that comes from it immediately.

One person is never just one person. Five people is never just five.

Part of the consequence of accepting these levels of blame, but the primary benefit of it, is a clarity as to the real impact of the decisions. It is the ability to see the wide effects in both the short-term and the long-term. A “good” leader who accepts the responsibility only for the direct results of their actions is likely only to consider the effects up to the legal and immediate. It’s human nature to not consider as much beyond personal interest. The problem with this is that, even if they make the decision, by not considering the full scope of the effects, or a smaller scope than a better leader would, then that inherently lowers the quality of the decision itself.

Quick reality check: Most of the time, the ultimate decision won’t be changed based on the scope. Small decisions do have relatively limited impact beyond what is immediately apparent, and, ultimately, some amount of decision-making economy compels a limit to how much time someone can consider the issue before making a decision. If a large group of people are making the same decision, then it can become significant, but, that’s a separate issue.

Part 3: Abe Lincoln and Leading for the Long Run


One way of measuring a good leader vs. a great leader is that a good leader can make most small decisions correctly, but then not be prepared to properly weigh the full impacts of a big decision, which means that even though they make what seems to be the right decision (and might be the one most people want), it isn’t the right decision in the long-run. It takes a lot of thought, experience, and understanding to make a decision like that, or to use that decision to set a principle. As such, I provide an example here:

There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.

Those of you who read the title or saw the picture probably guessed that’s Abe Lincoln. You did well. Have some money.

abraham lincoln american dollar banknote cash
Do NOT try to spend this.
Pictured: A popular law

Now, what’s significant about this quote? Well, a few things. First, it was made in 1838. This wasn’t Lincoln running for president, this was him delivering a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Second, it is, for 1838, HEAVILY anti-slavery. While it’s called “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” the title could just as easily have been “Why Slavery Sucks a Big Bag of Donkey Dongs.” It points out that having a law on the books that so much of the country believes was not only wrong but fundamentally immoral made people respect the law less (which any

This was in a free state.

study of prohibition-era America would support, especially since CONGRESS was one of the biggest violators).

The speech also points out that having politicians and pastors making up lies to support a practice they couldn’t ethically defend lowered the bar for who was eligible for holding offices, both legal and communal. It also pointed out that, rather than trying to support their position through legislation or advocacy, both groups just formed mobs to attack the other. This served to allow for slavery advocates to both openly attack their opponents while also claiming to be the “real victims” who are just standing up against the violent mobs. If this sounds familiar, it’s what every group backing something they can’t defend will do.

AisFor3BabyBathwaterBut, as the quote above points out, Lincoln expresses an opinion that neither mob was correct. Sure, he stated slavery was evil and needed to be abolished for multiple reasons. However, he believed that it needed to be abolished through the established process, because to do otherwise would set a dangerous precedent that societal change could only be activated or resisted through mob violence. You can’t undermine the entire legal system just to oppose a law you disagree with, because then you’re destroying something bigger that FORMS THE BASIS OF OUR SOCIETY. You’re not just throwing out the baby with the bathwater, you’re throwing the house off of a cliff into a volcano.

AisFor3FreeStatesMapLater, after Lincoln was elected president, many of his detractors would point out that he promised in his first inaugural address not to interfere with slavery in any current state, and later in a letter to Horace Greeley stated that he considered his paramount goal to save the Union, not to end slavery. In fact, Lincoln was considered only a “moderate” on the issue of slavery for this reason. He only wanted to propose legislation which would prevent it from spreading to any newly-admitted states (the Dred Scott Decision might have hindered this, however, there were work-arounds available that a legal scholar like Lincoln recognized)… because that would eventually result in a supermajority of electors from non-slave states, and without an economic incentive, Lincoln (likely correctly, given how other countries ended it) believed that the country

Eminent Domain has changed since then…

would be able to have an amendment passed which would end slavery (which would make most slave states wealthy, because that would be a taking, and would result in the government having to buy the slaves at fair market value under eminent domain). Thus, slavery would end more gradually, but under the authority of the existing system, rather than by violent upheaval. Of course, South Carolina had different ideas (which they’d already threatened on several occasions), and then so did 10 other states, and then there was a Civil War that killed 600,000 people and slavery ended through the 13th Amendment which, since the South had essentially no input on, didn’t require any form of payment to slave-holders.

Learning helps perspective.

Why is paying slave-holders important if slavery is de facto immoral? Well, because, immoral or not (it is), it wasn’t ILLEGAL. No one who owned slaves had broken any laws, and they had an economic reliance on it. Instead of compensating slave owners like Britain did, the post-bellum South basically got punished for rebellion, had most of their wealth removed, lost their voting rights, and caused resentment that didn’t end for… I’ll let you know when it’s over. “But that’s just showing them how the slaves felt,” most people said. Yeah, and when the hell has that ever worked to teach someone a lesson? It just makes them angrier, not more empathetic. The “Reconstruction” Era in which African-Americans managed to finally start gaining public office and representation is usually considered to last 11-13 years. After 13 years of feeling only a fraction of the kind of suppression that black people had felt for centuries, the backlash by white people was so over the top it was barely even addressed properly for another 80 years. This is the kind of thing Lincoln was trying to avoid by looking at the bigger picture before establishing a principle. He wanted to avoid punishing the South because he recognized that it would just make racism and hatred more prevalent. He made this evident by saying in his second inaugural address:

With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.

“But would freeing slaves through eminent domain have been better? It would just have made slave-owners rich” I hear you saying, and also read in W.E.B. Du Bois’s writings.  Yeah, it would. And that’s not fair. But it also would undoubtedly have made the slave states less resentful against black people, since they wouldn’t have been economically and politically devastated, and nothing has suppressed the progress of the Black American more than that resentment and the associated violence (e.g. The Greenwood Massacre, the Wilmington Race Riot, and, oh yeah, lynchings). As to whether or not you can pay someone to not be racist, I state the following: The creator of Sea Monkeys, Harold von Braunhut, was born and raised Jewish, became a member of the Aryan Nation, was outed by a news report as a Jewish man, but was allowed to remain in the Aryan Nation (stated goals include eliminating the Jews) in exchange for donations. Yes, you can pay people enough to get over racism.

Yes, this contributed to white supremacy. A lot.

While the Republican government didn’t agree, Lincoln took the stance that forgiveness, compensation, education, and time would be better in the long run for relations between the races. But, one play with a bad ending later, the government instead decided to punish the South for rebellion, and all of history played out as it did. If only someone, maybe a tall guy in a hat, had repeatedly warned them that, in the long run, that was a bad idea.

Another example of long-term leadership: During the Civil War, Lincoln was granted war powers by Congress that were likely at least partially unconstitutionalLincoln himself assumed they were unconstitutional, but attempted to limit them as much as possible. He still used them, but made no attempt to ever take any steps to try and have them fully validated, out of concern that it would grant too much power to future presidents. Given how executive authority has grown since then, it isn’t surprising that this was a concern even in 1860.

There is a political cartoon for basically every president doing this, I just like this one most.

He also tried to keep others from using the opportunity to wield inappropriate power for political advantage. When General John C. Fremont, the previous Republican Candidate before Lincoln, declared martial law in Missouri in order to advance abolition within the state, Lincoln overruled him, fighting against his own party. However, while many criticized Lincoln for not doing enough to get rid of slavery, showing that he was willing to fight his own party’s reach for power was the right decision: Border state enlistments in the Union Army shot up immediately, ensuring that none of those states would switch to the Confederacy. This was in the Fall of 1861, when that possibility was definitely still in play.

Now, here lies the big issue behind all of this: A lot of people suffered from these decisions. There were the thousands of people imprisoned in the border states for trying to convince the states to join the Confederacy. There were all of the soldiers who were killed fighting to keep together the Union (which Lincoln considered to still include the rebel states, because that way he would not have to enact punitive measures after the war… a bullet kept us from seeing how that would have gone, and instead the South got completely devastated). And, the biggest sufferers, the slaves, who had now been getting the shaft for a few hundred years.

Unless you believed the Papers in the South.

Many would point out that Lincoln’s plan to get rid of slavery by stopping its expansion probably would have taken longer than it took to actually pass the 13th Amendment. This is almost certainly true, although speculation is naturally… well, speculative. Remember, though they didn’t have as large of a profit off of slavery, 4 states in the Union were still Slave States. So, that means that 14 states were going to probably be voting against it (Maryland was starting to talk about abolition already, so that probably would have happened first). There were 34 states at the time, and West Virginia might not have broken off, so… You’d need 8 more states before you had the 2/3 it takes to ratify an amendment. So, yeah, a lot of time. In real life, we didn’t have 42 states until 1889. That’s another 25 years of slavery, even if it’s in decline (though, it might have happened faster without A CIVIL WAR). But, all of this means that it’s very likely that slaves would have kept suffering for a longer time. And, if you were a slave, this was NOT a good price to pay for “keeping belief in the system strong.” Hell, if you were a slave, you probably didn’t care that much about the system’s existence, since, you know, SLAVERY.

Reality is brutal.

Here’s the thing that makes me consider Lincoln a great leader: He knew that these people were suffering unjustly. He didn’t blind himself to the reality of it, though I’m sure it’s impossible for anyone who didn’t suffer something like that to fully comprehend it. He took it into consideration, and he still believed that it was better to try and resolve it through the normal course of government, because he thought that was the only way to keep the country united. I don’t think I’m making too big of a leap if I say that there were probably a lot of slaves and abolitionists who would not have agreed with this decision. They probably would have stated that it was better to just end slavery at all costs, for it’s a fundamental evil. And, honestly, I cannot speak against that, because they had no reason to believe that this would be a worse option. And maybe there wasn’t. The problem with history is you only know what happened, not what might’ve.  But, regardless of how bad some of the options may seem, a leader has to make decisions anyway. And a great leader is going to understand the full impact of his decisions to the best of their ability. Lincoln, as much as almost anyone, seemed to be able to see the big picture, even if everyone else couldn’t. He always tried to keep the country going, because he believed that to be the best thing for the long run.

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.

Part 5: Some German Guy and a Pig

Well, as you guys have already guessed, the theme for this is A. Adventure Time, Alternate Tracks (which was originally Thomas Aquinas, but my test audience responded better to the pop psychiatry), Abraham Lincoln, Atreides, etc. I’m sure you probably figured that the “bad leader” entry was going to be Woody Allen. But, I’m going to go in a completely unexpected direction for examples of bad leaders with Adolf Hitler and Animal Farm. Shocking, I know.

I couldn’t handle the real monsters.

I’m gonna assume you have some idea who Hitler is, since this is the internet and he comes up six times per comment section. Here’s a video of him rapping against Darth Vader, in lieu of an actual description.

Alright, I’m going to state this upfront: I do not support any of Hitler’s political decisions, particularly regarding race or international relations. Apparently, that’s a more controversial stance to take nowadays, but I’m going to take it anyway. Call me a hero if you must.

But, let’s take a step back and ask the question: How the hell did someone like him get in power? It can’t JUST be that most Germans were racist and anti-Semitic, right? It can’t JUST be that the Milgram Experiment was right and the majority of people would follow orders to kill someone if prompted hard enough, right? It can’t JUST be that people aren’t willing to risk their lives to fight tyranny, right? Well, no, it’s not JUST any of those things, but it’s a little bit of all of those things. But, mostly, it’s that Hitler and the Nazi Party knew how to get people off their asses: Confidently appeal to their absolute worst impulses and promise rapid results in exchange for simple actions.

That’s not the fist of uncertainty and complicated explanations.

I shouldn’t have to say this, because you know it’s true, but people like confidence in their leaders and they’re more likely to follow confident people. This makes sense, because we want to follow someone who knows what they’re doing, and, on simple matters, that’s usually what confidence indicates. After all, you don’t want the person telling you how to get through the desert to go “I’m like 65% confident I know what I’m doing.” Unfortunately, on more nebulous and multidisciplinary matters, like, say, ALL THE SHIT RELATED TO RUNNING A GOVERNMENT, having confidence in an action is more likely to be an indicator that the person either A) has too little of an idea of how a government works to realize that they don’t understand it or B) has simplified it back to a more tribal model of government where things like “civil rights” or “international relations” aren’t of any real concern. Or both.

Per SMBC, that peak to the left is “Mount Stupid.” Or “Mount Dictator.”


Also, people like simplicity. It’s hard to grasp someone’s cost-benefit analysis of applying a 5% tariff on aluminum imports from Canada over the various projections of the national industry needs over the next fifteen years. It’s pretty easy to grasp “if you kill these people who we’re telling you are super bad anyway, you can take over their property and businesses.” I’m not saying this is similar to why the Kardashians have so many shows, but it’s why we have all of them except Khloe and Lamar.

Khloe & Lamar
American Roya-oh, right.

And, the last, possibly worst, thing, is that a lot of people are willing to give into their worst impulses when absolved from responsibility. Now, there’s a good news/bad news on this one. The good news is that the famous 65% number reported by the Milgram Experiment is based on bad reporting. The bad news is that, based on follow-up experiments and data analysis, it’s about 30%. Yes, that’s right, about 1 out of every 3 people were willing to seriously injure or kill someone if they thought they weren’t going to be held responsible for it. This 30% is actually pretty consistent among most forms of harmful behavior, from failing to return a found wallet  to internet trolling. The key is that they aren’t going to be held accountable for it, whether through anonymity or through having a higher party state it’s okay.

Note: Just an approximation.

All three of these things culminated in the Nazi Party’s biggest political victory, in the German July Election of 1932, where they won a commanding… 37%. And a decent percentage of those voters appear to just have hated the existing Weimar government and voted for any form of “change.” The Nazis then LOST 35 seats in the November elections. After physically forcing other candidates to withdraw, in March 1933, they still only had 43% of the Reichstag. And yet, in 1933, despite only having 30% of the Reichstag, the Nazi Party, through a combination of threats and, ultimately false, promises, got 67% of the vote and passed the Enabling Act, permitting Adolf to essentially ignore the German Constitution and, shortly thereafter, ban all other political parties. Then, people who spoke out against this were violently silenced during the Night of the Long Knives, and we ended up with a Holocaust and a World War, too.  So, yeah when Hitler assumed power, the government was basically was 1/3 strongly for Hitler, 1/3 strongly against, and 1/3 able to be coerced. Hell, in 1940, after all of the victories of the Nazis in their conquest, only about 35% of adults in Germany actively joined the party. Yet, most of the country went along with it while the Nazis attempted to literally overthrow the world (along with Japan and, to a lesser extent, Italy) and eradicate several other ethnic groups. And it’s not like it was really something people saw coming, either:

It is a hopeless misjudgement [sic] to think that one could force a dictatorial regime upon the German nation. […] The diversity of the German people calls for democracy. – Theodor Wolff in Frankfurter Zeitung, Jan 1933 (2 months before official dictatorship).

But, it’s possible that there are too many factors feeding into what allowed Hitler to come into power. Thankfully, fiction gives us simpler models, and George Orwell gave us one of the most elegant examples of rising dictatorship in Animal Farm.


Alright, it’s no secret that Animal Farm is basically just the rise of Stalin, but for those of you who didn’t have to read it in high school, here’s the Grouch’s Notes version:

Book gets mediocre cartoon.

Farm has animals. Animals hear speech by old pig about how animals need to one day not be slaves. Old pig dies. Farmer gets drunk. Animals take over farm and drive off farmer. Animals set up government stressing equality. Literate pigs start to take over government and establish principles of equality. One pig, Snowball, tries to improve the lives of the workers by modernizing the farm. He is driven off by another pig, Napoleon, who takes over as leader. Napoleon slowly revises the history of the farm to make himself seem like a hero, kills all of the people who he suspects of not supporting him, incompetently tries to adapt the plan of modernizing the farm, then ultimately becomes indistinguishable from the original farmer. Also, there are some sheep that chant blind support of Napoleon in order to drown out any opposition, a small pig that uses nonsensical phrases to confuse anyone who questions the illogical decisions of the leadership, and probably some metaphor for the Treaty of Rapallo.

How does Sta- sorry, Napoleon, take power? Well, his path is a little different, since someone else had already consolidated power through creating a pro-worker ideology and leading a revolution. In this case, it was Snowball, who did apparently actually believe in what he was doing. Snowball’s leadership even led to improvements in the welfare of the animals and had aims to advance the long-term capabilities of the farm. Napoleon then used violence to remove Snowball and insert himself in Snowball’s place and a combination of public violence, claims of outside threats, and overwhelming media control (the sheep) to ensure that no one can organize to do to him what he did to Snowball.

They literally chant “4 legs good, 2 legs better.” HOW MANY LEGS DO THEY HAVE?

Napoleon’s leadership is pretty much portrayed as irredeemably bad. He does not care for almost any of his citizens, including the sheep that blindly support him, the dogs that protect him, the hens that make the eggs the farm uses, or even Boxer, the horse that dedicates his life to working for the animals. All of his decisions are only for the benefit of himself and his close circle of pigs, despite the fact that he is promising that all benefits will go to all animals. Slowly, he re-writes all of the laws of the farm, allowing himself more and more power until, ultimately, the only law is that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” which means that he now has assumed full unchecked rule over the “lesser” animals.

And he’s not very happy looking.

Now, this is a little different than Hitler, although their power ultimately derives from the same process: First, from promising to grant benefits to a large group of people, which a smaller percentage of people believe strongly; then, when they don’t grant the benefits, claiming that they “absolutely would grant those benefits, but ‘they’ keep stopping it from happening;” then by saying “I can stop ‘them’ if you give me more power;” then by claiming that it’s proper for the people to make sacrifices of those benefits in the name of supporting the leadership; then by just flat-out terrorizing or murdering the dissenting population to cement power.

Okay, so what do these two examples have to do with leadership? Well, this is what happens when you make the first qualifications of leadership “persuasive and confident:” People will latch onto it on an emotional level. Hell, just watch Triumph of the Will or a good performance of Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and you’ll get why it was so effective. Emotional drives are stronger than rational ones, and more prone to driving people to less sophisticated responses, like violence. A great example is of the crowd in Julius Caesar after Antony’s speech: They want vengeance for Caesar’s murder so badly that they murder a poet named Cinna because he has the same name as Cinna the conspirator. When Cinna points out that he didn’t kill Caesar, the crowd kills him for “bad verses.”

Adolf and Napoleon both used emotional, not rational, manipulations to get support. Rationally, nothing they proposed during their reigns should ever have been supported, since it was not just crazy, but openly was only benefiting a small percentage of the population composed of their friends. This isn’t to say that Adolf didn’t reduce unemployment (largely through murdering people and allowing the unemployed to take their jobs) or that Napoleon didn’t increase the crop yields (by killing anyone that messed them up), but the primary benefits of their rule never actually went to the people they were promised to. Bad leadership is always to the benefit of the few, not the many.

Unrelated chart about global wealth distribution

So, how do you pick a good leader?

Part 6: Marcus Aurelius and The Guide to Picking a Good Leader

A good leader is not something that can be nailed down. It depends a lot on the state of the world and the state of the nation being governed within it. But, in general, here are the 7 things you need to focus on when picking a leader, in order of importance:

Like the 7 virtues, but easier to gauge

1) Empathy

It may seem counter-intuitive, since we tend to favor aggressive leaders (check out Part 5), but, as explained in Part 2, a great leader is going to need to be able to realize the full impact of their decisions, and a key part of that is going to be to see the indirect impacts. Additionally, empathy allows for better diplomatic relations, as well as more humane treatment of enemies. As pointed out in Part 3, those tend to minimize the fallout from negative interactions.

2) Knowledge

They knew the truth.

This isn’t to be confused with intelligence or wisdom. Intelligence is the ability to quickly process information into knowledge and apply it. Wisdom is the ability to use knowledge effectively. Knowledge is the pool of information from which you draw experience in order to make decisions. Intelligence without knowledge is just quickly running in the wrong direction. Wisdom without knowledge is just making the best decision based on limited information. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t also prioritize wisdom and intelligence, but knowledge is the best metric for a leader. Having little knowledge is dangerous. Having a lot of knowledge means that you’re likely to have knowledge about how little knowledge you have.

Subsets of knowledge to focus on:

History is the most important thing for a leader to know because history teaches us what’s already been tried, what worked, and what failed.

Note: ACTUAL history only, and being on the History Channel isn’t enough.

Philosophy would be next, because it tends to involve both ethical introspection as well as re-consideration of established viewpoints.

Science follows, because science requires study, logic, and the scientific method is the closest thing humanity has to finding truth. Also, only real sciences, no social sciences, those are below.

Despite XKCD’s opinions, Mathematics isn’t as useful for this category.

The Law is next, because it forms the basis of our system, even though it is malleable and should be changed as society changes.

The remaining Humanities are next, including language, literature, art, religion, and music, because they inherently grow empathy within the learner.

AisFor6EconomicsAnd then there’s Economics, because, while it is almost entirely bullshit and every macroeconomics model should be labeled a lie, you still need to know how tariffs and trade agreements work, at least enough to know when they will be massive failures. Economics is like the weather service: They can’t really predict what’s going to happen for sure, but they can get the general trends right enough to tell you the range of things that’ll happen, and that’s useful over the long-term.

3) Ethics

I don’t mean that they should follow any particular ethical model, but they must be ethically consistent. Hypocrisy, if it occurs, should be addressed, not denied, and should be discussed until either it is resolved or justified. You need a person you can rely on to follow their principles more than you need a person whose principles completely mirror yours.

4) Selflessness

Yeah, you’d think this’d be higher, but this often derives from the prior three. A leader should be for their people, not themselves. This isn’t to say that a leader cannot help themselves while helping others, in fact that’s part of trying to advance society, but if you see a person advocating for an act that gives them a primary boon, be suspicious. If you see them advocating for an act that would affect them negatively in the name of helping others, be more open to it. Basically, don’t trust someone’s tax plan outright if it’s mostly going to help their bracket. It might still be a good act but dig into it more.

… I’d still vote for him.

5) Conviction

While you need someone who can adapt a plan to new information and to changing times, you also need someone who’s going to not be hung up on every new problem that’s impacting their vision. If you know for sure that you need a bridge, you want someone whose response to issues with construction aren’t “oh, no, will it happen,” but “okay, find a way to make it work.” Of course, you also want someone who will know enough to have done the cost/benefit of the bridge before they start, but that’s covered above.

6) Charisma

Despite the fact that most examples of the worst leaders of all time were so charismatic they created personality cults around them (Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Rodrigo Duterte), it’s still important to note that you aren’t a leader if people aren’t going to follow you. If you’re not willing to figure out how to convey your message in a more relatable way, you’re failing. I realize the irony of writing that as part of a long treatise that would be too long in 1800, but f*ck you, I’ll make a YouTube video of it with an animated Aardvark if I run for office. Also, you can substitute charisma for having charismatic people represent you, but that just doesn’t build as strong of a connection.

Although, not all good images are based on good people. 

7) Vision

If you’re leading, you need to know where you’re leading. You need to tell people what it is you want them to have, and why they need to have it.  Moses wandered in the desert for 40 years looking, but he only got away with that because he had GOD backing him.* You can’t just say “wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t have to eat a guy’s finger in the occasional tin of meat,” you have to be Teddy Roosevelt saying “F*ck all these companies and their lack of decency, if you pressure your legislators, the Food and Drug Administration’s gonna be on their ass, keeping fingers out of your sh*t.” Yes, that’s a direct quote, but he added “Bully.” Also, you can only lead forward, not back. Look at the Luddites, at Augustus’s attempts to return Rome’s old morality, the Turner Controversy, and pretty much every race riot started by the dominant race to see why it doesn’t ever work out well to try and recapture the glory of the past.

There were a ton of these on sites about “leadership” that encourage psychopathy.

These aren’t a full list, obviously, but remember: The candidate is more important than the issues. If you have a good candidate, then you can trust that they’ll evaluate the issues more than you have. If you have a bad one, you have to watch their every move.

And since I needed an A, I’ll end with a few quotes from what I think was one of the best unintentional guides to becoming a good leader, and person, ever, written by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations. Aurelius was called the last of the Five Good Emperors (though that doesn’t mean exactly what it sounds like) and, by Roman standards and probably even some more recent ones, lived up to the modern meaning of that title until his son took over. Meditations is primarily a collection of thoughts on Stoicism, but, while I don’t completely agree with all of the points on stoicism, some of them truly do make for good leadership traits.

  • On not lashing out at petty problems: If you are grieved about anything external, ’tis not the thing itself that afflicts you, but your judgment about it; and it is in your power to correct this judgment and get quit of it.

  • On empathy towards other opinions: When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

  • On remembering that the Truth is always a higher power and a higher allegiance: All things are interwoven with one another; a sacred bond unites them; there is scarcely one thing that is isolated from another. Everything is coordinated, everything works together in giving form to one universe. The world-order is a unity made up of multiplicity: God is one, pervading all things; all being is one, all law is one (namely, the common reason which all thinking persons possess) and all truth is one—if, as we believe, there can be but one path to perfection for beings that are alike in kind and reason.

  • On the necessity of correction: Be thou erect, or be made erect. (It really means “either show yourself as being your best self, or as someone who has been corrected to be their best self,” but I think this version is funniest).

  • On self-governance: Put an end once for all to this discussion of what a good man should be, and be one.

(Yeah, I’m working on it, you long-dead a**hole).

Final Thoughts:

You know what really makes the best leaders? The best followers, all ready to continue the work should the leader fall. But what we really need is an engaged population, who are all willing to work to try and get the best people in there. It’s especially important to look at smaller elections that represent people trying to enter the system. It’s counter-intuitive, since we associate bigger elections with bigger decisions, but those candidates typically have worked their way up there. If they seem to all be bad, it’s because we didn’t help promote the better candidates at the lower levels. So, help a candidate for mayor out, run for an office yourself, and F*CKING VOTE. You might think an election is between a giant douche and a turd sandwich, but they are never equal. One is always, in some way, a little better than the other, and you need to get your ass out there and make sure the lesser of two evils keeps winning, so that, eventually, you will encourage a real, good, honest candidate to get the office (and might be running at the same time for a lower office).

This episode was about why you HAVE to vote.

And, lastly, hold your leaders accountableespecially those you most closely identify as your own. You can complain about the other side’s leadership all you want, but hypocrisy is the number one destroyer of credibility. Not to get too Biblical, but there’s some sh*t about removing the beam from your own eye before pointing out the mote in another’s, and it applies just as much if you’ve got the mote and they’ve got the beam. Get the mote out, and then talk about the beam. You don’t need to lower the bar so that you can get someone you like, you need to raise it to challenge people to meet it.

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.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.


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I'm not giving my information to a machine. Nice try, Zuckerberg.

One thought on “A is for Adventure Time and Abe Lincoln: A PRIMER ON LEADERSHIP”

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