Short version: I’d really like someone who understands sociology and political science to analyze academic publishing and promotion in terms of selectorate theory.

Long version:

Selectorate theory was first described in The Logic of Political Survival by Bueno de Mesquita, Smith, Siverson, and Morrow, and then presented in more popular form in The Dictator’s Handbook. It divides people into three groups:

  1. The nominal selectorate (also called the interchangeables), which is every person who has some say in choosing the leader. In the upcoming Toronto mayoral election, this is all registered voters in Toronto.

  2. The real selectorate (or influentials) who really choose the leaders. Sticking to the Toronto mayoral election, this is the people who actually cast a vote.

  3. The winning coalition (or essentials) whose support actually matters for victory. Here in Toronto, these are the voters who voted for the winning candidate.

These three groups vary widely between polities. In the recent Russian presidential election, for example, the registered voters were the nominal selectorate, but the real selectorate was the oligarchs and their allies in the security forces who rigged the election and intimidated the opposition, and the winning coalition was more or less the same group (since anyone who opposed Putin has long since been imprisoned, driven into exile, or murdered).

To stay in power, selectorate theory says that leaders must maintain a winning coalition. When this coalition is small, leaders tend to distribute private goods to satisfy its members: kings give land and titles to nobles, autocrats allow (or encourage) corrupt ministers to skim money from public contracts, and so on. When the winning coalition is larger, as it is in function democracies, selectorate theory says that leaders will distribute public goods like health care, education, and an impartial justice system to keep people on side.

I think this analysis is overly cynical and therefore backward: in reality, I think that people who want to help their fellow citizens realize that public goods are essential, and push for democracy because it’s the only reliable way to get them. Equally, people who primarily want to enrich themselves, like Peter Thiel and the Koch brothers, push for autocracy because it allows them to put wealth into their own pockets.

Despite that, I agree with selectorate theory’s main conclusion: a leader’s chances of survival are greatest in autocracies where the selectorate is large and the winning coalition is small, because then people in the winning coalition can easily be replaced by other members of the selectorate who are not in the winning coalition (i.e., the cost of defection for members of the winning coalition is large). In democracies, on the other hand, the winning coalition is large and the selectorate is even larger, so leaders have the least security: they cannot afford to provide private goods to all members of the winning coalition, which means they are much more replaceable.

The Dictator’s Handbook lays out five rules leaders should use to stay in power:

  1. The smaller the winning coalition the fewer people to satisfy to remain in control.
  2. Having a large nominal selectorate gives a pool of potential people to replace dissenters in coalition.
  3. Maintain control of revenue flows to redistribute to your friends.
  4. Only pay friends enough that they will not consider overthrowing you, but at the same time little enough so that they depend on you.
  5. Don’t take your friends’ money and redistribute it to the masses.

What I’d like to know is, how does all of this apply to academic publishing and promotion? Who are the interchangeables, the influentials, and the essentials when it comes to deciding who gets published, whose work gets funded, whether systemic discrimination and exploitation will be tackled, and so on? What are the equivalent of public and private goods? Or is this simply the wrong framework to use? Enlightenment would, as always, be greatly appreciated.