Broadly, the Roman Emperors gained the acquiesence of the majority of their citizens by the distribution of free food (the bread) and the provision of lavish public entertainments (the circuses), and to do this they were forced to levy heavy taxes on the rest of the empire. Admittedly this strategy had its roots in the competitive giving of candidates for election to the senate - which means that its links to (some form of) democracy are very old indeed - but it was primarily a tool of dictators in its original form.
Now skip forwards to the era of modern democracies … truly, as Kipling put it, we are The People and our throne is above the King's and if we do not truly command our own destinies, then at least our "representatives" are on the lookout for policies that we are likely to vote for.
Unfortunately, what we like to vote for, in general is more bread and circuses for ourselves and more taxes on other people - just like the Roman mob did when they praised their Emperors. The problem with that is none of our nations has an Empire that they can bleed for taxes any more - the tax to pay for the bread and circuses, and for the latter day aedilies1 who disburse them, has to be levied on other, enfranchised citizens. Who turn out to be "us" as well. And if there is one thing we will tend to vote against it's more taxes (or any other duties) for ourselves.
This leaves the state with an impossible dilemma - we demand that it increases, or at least avoids reducing, the services, benefits and amenities that it provides, but we refuse to pay any more for them and agitate to pay less. Amongst other things, this tends to lead to the state squeezing the necessary but unglamorous or unpopular things that are, in reality, it's core functions (defence, upkeep of the commons and the like) to pay for luxuries to please the voters. Still, that's one of the many joys of democracy.
There are no real answers to this - besides the voter opposition to any cut in provision, we need to remember that in most developed countries those many latter day aediles are a significant part of the population - all of them have votes and turkeys, proverbially, do not vote for Christmas (or Thanksgiving). Indeed they and their allies can be counted upon to lobby vigourosly against it, so the political Right cannot shrink the state, but equally the Left cannot increase taxes. Something, somewhere has to give.
Finally, and more contravertially, there is the matter of citizenship - over the last century or so, the developed world has been moving further and further towards universal citizenship and franchise, regardless of education, socialisation or economic activity. In many ways this is a good thing and it is hard to defend some of the abuses inherent in the systems that preceeded it, but on the other hand it also means that there are many people who have authority (in the form of a vote) without either understanding or responsibility - it is entirely normal for surveys in any Western election to show a large proportion (even perhaps a majority) of electors who have no clear idea of what the party they propose to vote for stands for or how it compares to its rivals, or, indeed of how the state functions and the effects those policies are likely to have on it. Likewise, and in a similar vein to the 'government payroll vote' there is also the matter of the benefit dependant underclass. These are the growing portion of society who are economically inactive (in the legal economy at least) and subsist on state benefits and the proceeds of crime. To some degree they fullfill the function of Marx's lumpenproletariat - generally poorly educated and informed but easily steered to oppose changes to the status quo. The role that this 'underclass' plays in modern politics is still under debate, but they would seem to be the group most prone to bread and circuses manipulation.
Game and Story Use
- If your PCs ever find themselves in postions of power, bribing "the mob" into contentment will be an extremely tempting strategy - as long as the money holds out.
- And the reverse of that, assuming the players are up against The Empire and need to shake its support in its core regions, how do they overcome the apathy fostered by free food and entertainment? Especially given that they may actually be inspired to fight the Empire by the taxes that fund it.
- The obvious strategies are: 1) cutting of the money supply at source by prolonged insurrection in the provinces (or starting a war that forces the Empire to divert money into defence) and 2)Terrorism (unlikely to go down well with your players)
- In a modern version, a DOS attack on the national benefits system might work - if the lumpenproletariat can't cash its giros the streets will very soon be full of burning cars. Even shutting down the television might work (killing the power grid would probably work better) - "nothing on the telly? I'm bored, let's go smash something!".
- Generally a good flavour for a dystopia - like 1984 where "The Party" gets on with running the nation and distracts "the Proles" with beer, lotteries and television.
- Horrifically, imagine a scenario in which the state can spike the PCs revolution by putting out a dramatic episode of a popular soap or staging a major sporting event that people will stay home to watch … or even just paint over footage of protests by putting something popular and numbing on the other channels.