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Commentary: Obama, Christie and Dooley Through A Machiavellian Lens

Wikipedia | Santi di Tito

In common parlance, use of the adjective “Machiavellian” implies a ruthless practice of politics where ends justify means and maintenance of power is the ultimate goal. Yet, a careful reading of “The Prince” and “The Discourses” leads to a more nuanced view of this political philosopher.

He certainly reflected 15th century Italy, populated by city-states that competed with each other in many realms. Interestingly, Machiavelli’s ruminations on human nature and governance can help to illuminate the peculiar politics of early 21st century America, nationally and locally.

The difficulties of Barack Obama and the pitfalls encountered by Chris Christie and Charlie Dooley may have been avoided by looking at Machiavelli’s analysis. He was perhaps the first political scientist: He did not rely on idealism or religion in looking at governance. He relied on human nature, the maintenance of power, and the treatment of the governed. It was real politik without sentiment. It was realism.

Before ubiquitous opinion polls and constant elections, Machiavelli felt that “it is necessary for a prince to possess the friendship of the people.” In fact, he favored a republican form of government over that of an absolute ruler. Unlike Locke or Rousseau, he did not view man as naturally good

He calls them “ungrateful, voluble dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain.” He later adds that men act right only under compulsion. Today we attempt to view voters or officeholders as actors in their self-interest. Re-election is a prominent goal, and the means to attain it is not always virtuous. With constant media coverage and perhaps unimagined expenditures on negative advertising, voter self-interest is subject to constant manipulation.

Machiavelli saw how support could turn against a ruler. He could not foresee how support could erode under constant manipulation.

photo of Barack Obama
Credit Pete Souza | White House | 2010 photo
Barack Obama

In 2008 and 2012, President Obama received a majority of the popular vote. Yet, his governance has never been secure. He has been constantly under attack from the right and when his administration has erred, the attacks magnified.

Some of his supporters on the left have also shown little tolerance for opponents. Some would posit that the president exhibited insufficient leadership and the ball left his court. In any case, recent history demonstrates fickleness and self-interest driving the electorate.

A leader has to address these elements of human nature in governance and be ruthless in pushing his course. Machiavelli realized that support would never be constant; it had to be guarded and nurtured.

Credit Pete Souza | White House photo
Gov. Chris Christie

Machiavelli understood that corruption could lead to loss of support and ultimately of power. “It is a bad example not to observe the laws, especially on the part of those who have made them.” Misfeasance or malfeasance in government is viewed more negatively than similar instances elsewhere.

The Christie administration may well have played hard ball by favoring localities that supported the governor in dispersing funds to alleviate the ravages of Katrina. Closing lanes on the George Washington Bridge was payment for lack of support. This sort of activity, enhanced by extensive media coverage, does not play well in the end.

Charlie Dooley
Credit Provided by Mr. Dooley
Charlie Dooley

Lesser complaints have haunted County Executive Dooley. He and his administration have been accused of conflict of interest (the new police crime lab) and cronyism in hiring. Machiavelli cautioned against violation of the laws by the governors and his caution was well taken. One must maintain “the friendship of the people.”

Machiavelli saw the need for either a prince or a republic to have popular support. In “The Discourses,” says, “The people are more prudent and stable, and have better judgment than a prince.” However, he proposes a significant caveat that resonates in contemporary debate.

The republican form works best when there is greater economic equality. Machiavelli finds the desire for power strong in those who have much; “for the fear to lose stirs the same passions in men as the desire to gain, as men do not believe themselves sure of what they already possess except by acquiring still more.” The rich do not abrogate their wealth readily.

Today Republicans and Democrats alike recognize that the top 1 percent have a greater share of national wealth than ever before. In addition, the middle class is stagnant and more citizens are poor. What is to be done will be debated for a long time, e.g., supporting human capital development or redistribution? How many will continue to cry class warfare if the wealthy are challenged? Money has become the most significant arbiter in political campaigning and where does the money come from?

A prince could rule an unequal polity, according to Machiavelli, but such inequality would undermine a government of men.

Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.