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Machiavelli: Old Rules Still Apply

October 7, 2010

Discussing “The Prince” and some of Machiavelli’s key concepts, I got to wondering how these ideas can be tied to modern-day politics in America. Currently in the world of US politics, midterm elections are big news. In fact, some sources are touting these midterms  to be some of the most charged and closely contested races in quite some time. Machiavelli’s principle that “the ends justify the means” is a rather complicated idea that depends greatly upon the context that it is used in. I found it to be a prevalent when looking at some of the key senate races. We could arguably say that these senator candidates are examples of men and women trying to gain power. While they are certainly not going to be “Princes” in their own right, they are nonetheless on the cusp of great political command and influence. One of the critical ongoing Senate races is in Pennsylvania with Joe Sestak and Pat Toomey. Like some of the other races, these two candidates have resorted to some “questionable” tactics. Joe Sestak went up against Arlen Specter in the PA primary for the Democratic nomination. While Specter had recently changed political parties, he had been involved in the PA senate for close to thirty years. The race was a tight one. Sestak released TV commercials such as this one:

This was a blatant attack on Specter and one that arguably had an effect in the polls. While a lot of Americans don’t typically seem to like “dirty politics”, it seems to have worked to Sestak’s advantage in this situation. This then begs the question, did this end justify the means? I’m sure as far as Sestak is concerned, they did. Does the public now have a skewed perception of a longtime veteran politician? Perhaps. Was Sestak immoral? Perhaps. As this race continues, it will be interesting to see just how far each candidate will go to get to that seat of power. I should note that Toomey also has had his fair share of “shady” dealings. (If you type in Sestak in google news, the first line reads “Stop Joe Sestak Today” and is clearly paid for by Toomey)

Sestak Bashing

While this is only one race, I’m sure many candidates will be questioning if their “means” will inevitably be justified. How immoral are politicians willing to be? Is morality even something they consider in these kinds of races? The Machiavellian idea of the ends justifying the means is truly a timeless one. While the political realm may be much different today than it was when Machiavelli was around, these same ethical and moral questions come into play. It would be bold of me to try and answer the question that has really not been definitively understood for hundreds of years. I believe that in the context of these senate races, we shouldn’t have the need to bring this question up. The candidates should be campaigning to demonstrate their Virtù or their ability and skill to lead, not exploiting each other’s trivial or strange shortcomings. Machiavelli probably would have not agreed and it will be interesting to consider which method of campaigning will have a better effect with voting day around the corner.

Another concept of Machiavelli’s that I found rather striking was the distinction between a ruler being loved and hated. While I like to think that having a legitimate fear of our leader is unlikely in the sense Machiavelli was thinking, I think that this political concept still applies to government today. Remember that while Machiavelli says it is not imperative that a ruler is loved by his people, he must not be hated by them. Machiavelli recognized the fact that the people’s admiration for a ruler was important, at least from a political standpoint. These midterm elections have placed a large focus on current issues the nation is facing. According to a recent CNN poll, Obama’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low of 42%. This specific CNN article attributes some of this to American’s economic woes and unhappiness with ongoing fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we quickly take a look back to June 2009, Obama’s approval ratings were close to 60%. As the economy has continued to struggle, Obama has in a way become disliked (hated, at this point would be a rather strong term) by many Americans. They cannot see him as a ruler with “goodwill” because their pockets are empty (or emptying quickly). Interestingly, if one juxtaposes this with George W. Bush’s approval ratings over his 8 years in office, there is a similar pattern of ratings starting high and lowering overtime. After 9/11, when the nation was bound together by feelings of patriotism, Bush’s approval ratings hit 90%. Bush promised to go after the nation’s attackers. National security was one of, if not the biggest issue of the time and people loved Bush. As 9/11 and the war on terror developed into a whole set of problems, and the economy became a bigger problem, his approval ratings started to drop. One could argue that people “feared” Bush in the sense of further damage he could do fiscally to the nation. The economy has continued to be one of the biggest problem in American’s eyes. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they will not “love” their new leader until this problem is fixed. While the issues that leaders face today are markedly different from those dealt with during Machiavelli’s time, it is clear that at least on a basic level, his precepts have been enduring throughout time.

Note: Approval rating results were taken from and .

  1. jptrue permalink
    October 7, 2010 9:16 AM

    Hey, great post and lots of thought provoking ideas are brought up in your writing. One part of your writing really stuck in my mind though. You write, “The candidates should be campaigning to demonstrate their Virtù or their ability and skill to lead, not exploiting each other’s trivial or strange shortcomings. ” While from a morality standpoint, I completely agree that I am sick of shady politicians that waste millions of dollars in order to gain a leadership role in the government. It makes me sick. BUT, when you write that candidates should demonstrate their Virtue, or ability to be strategic and cunning, isn’t that exactly what they are doing? By demonstrating their ability to trick the public and make bold decisions that allow them to gain glory (getting elected), aren’t politicians truly fulfilling the role of a virtuous leader that Machiavelli describes? Keep in mind Machiavelli wouldn’t have cared how immoral their actions were, he only would have cared if they were “good” in the sense that it helped obtain their goal.

    As a result, it seems like that politics is one of the few arenas left in our country where Machiavelli’s principles are not only useful, but encouraged. No voter wants to elect someone who is just a nice guy. They want someone who can obtain their desires, and demonstrating that you are the most cunning during a campaign is a great way to show that they are the person for the job!

  2. katelyn09 permalink
    October 7, 2010 9:45 AM

    I completely agree with this post. Many politicians throw blows wherever possible just to get a few more votes and the truth is that these blows often work. Many voters are uneducated about the issues and only know basic concepts of the election which tend to be skewed by media portrayal of candidates and also by candidates’ portrayals of other candidates. As this blog stated, candidates should be publicizing why they are the best for the job by showcasing attributes and accomplishments that would help make them successful in a public seat of office.
    On the other hand, approval ratings also tend to be biased. As the blog said, when there is not any money in the pocket or a leader hits a rough patch, approval tends to plummet. I wonder if this is really fair though. In most cases, making a difference takes a fair amount of time before results are actually seen. I personally feel many of us often rush into a decision about approval without really thinking about how much time a large problem can take to fix.

  3. thacarter4 permalink
    October 9, 2010 11:38 PM

    I agree with the overall thesis that Machiavelli is still relevant in today’s political scene but I have to say that the first example was somewhat suspect. Sestak was running against Specter so he has a right to compare his virtu to Specter’s as long as he isn’t lying about him. Arguably everything said in Sestak’s ad was true; Specter switched parties almost solely for his own good, not because of a change in ideology. If Sestak’s ad qualifies as an attack, it’s a comparatively mild one in an election cycle when there have been many over the top attacks.

    • seangordon permalink
      October 10, 2010 5:56 PM

      @thacarter4- That is a good point, however, I think that there were other motivations on Specter’s party switch (which is viewer is obviously led to NOT believe) and its looks like that specific clip was taken out of context. While I agree that it is comparatively mild to other attack ads, is calling Specter out about his party switch a comparison of virtu, I wonder?

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