Machiavelli: Old Rules Still Apply
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)
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.