December 10, 2013

"What would Machiavelli have thought when President Obama apologized for the fiasco of his health care rollout?"

"Far from earning respect, he would say, all he received was contempt. As one of Machiavelli’s favorite exemplars, Cesare Borgia, grasped, heads must sometimes roll. (Though in Borgia’s case, he meant it quite literally, though he preferred slicing bodies in half and leaving them in a public square.)"

A paragraph from the op-ed titled "Why Machiavelli Still Matters," published in the NYT, marking the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli's letter announcing the existence of his work, "The Prince."

The authors, John Scott and Robert Zaretsky, professors of political science and history, respectively, tweak Americans for their moralistic demands for virtues like honesty and generosity.
The proper aim of a leader is to maintain his state (and, not incidentally, his job)... [even] pursuing what appears to be vice [to achieve] security and well-being.
Even in a constitutional republic? And did Obama receive only contempt because he was honest or because he was dishonest? It seems to me that the contempt arises from our discovery of the dishonesty, not from his punctilious pursuit of virtue. Also, you have to take into account that Obama was elected — he did not seize power — and he was elected because people saw him as a repository of virtue. How does someone who was given power because of his perceived virtue retain power when a lack of virtue becomes apparent? How can he shore up his power by looking even less like the person people thought they had elected?

What would Machiavelli have thought? He'd have to do quite a bit of rethinking to make that Cesare Borgia stuff into advice for an American President.


John Lynch said...

Machiavelli was about state building, uniting Italy under one ruler. That's the first step- creating a state, defining borders, enforcing laws.

The United States is far, far beyond that point. State-building was finished a century ago. We're far past the point where Machiavelli has much to say to us.

The Drill SGT said...

Don't know about the big M, but Obammie could learn some foreign policy tips from another Italian: Caligula...

"Let them hate us, as long as they fear us"

after our big smart power 'reset', the world still hates us, but they no longer fear us...

PS: You won't hear on TV that 75% of our deaths in A-stan are during the Obama years...

You no longer get those big full page spreads in the NYT and WaPo with the pictures of the Obama dead.

Original Mike said...

"How does someone who was given power because of his perceived virtue retain power when a lack of virtue becomes apparent?"

The Constitution. He won.

Skeptical Voter said...

Let's just say that there's a hole in Obama's moral boat. I may think that his justified loss of credibility is as big a hole as the gash in the Titanic. (But in my view his credibility sank to the bottom of the ocean a very long time ago.) Someone else may think it's just a little teensy weensy crack in a seam and only a little water is coming through.

Doesn't matter. A reputation for truth telling, like virginity doesn't last long when you're caught out.

Lie to me once it's your fault; lie to me twice (or in Obama's case a zillion times) and it's my fault.

Michael K said...

Machiavelli would have thought that Obama is a damn poor liar.

"Never strike a Prince unless you kill him."

"Never tell a lie when every one knows it is a lie."

YoungHegelian said...

It's called "The Prince" for a reason. The book is directed to the proper governance of a feudal, aristocratic state, not of a democracy or a republic.

When one reads a fuller palette of M's works, e.g the Discourse on Livy, not so feudal views peek out, relevant to other forms of governance. From the Discourses:

Where in the same constitution there is a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy, each serves as a check upon the others.

rhhardin said...

The Prince is about producing effects on an audience.

Kenneth Burke (Rhetoric of Motives p.158) lists

either treat well or crush.
defend weak neighbors and weaken the strong.
where you foresee trouble, provoke war.
don't make others powerful.
be like the prince who appointed a harsh governor to establish order and then put him to death to get popular acclaim.
do necessary evils at one stroke.
pay out benefits little by little.

Obama has a few of them.

Scott said...

It doesn't seem to me that The Prince is a good game plan for a leader who will eventually be thrown out by term limits. You can't be the leader indefinitely, so you do as much damage as you can while you're in office. In that regard, Obama is a very good leader.

Ron said...

The entire world should be grateful the United States is NOT Machiavellian! Otherwise, we would own most of the world in 1945...and I would have a Pet Canadian!


Christy said...

Wouldn't Sun Tzu be more applicable?

Hagar said...

I have not read "The Prince" (yet), but for AA's point, John Quincy Adams' presidency would be an example of rectitude carried to the point of paralyzing the office he was elected to fill.

Crimso said...

"pursuing what appears to be vice [to achieve] security and well-being."

So we've gone from the outrage over "Bush lied, people died!" to this. Who could possibly have foreseen this reversal in expectations (sarcasm alert)?

Gabriel Hanna said...

Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy explain his ideas for the rulers of republics.

Machiavelli thought on the whole republics were the best form of government, in that they could adapt by easily changing their rulers--Machiavelli did not believe that people change much, and a prince's temperament will not adapt to circumstances.

dbp said...

There was a part in The Prince where Machiavelli wrote about the management of change. He indicated that the best strategy was to make a large change all at once and then ease up a bit later. This way, the people will feel relief and gratitude. The wrong way to do it is gradually, since each new demand, however small, builds on the resentment of the ones that came before.

It seems like this second style is what Obama used with the ACA. It was sold with lies and distortions which had to eventually come to light. Then, the regulatory process wrote rules strictly, so that few policies would qualify to be grandfathered in. Each new revelation acts as a new demand and resentment grows.

Even back peddling is being done wrong in that he capriciously does it by decree rather than via the available legal process which involves Congress.

Hagar said...

I worked for a general contractor for a number of years, and John's orders to us were that there was no need for us to tell anyone, other than him, of course, everything we knew, but never ever to tell a lie and never promise anything we, or he, could not or would not deliver on - good or bad.

This was a very successful policy for him, and I have tried as well as could to live by it myself.

Paco Wové said...

"The proper aim of a leader is to maintain his state (and, not incidentally, his job)... [even] pursuing what appears to be vice [to achieve] security and well-being."

Somehow I can't see them shopping this essay around back in the Bush or Reagan days.

lemondog said...


Power, power and more power.

Don't apologize...blame the enemy for the problems.

Ficta said...

Glad to see the Discourses on Livy mentioned here. Jefferson was an avid student of them. My reading group read the Discourses and The Federalist Papers back to back. It was illuminating.

traditionalguy said...

The Americans expect a President and Congress to lie about things they are doing that help protect the middle class from foreign enemies and their assets from disappearing into poverty. They have seen Obama's 24/7 lying and thought he is doing it for them.

But a Marxist visionary like Obama's sees the American middle class and their savings and retirement asset to be THE ENEMY. Waking up to that reality has been a shock.

Studies of Germany through the 1930s show the German people supported Hitler for those same reasons. His conquests looting Europe was raising their standard of living. Reality for them did not come until the Russian counter offensive and the Eighth Air Force bombing kicked in by 1943.

traditionalguy said...

Theme for today maybe the return of the Empire of Rome.

Machiavelli was Roman Political Science teacher.

Roman sexual practice has swept the EU. Dominique Strauss Kahn who rapes paid slaves without fear was free to leave NYC.

Charlemagne who asserted he had restarted the Roman Empire was a Frank from Belgium who paid the Pope to anoint him Holy Roman Emperor.

And the Roman Catholic Church is reentering world politics under the guise of a PR smart Argentinian Jesuit.

The organization claiming the old Papal Power over nations is called the United Nations which today demands obeisance in the name of Global Warming...and plans to add financial collapse of the dollar and world pandemics.

Tom said...

Easy - Obamacare doesn't preserve the state. It hastens it's demise. The tactics are irrelevant. He put his party above his state and failed as a leader.

Hagar said...

For Obama and his crowd, the Democratic Party is a vehicle, not a home.

CWJ said...

"Even a constitutional republic?"

With that quote Althouse hits it out of the park.

William said...

Obama got caught in an obvious lie, but, on the other hand, he didn't get caught until after his re-election. Game to Obama. His Machiavellian scheme is to pretend to be an honest, guileless man, far above petty politics. It worked.

The Godfather said...

I haven't read Machievelli since college 50 years ago. Thanks Althouse for reminding me of old blue eyes; I plan to re-read The Prince and Livy.

But you don't need Mach the Knife to know that Obama f*cked up, and it's not because he admitted a foul-up that was obvious even to the NYT and WaPo. He has not taken responsibility for ANY of the failures of his administration. Blaming others (G.W. Bush, the Republican congress, talk radio, the Tea Party, etc.) has passed its expiration date, even for much of the mainstream media. He could have taken immediate action to fire half a dozen senior appointees, but he didn't. Presumably he's afraid of what they would say once out of office. It's pathetic lack of leadership.

Carl Pham said...

Machiavelli lived in a time of extreme distinctions between the warfighting technology available to the nobility and the peasantry. It was possible on those days to be an openly oppressive bastard.

We do not live in such times. Compared to his, our peasantry is shockingly well-informed, literate, and well-armed. Not to mention quite a lot of it has military training through our insistence (which he would have deemed inadvisable) of a citizen army.

Were a modern political leader to try "The Prince," he and his cadre would be hanging from trees within 90 days.

If you want to walk on the peasants' backs these days, you need sophistication: good speeches, a bootlicking fourth estate you keep well-fed as well as bitted and bridled, extending the vote to as many young people, dependents and morons as possible, maybe a few dazzling 3-card monte tricks like ZIRP. It's a much higher state of game.

Ben Morris said...

Read Discourses on Livy. It's practically a founding document.

southcentralpa said...

Why does everyone obsess over "The Prince"? His "Discourses" (Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio) must truly be considered his masterwork, demonstrating the superiority of republican government.

Phil said...

What would Machiavelli have thought? He'd have thought that everyone who ever voted for this transparently dishonest jackanapes was a complete and utter fool. Present company not excepted, either.