Poor Nicolo Machiavelli! He really gets a bad rap, doesn’t he? I mean, just because the well-worn phrase “the end justifies the means” can be traced to his masterwork, The Prince, that doesn’t mean he was a bad guy, does it? But, that’s the way he’s perceived. Even people who don’t know what he has written or who he is know that a “Machiavellian scheme” is a bad thing.
More high-minded people point to how he turned the concept of a virtuous society on its head. The ancient Greek philosophers – Aristotle and Socrates – defined a virtuous society as the result of the good works of its citizens. To their way of thinking, the means were more important than the end. Old Nick turned that concept of virtue on its head. To him, virtue was about being crafty, astute or sly. It referred to the ability of a leader to deal with whatever comes their way – to be decisive and get results.
The Prince was a handbook for the heirs to the Medici fortune not a blueprint for utopia. The Greeks were idealists. Machiavelli was a pragmatist.
Most often this blog turns on “issues” and policies. I am an issues-oriented guy and those who take the time to read this fit the same mold. We decry the misguided media and wonder aloud why the mass of voters doesn’t seem to care about the issues. We parse the words of political candidates as if they will actually do (or have a chance to do) what they promise in campaigns. Naïve idealists that we are, we actually think that policy matters more than politics and that what politicians say, they should do.
Alas, most political leaders have no opportunity to pursue the policies on which they campaign. Some have no illusions. They campaign to get elected. Others may be sincere but their best intentions are overcome by events. The administrations of LBJ and the much-maligned Jimmy Carter were not defined by their political campaigns. They were defined by what the world handed them, the Vietnam War and the Iranian hostage crisis, respectively.
What was handed Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher was Mikhail Gorbachev. What was interesting is that Gorby brought them an opportunity to pursue ideas in which they believed (unlike the duo mentioned above).
More than any world leader in the 80’s, Gorbachev determined how the 20th Century would draw to a close. His policies of “perestroika” (restructuring)and “glasnost” (openness) led to freely contested elections and liberalization of the economy. He foresaw the economic collapse of the Soviet model and hastened it. The Soviet Union may not have gone so quietly had it not been for Gorbachev, a pragmatist who saw that he didn’t have the resources to continue the Cold War. Would we think of Reagan and Thatcher in the same way had the Soviet Union dragged on for another decade or two? How about Helmut Kohl? Could he have unified Germany and worked with Mitterrand toward the development of the European Union?
In 2000, George Bush campaigned against Clinton’s policies in the former Yugoslavia, calling it nation building, a policy that often results in failure. But, 9/11 changed everything. Bush soon found himself nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His successor, Barack Obama, campaigned against Bush’s policies in those two far away lands. Once inaugurated, he was off to the Middle East to address the Arab public so as to differentiate himself from his predecessor. But, the financial crisis and his response to it define his first term more than any ideology he espoused.
It was not the policies on which Bush and Obama campaigned that mattered. It was their character and their ability to make a decision in moments of crisis and stick with them.
It’s great to focus on policy as a framework for the direction of the country (any country). However, it’s naïve to think that the political and international landscape is so benign as to permit a candidate to actually follow their prescription for governance. It is usually a crisis and a leader’s response to it that defines their tenure. And, it’s their ability to embrace the Machiavellian concept of virtue that determines their success.
Policy wonks may decry the way in which the media – and most voters – focus on personality or, to put in high-mindedly, character of the candidates. But, at the end of the day, character is more important than policies.
WHO WILL LEAD?