I just reread The Prince. I had forgotten how short it is--and how readable. What a refreshing change from all the pseudo-expertise of the Cable News Commentators. Sure, the world has changed a lot since the 16th Century. But we still have "princes," even if we call them prime ministers or presidents. So I suspect that quite a number of Machiavelli's precepts for effective governance still apply.
For instance, his observation that--if the prince must choose between being loved and being feared--it is advisable to choose to be feared. Human beings don't respect or obey those whom they love--and they change their affections to suit their own selfish interests. On the other hand, it is almost always in one's self-interest to obey / respect someone whose power is feared. Obama take note. Being nice and seeking to be loved will get you nowhere. Those who hate you will continue to do so and those who like you will stop respecting you.
The most dangerous and untenable state, according to Machiavelli, is to be hated but NOT feared. Such a prince will be easily deposed by a populace that feels free to give full reign to its baser instincts (Tea Party types?).
Another useful precept: choose to be miserly rather than generous. Giving money, entitlements, "pork" to the people (or to the "nobility"--i.e., the rich and powerful plutocracy) will earn the prince very little gratitude. Why? Because the recipients will see the rewards as merely their "due," and they will grow resentful if (as is likely) their taxes are increased in order to pay for the prince's generosity. If the prince is seen as a miser, however, he will be thanked for any small financial concession. And he will be praised for not increasing taxes.
(Machiavelli makes few judgments about whether these precepts are objectively/ morally "good" or "bad"; fair or unfair. He simply observes that people are "not as they should be" and that, therefore, a prince who hopes to rule such people must have vices that match and counter theirs.)
I wonder what Signore M. would think about our new health care plan. Obama has attempted to portray it as a "miserly" bill that will, in the end, SAVE the people money and NOT raise their taxes. But is that so? Personally, I'm willing to give it a try--since the current system is so fearfully UNmiserly. But frankly, I doubt that most people will see things that way. I worry, therefore, that the average voters--who do not look beyond their own bank accounts--will not be swift to equate Obamanomics with thriftiness.
A final precept that I, an avid consumer of TV news, find both edifying and sobering: an effective prince must frequently be a liar and a hypocrite while, at the same time, portraying himself ALWAYS and EVERYWHERE as a paragon of virtue. Because "men are a sad lot," rulers must be willing to break their word and and deceive their adversaries (or allies) when such faithlessness is necessary for the common good. But the prince must at the same time take great pains to appear "all compassion, all honor, all humanity, all integrity, all religion." In other words, "perception" is what matters. Style, not sincerity. And it follows, therefore, that every modern prince needs a VERY EFFECTIVE PROPAGANDA MACHINE. Lincoln, perhaps rightly, observed that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. But the important thing, for cynical but realistic Machiavelli, is that you can fool most of the people most of the time--and, indeed, you must fool them. For their own good. And for yours.
Obama may need to think about remaking his PR team. The Republicans already have an excellent bunch of liars and hypocrites assailing the airwaves: politicians such as Palin, McConnell, DeMint, Kyl, Boehner; commentators such as Limbaugh, Beck, Coulter, Hannity, O'Reilly; journalists such as Cal Thomas, George Will, etc. But most of the Democratic players are wusses, actually trying to be rational and fair (OK, I doubt that Keith Olbermann worries too much about fairness; nor, probably, does Ed Schultz). But Machiavelli might well assert that Team Obama is too low-key, too confident in the masses' ability to sift fact from fiction, too sanguine in trusting the "people" to both discern and commit to actual truth. M. says that the "masses are always impressed by the superficial appearance of things, and by the outcome of an enterprise" (i.e., by the ends and not the means).
Frankly, I agree. But doing so makes me uncomfortable. Because Machiavelli seems to be saying that the "good" ruler needs a team of liars and deceivers just as much as a "bad" ruler needs such manipulators. Indeed, M. makes no real distinction here between what might be considered "good" for the commonwealth or "bad" for the commonwealth. No real distinction between, say, FDR and Stalin--both of whom had pretty good propaganda machines.
Is, therefore, a "good" ruler for Machiavelli merely an "effective" ruler--someone who keeps control, regardless of what impact he/she has on the overall welfare of the citizenry? Many passages in The Prince suggest that a ruler should always be concerned about the quality of life of his subjects. But why? Just because? What is to ensure that a leader who succeeds in being "feared" (precept 1), "miserly" (precept 2) and "hypocritical if necessary" (precept 3) will have any inclination whatsoever to concern himself/herself about actually bettering the lives of the people in general?
It's too hard to figure it all out. So much thinking about Italian politics has made me hungry. To hell with tea. Let's have a PIZZA PARTY!