Machiavelli: Why Liberals Should at Last Embrace the Ultimate Bad Boy of Politics

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September 10, 2012 by E. Cooper Ostresh

Machiavelli: Why Liberals Should at Last Embrace the Ultimate Bad Boy of Politics


“ Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly, in such wise that the prince is endangered along with them.”

            The above quote comes from Nicolo Machiavelli’s timeless political treatise, “The Prince,” and it clearly outlines one of my biggest fears about the coming 2012 presidential election. Over the last three and a half years the Obama administration has been under a relentless attack from the right while at the same time Obama’s support from the left has ebbed and flowed. It seems that considering the enormous political capital the president has expended in efforts to fulfill his 2008 campaign promises, the original supporters of Obama, the surrogates, the liberal and moderate pundits, and the voters, owe it to him to stand firm.

            What stands out as perhaps the critical weakness among Democrats in the last few years is their inability to recognize Machiavellian political tactics and their unwillingness to adopt them. As a result, a president who managed to fulfill the bulk of his major campaign promises (health care, end of the Iraq war, elimination of Osama Bin Laden, and halting the downward spiral of a devastated economy)while at the same time being faced with unprecedented opposition, has an approval rating hovering around 45%. On the opposing side, Mitt Romney, a habitual flip flopper who has demonstrated an inability to lead his own party and a pathological obsession with pandering to the most extreme wing of his party, has managed to keep pace and stay in the race. If you look at the two opposing records of these candidates objectively this contest should not even be close. The close polling results of the election are generally attributed to the economy but I feel it is more likely the result of a misunderstanding of the tactics necessary to survive and prosper in this political environment.

            Republicans understand Machiavelli and have worked for forty years at revising basic principles from “The Prince,” to operate within the modern American political systems. One Machiavellian principle that has been used extensively over the years is use of Gerrymandering.   Machiavelli addresses the issue of how to hold newly annexed territories (congressional districts if you will) by destroying the new territory until no viable opposition remains.  Gerrymandering has been used to effectively destroy the political opposition in certain districts.  Voter suppression laws, thinly cloaked under the title of  “voter fraud legislation” and in the past under “poll taxes,” are also tactics that have been used to effectively destroy the opposition.  In a stable democracy, where the weapon of the revolutionary is the vote, tactics that deny or nullify the vote are akin to robbing the masses of their muskets and pitchforks.  Though less bloody than the tactics espoused in “The Prince,” these laws have the same overall effect.  Furthermore, these tactics have been openly and successfully employed by the Republicans since the Nixon administration.

            For years Democrats have been caught flat footed by these tactics.  The recent actions by Eric Holder’s Justice Department in relation to Florida’s voter suppression laws happen to be notable and encouraging exceptions to the left’s penchant for being bowled over by these Republican strategies.  That said, in many other ways Democrats, liberals, and progressives still make it a habit of losing political ground when the right dusts off their copies of “The Prince” and look for new ways to reinvent Machiavellian thinking.  Liberals tend to hear the word Machiavelli and immediately dismiss it as what the “bad guys” use without even reading, let alone attempting to understand, the book. This failure has cost the left an Al Gore presidency, a John Kerry presidency, and now it could possibly cost them a second term of one of the most promising and capable Democratic Presidents since Roosevelt.

            Perhaps it is best to delve into this strategic weakness on the part of the left by first examining a recent example and how it should be viewed through the lens of Machiavellian thinking.  In recent weeks the Conservative dogma machine came out with a series of attacks bemoaning leaks in the White House.  Donald Rumsfeld took an interview with Piers Morgan and railed against this “leak heavy administration.”  I expected a heavy outcry from liberals.  After all, the leaks he was referring to merely confirmed the existence of a program that most members of the press had been reporting on for over a year.  The administration Rumsfeld worked for leaked the identity of an undercover CIA operative. One of these leaks was mildly embarrassing.  The other would have been considered treasonous had it happened during the Cold War.

            In fact, the Scooter  Libby incident is yet another example of how the left has literally failed to “go for the kill.” Leaking the names of CIA operatives and assets is what landed Aldrich Ames (Infamous CIA Mole apprehended in 1994) and Robert Hanson (Infamous FBI Mole apprehended in 2001) in jail for life. And yet when Scooter Libby was sentenced to 30 months and $250,000.00 fine for “Obstruction of Justice,” liberals seemed satisfied that someone was found guilty.  In truth they should have been up in arms because he wasn’t charged with treason.  Had he been tried for treason, Bush’s commutation of his sentence may have been from the death penalty to a life in prison.  Instead there was very little political cost, other than the damage already done, when he commuted a 30 month sentence in its entirety and let Scooter Libby walk free.  Is there any doubt that had Scooter Libby been a henchman for a Democratic Administration the right would have demanded a trial for treason?

            The contrast of these two events, the real world damage done versus the political rhetoric used, exemplifies the left’s unwillingness to ruthlessly attack the right under the veil of patriotism.  That is a mistake that needs to be addressed immediately if progressives hope to secure credibility.  While the right has claimed to be the party of a strong national defense, their track record simply doesn’t give them the right to make such a claim.  True, the Democrats saw Johnson make a quagmire out of Vietnam but Nixon and Ford seemed to fair no better in their conduct of that war.  Bush senior did a competent job of conducting the first gulf war but once he got the ball rolling, Clinton seemed to do as well in Kosovo. Bush junior, however, is rightfully criticized for “taking his eyes off the ball” in Afghanistan and creating a mess of things in a war in Iraq that proved to be pre-mature even by the  right’s most generous analysts.

            In contrast, the conduct of several  Democratic presidents during wartime has proven to be competent, effective, and at times politically courageous.  Obama’s conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with his successful pursuit of Osama Bin Ladin, is likely to land him in the historical company along with Roosevelt and Truman.  The last Republican war president to be unanimously lauded by historians as an example from which to draw inspiration was Abraham Lincoln who died a century and a half ago.  With a record like that is it logical that Democrats continually allow the Republicans to lay claim to national defense?

            But the issue of ceding territory on national defense, when the history of our republic seems to indicate the opposite to be the case, is just one of many examples where Democrats have allowed themselves to be kicked around by Republicans.  That doesn’t exude strength and above all else, Machiavelli would argue that a prince should appear strong.  But how and why has this come to pass?  The political party with the stronger objective track record of national defense, robust economies, and social justice has been branded as a failure time and time again by the right.  There are various reasons this happens and surprisingly many of them can be found by reading a book on princely politics that is almost 500 years old.

To start with, one of the principles that Machiavelli addresses at length, both directly and indirectly, is the principle of  Divide et impera, more commonly known as “Divide and Conquer.” Though the term is generally attributed to Phillip II of Macedon, “the Prince” discusses ways in which princedoms can become divided.  Much of this essay will delve into some of the divisions within the Democratic Party that threaten to destabilize the Presidential Campaign and examine opportunities for Democrats to widen divisions that exist within the Republican Coalition.

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E. Cooper Ostresh

E. Cooper Ostresh

Cooper is an author and magician. After earning degrees in both Sociology and Criminology he went on to work as a railroader, firefighter, and teacher in South Korea. In addition to his varied work experiences he has bicycled through South America, been an occasional snowboard bum, and traveled the world.

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