Obama: Still Machiavelli's Prince?
This marvelous essay was published on July 23, less than 2 months ago. The author is making an astute comparison of Machiavelli's ideal ruler, The Prince, to Barack Obama. It is a stunning and accurate analysis, posted before all the Town Hall and Teabagger ugliness had marred his victory.
If, as Cohen sets forth here, Obama is the ideal Machiavelli had in mind, then he will fulfill the many qualities, and rebound from late summer's disaster. This is not to ignore the dark side of all of this, by the way. The underside of the pragmatic Prince is dark and takes us way down into the abyss of the recesses of the psyche. If Obama is "the man of many qualities" as antiquity understood the statesman, and as Machiavelli comprehended his "Prince", then these qualities work for the greatest good, and the greatest evil.
US politicians abhor philosophers as a rule (especially European ones), but sure enough, in Obama's The Audacity of Hope (2006) - a political manifesto structured around an account of his first year in the US Senate - we learn that, in search of his mother's values, Obama studied political philosophy. He is a follower of Machiavelli not merely in spirit, but in a scholarly and philosophical sense, too.
Some conservative political commentators in the US have also made the connection, claiming to find in Obama a kind of demagoguery, the charisma Machiavelli called virtu, a man who exhibits a "confidence (so much) more than human that he can attain all he desires". And indeed, Obama has impressed many with his inspirational chant, "Yes, we can". But having charisma and being a demagogue do not necessarily go hand in hand.
Nonetheless, Michael Knox Beran, an author and lawyer, warns in a recent essay in the urban affairs quarterly City Journal that Machiavelli intends the Prince's virtu to be a tool to forge public-spirited communitarianism out of rivalry, division and selfishness - just as Obama sees it. Beran also argues that the underlying flaw of the collectivist ideal is its incompatibility with ethical and constitutional limitations. Indeed, Obama has argued that his opponents represent "absolutism, not conservatism", driven by a preference for "absolute truth" over "communal values". This commitment must be jettisoned, Obama urges, if we are to solve today's problems and change our lives. In so doing, he notes (correctly) that the US Constitution is itself "a rejection of absolute truth", constructed out of compromises over issues such as civil rights and political power.
The refusal to be bound by moral rules, Machiavelli advises his Prince, is a tactical necessity. Subservience to traditional morality prevents rulers from being sufficiently ruthless in the pursuit of their goals.
Machiavelli's writings are primarily a historical and contemporary political analysis of how power is won, maintained and lost. Fifteenth-century Italy had many examples to offer - mainly to do with misrule. Authority rested on corruption in elections and the use of violence and deceit to manipulate opinion. Machiavelli examines history for examples of certain incidents and notes the consequences, good or bad, for the ruler. He then forms a hypothesis that is tested and either confirmed or disproved. It is in this context that Machiavelli sets out the means to achieve certain ends, irrespective of any virtue or merit in those ambitions. In like manner, Obama has his own love of historical parallels and reads avidly the works of the "great leaders", including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.
The Prince is Machiavelli's more famous book. But it is the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy that, although less celebrated, is a longer and more substantial work. It contains additional (liberal) ideas dropped from The Prince with the aim of pleasing the Medici, but even so, there is no essential contradiction between the works.
In both Machiavelli's and Obama's writings, republics flourish when they respect customs and traditions; when town dominates country; when a large middle class exists; when popular power is institutionalised; and when there is plenty of civic spirit. Above all, both men share the sentiment that adaptability to circumstances is the central virtue of republican government. "A republic or a Prince should ostensibly do out of generosity what necessity constrains them to do," writes Machiavelli. "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," Rahm Emanuel, Obama's White House Chief of Staff, recently echoed.
Machiavelli's most important and original points are usually considered these days to relate to the dry matter of the analysis of the conditions for republican government, but he also allows himself to spend much time and many pages discussing military tactics - an interest Obama shares. When an enemy is seen to be making a big mistake, "it should be assumed that it is but an artifice", Machiavelli warns Obama, before describing "the rival merits of fortresses and cavalry".
And, despite his reputation for cynicism, Machiavelli stresses that injustice threatens the foundations of society from within, and urges that it always be combated, wherever it appears and whoever it affects. This thinking drove Obama to outlaw abusive interrogation methods on his first day in office.
Perhaps Machiavelli's most controversial and unscrupulous claim is that if a prince must choose to be either feared or loved, it is better to be feared, for "love is held by a chain of obligation which (for) men, being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails". Obama seems to be delivering the same lesson in his execution of teenage pirates in the seas off Somalia, the annihilation of rebellious tribesmen in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, and even on Death Row in the US, where he speedily confirms executions.
Here, Machiavelli's advice for princes includes guidance that could not have been better tailored to the American mind, commenting that when "a Prince is obliged to take the life of any one, let him do so when there is a proper justification and manifest reason for it; but above all he must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony". Mind you, as Machiavelli also notes, "the pretexts for seizing property are never wanting" either.
Of course, duplicity is not just a Machiavellian trait - many societies depend on just such a contradiction, resorting to the claim that the end justifies the means, even if the means falls below publicly held standards of morality. Even Plato allowed it in his "noble lie", used to explain citizens' different upbringing and roles. Machiavelli is simply enunciating plainly what most governments prefer to keep secret. "Everybody sees what you appear to be, few feel what you are," Machia-velli says of his Prince. The enigma that is Barack Obama could not be better summed up.