Dr. Laurie M. Johnson

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Home: Political Thought Links: Parallels: Machiavelli


New York Times Article on Hobbes and Machiavelli

Parallels: "Machiavellian" Politics Today

Mary Matalin and James Carville are campaign strategists for Republican and Democratic candidates, respectively. Some call them "spin doctors" for their ability to handle difficult news and turn it to their candidate's advantage in the media. They also happen to be married! Many have wondered how they stay married because in their television interviews they are extremely partisan and can viciously critique each other's arguments. However, they are professionals, apparently able to put politics to one side in their private life. This professional attitude is something that Machiavelli would greatly admire, because it shows they are capable of grand strategy. Unless you can detach yourself from personal feelings, you will never be able to think in terms of your long-term self-interest and strategize to your best advantage-or so says Machiavelli.

In All's Fair: Love, War, and Running for President, Carville and Matalin exchange views on many episodes from the presidential campaign of 1992, which pitted the incumbent George Bush against the Arkansas Governor, Bill Clinton.

Strategists like Matalin and Carville are hired to win for their candidates, and they will only continue to be employed so long as they have a track record of success. Sometimes it seems as if the candidates are willing to do anything, even outside of the bounds of law, to win. Below are some issues that would interest Machiavelli if he were here today.

Manipulating Appearances

The events you see on television during political campaigns are often not at all genuine, but often contrived. Something that appears to be quite spontaneous-such as a candidate's stop at a day-care center-is usually well planned. How many cameras can be there is often the question asked before deciding on a particular event. The methods of the social sciences have been employed very successfully in order to manipulate public opinion. Polling and focus group studies are frequently commissioned by campaigns in order to determine which issues "resonate" with the voters at any particular time. Other studies are done to determine which words and phrases uttered by candidates produce the most positive response. In other words, campaigns find out what you are worried about and what you like, then they give it back to you. Sometimes the message varies from state to state or from group to group. Selling a candidate sometimes seems like selling soap or fast food. In the case of presidential campaigns this is especially true because the candidates have to work primarily through the national media, because they could never be personally exposed to so many voters.

Critics of this situation claim that the effect of the media, especially television, has been detrimental to our political process. Candidates will use the media to get their message out so long as there is media willing to be there. Can we hope that the media will show some self-restraint and not allow itself to be so manipulated? So far, we have seen little of this journalistic skepticism. Some critics suggest that the only way to curb this trend toward superficiality in politics is to limit the amount of time candidates can campaign, to limit the amount of time the people are pounded by manipulative images. This restriction would amount to a curb on free speech, however, and probably would not solve the problem but only shorten its duration and thus somewhat diminish its impact.

There are those who, like Matalin and Carville, accept the current system and work within it. The reader can sense that both of them believe in their candidate's basic political position-it would be unimaginable to see Carville become a Republican strategist for any sum of money, for instance. Strategists like Carville and Matalin might claim, along with Machiavelli, that it does no good to wish for a different world in which there is no "spin." Any candidate who ignores current political realities will be virtuous, but will remain a private citizen! Therefore, the best we can hope for is that the image manipulation reflects the basic political views of the candidates under consideration so that the voters get some idea of who they are and what they support.

Campaign Finance

In the aftermath of the 1996 presidential campaign, the issue of campaign finance has become a hot topic. "Campaign finance" refers to the way in which political campaigns are funded. There are all sorts of laws and regulations regarding who can give donations to political campaigns, how much they can give, and under what circumstances. For instance, it is illegal to ask people to contribute to a private organization, even one with openly liberal or conservative political leanings, and then to transfer those funds without their knowledge to a particular candidate. It is also illegal to take over $2,000 from any individual contributor, but it is not illegal for Political Action Committees to collect and give much larger contributions totaling hundreds of thousands or even millions
of dollars. It is illegal to ask for campaign contributions using government offices and telephones. It is also illegal to take campaign contributions from someone who is not a citizen of the United States. As we found out painfully in the aftermath of the 1996 campaign, many of these laws were violated or skillfully outmaneuvered. The most glaring case of such violations involved funds from communist Chinese military officials making their way to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and from there to the Clinton-Gore campaign through Asian middle men working for the Chinese. In one case, a Buddhist monastery was used to funnel this Chinese money. Eventually, under investigation, the DNC admitted errors and promised to return the illegal money. This incident led to the discovery of more campaign finance abuses among Democrat and Republican candidates in other races. The result was renewed calls for "campaign finance reform."

No one will try to defend what is illegal. However, there were those who made apologies for the DNC's mistake by pointing out that, in the current climate, such abuses are all but inevitable. These days, image matters a great deal. Getting the image out to a large audience early and often seems essential to winning a presidential campaign. The sums spent on advertising on both sides of the 1996 campaign were astronomical. Under such pressure, the competitors will try to circumvent complex and ambiguous laws. Some critics suggest limiting the amount of money each campaign can spend, thus reducing the pressure to "win" through collecting the most donations. Others even suggest public financing of campaigns. These suggestions, however, again founder on free speech rights. It takes money to exercise free speech in the media, and we cannot limit how much a candidate spends of his
own funds to get his message out without violating his rights. Stopping others who are not personally wealthy from raising donations would possibly infringe their rights, because money and speech are closely tied together in today's mass media system. It would certainly put the poorer at a disadvantage against those who have their own private source of wealth. Some argue for tougher laws, but we already have laws against campaign finance abuses and abuses still occur. A Machiavellian might advise the candidate to do whatever it takes to win, so long as he or she is not caught nor associated with such wrong-doing that the public will not forget it.

Sexual Politics

The "lady" that Machiavelli hoped princes would try to subdue was "Fortune," or chance. What would Machiavelli have to say about the problem some politicians seem to have with sexual affairs? The most famous recent incident of this, of course, is President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. However, sex scandals have been fairly frequent in American politics. One might be tempted to conclude that Machiavelli would see no problem with any of these cases and might ask the American public to accept reality. However, this would probably not be Machiavelli's view.

Remember that Machiavelli endorses doing whatever you can to achieve your goals, but he does have some reservations. Machiavelli tells the prince that "doing whatever you can" must be tempered by prudence. This means, as we have seen, avoiding the people's hatred or their contempt. The successful prince must be ever mindful of the public's impression of him, and must avoid those things which encourage them to take his leadership less seriously. Machiavelli also has something to say about the goals the prince should hope to achieve. They are goals that involve long-term thinking-goals like political stability, a strong defense, a full treasury and a prosperous people. Anything that diverts the leader's attention from the power he needs to achieve these goals is probably not worth pursuing. Having an affair is always risky, and may (as we all know) become public knowledge. If this happens, the leader risks public ridicule, which certainly decreases his power. His long-term goals are hampered, not only by this diminution of credibility, but also by his actual diversion of attention from the important agenda-power. Being led by one's heart instead of one's head is, from the Machiavellian view, a fatal error. That is not to say that Machiavelli himself did not sometimes fall into this trap.

What of the idea that the people should be more realistic, that they should simply accept the fact that their leaders are human? Machiavelli would certainly detest this turn of events. A fox-like prince needs an honest people, that is, a people who still believe in morality and religion. The last thing Machiavelli would want is a cynical people who expect their leaders to transgress at every turn. It is impossible to motivate such people to support the leader's ideas and plans. They will begin to see corruption at every turn, and eventually they will call for righteous leadership-which Machiavelli thought would lead to political disaster. Anything that makes the American people more cynical and "worldly-wise" is, from the Machiavellian perspective, an unfortunate event. That would certainly be the case with something that has such little long-term political benefit as an affair.


Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994, p. 249, 250.

Mary Matalin and James Carville (with Peter Knobler,) All's Fair: Love, War, and Running For President, New York: Random House, 1994, esp. pp. 215, 219.




Dep't of Political Science
Kansas State University
Primary Texts Certificate