Is a sixteenth-century political theorist still relevant to today’s political landscape, especially to modern municipal politics? I believe he is very relevant, although his words need to be recast into modern metaphors and language to appreciate them fully. Yet simply substituting terms like mayor, city manager or CAO, and staff where Machiavelli writes “prince,” “noble,” or “baron” can produce surprisingly modern-sounding maxims.
That’s because The Prince was intended as a practical guidebook for a city ruler. It’s all about leadership at the local level.
Does he deserve the defamation he has earned over the centuries? I don’t think so. In fact, I believe The Prince should be given out to every newly elected councillor and mayor as a training manual for local politics. Those who want to be leaders will read it, the rest will be led.
The Prince contains hands-on advice on leadership, governing, assistants, security, spending and other areas today’s municipal politicians and city managers will recognize as part of their daily lives. Machiavelli addressed a range of civic problems we recognize and manage today.
Because he was a realist, as Francis Bacon called him, rather than an idealist, his advice today may seem too cynical and self-serving, but that’s just the flavour of the times.
Underneath our sanctimonious masque of political correctness, we recognize his truths.
That correctness may also prevent us from having the spine for what Machiavelli says we need to do to survive in office. It’s not always nice, or pretty, but it’s usually necessary. Leaders need to do what has to be done, and have no moral qualms about it.
“Most people are hamstrung by things like affection
for fellow employees, honesty, desire to appear to
be a ‘nice person,’ and other crippling limitations
not suffered by the truly powerful and successful.
This book will attempt to eradicate those impulses in you…”
Stanley Bing, Introduction to: What Would Machiavelli Do?
Machiavelli isn’t reserved for the grandiose sweep of national and international politics: he wrote about the prime concerns of every municipal politician today: getting power, managing that power, and staying in office: the stuff of realpolitik. We all appreciate it, but may not always grasp its finer nuances. Machiavelli lays it out for us; he doesn’t mince words. No one else will give you this advice. You certainly won’t get it in your council orientation sessions.
Every great leader, every great politician should be a student of Machiavelli. If you don’t heed his advice, your opponents will, so you should know what he says so you can be prepared for what they do. It’s not all about power or political gamesmanship; it’s also about bureaucracy, statecraft and the machinery of governance.
And it’s about winning. The means you used to accomplish things during your time in office will be judged by the level of your success.
“It pains me much when I hear that out of conscience many of you repent the deeds that have been done and that
you wish to abstain from new deeds… if this is true,
you are not the men I believed you to be, for neither conscience nor infamy should dismay you, because those who win, in whatever mode they win, never receive shame from it… We have no business to think about conscience…”
Speech quoted in the Florentine Histories: III: 3
A lot has been written about Machiavelli, mostly by scholars and academics. Dense tomes analyze his every nuance and saying. Some of it, frankly, is tired blather akin to counting angels dancing on pinheads. It wasn’t written by politicians, the people for whom Machiavelli intended his works. Politicians who read Machiavelli see his books in a different light.
In this book, I put Machiavelli’s most famous – and most infamous – work, The Prince, in a modern, municipal perspective, not simply by rewriting his words (I do a little of that, to modernize them), but also by explaining his ideas through the lens of my own experience in municipal politics and in the media.
I also add quotes from others of Machiavelli’s works, as well as from other authors. The latter are meant to highlight the reader’s understanding that Machiavelli is not alone, nor the first or the last, in his advice or assessments about government and political leaders.
My target readership is the mayor or municipal councillor who wants to be a leader at the table, and to do that you need to know how to survive and succeed in politics. It’s also for any incumbent who wants to be re-elected to office: you need skill and talent and cunning to win re-election, not just luck or what you think is a good platform (the electorate may not agree or even care).
New politicians, especially, should pay heed to Machiavelli’s words, because newcomers need him more than incumbents. To simplify things, I refer to mayors and councillors, but these can also be read as warden and aldermen, or reeve and deputy reeve, respectively.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from The Prince (shown in bold) are from the W. K. Marriott translation, available in the public domain. I have often altered the wording and grammar of quotes for greater clarity (e.g. I changed “liberality” to “generosity”).
Machiavelli’s original work always speaks of the prince – the ruler – as masculine. While that befits the patriarchal nature of his times, I try to be more inclusive, but have not changed the quotations from his book for the sake of political correctness.
I use Machiavelli’s chapter order in The Prince as my own framework, but I have dropped most of the examples and historical anecdotes in his original. However, I included two lengthy anecdotes, one each in Chapters 7 and 8, because they are, I felt, necessary to explain his reasoning. I also changed the chapter titles, as well, to suit my theme.
I include quotes from The Discourses, Florentine Histories, and from works by other authors. See the bibliography for details and links to online resources.