Chapter 2: Why Incumbents Rule Municipalities

In Chapter II: Concerning Hereditary Principalities, Machiavelli describes the advantages a hereditary ruler has over one who has taken the principality by force. Today we don’t use the same sort of armed force to win our power: we use elections and campaign teams; battlegrounds and armies of a different sort.

“There are fewer difficulties in holding hereditary states, and those long accustomed to the family of their prince, than new ones. For even a prince of average powers to maintain himself in his state he only needs to not diverge from the customs of his ancestors, and to deal prudently with circumstances as they arise….”

Machiavelli is basically saying that it’s easier to run a state that you have inherited. As long as you don’t mess things up, as long as you stick to the time-honoured customs and practices, you should get along fine. You don’t need to be aggressive, you don’t need to be innovative, just continue with what’s been done before.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? The electorate often feels comfortable and safe with incumbents. As long as they don’t do anything rash or stupid; as long as they don’t rock the boat, they have a good chance to get back in without having actually earned that privilege

What is prudent behavior for incumbents? Anything that keeps them in power, anything that doesn’t hurt their reputation, or awaken the public too much. Barring extraordinary circumstances, incumbents don’t have to do much at all to stay in power.

Machiavelli says that incumbent politicians with only average or even mediocre talents can survive in office.

“The art of using moderate abilities to advantage wins praise, and often acquires more reputation than actual brilliancy.”
François de La Rochefoucauld: Moral Maxims (No. 162)

It’s easy for incumbents to fossilize in place and end up more like museum specimens than active politicians. They don’t need much effort to keep themselves there, at least until someone in office seriously screws up, and upsets the status quo sufficiently.

This act will bring forth a challenger who can successfully engage the electorate to overthrow the wayward incumbent:

“…unless he be deprived of it by some extraordinary and excessive force…”

Even then, Machiavelli adds, the former incumbent has a good chance to regain the seat next time around if the newcomer makes enough mistakes and loses the public’s affection:

“And if he should be so deprived of it, whenever anything sinister happens to the usurper, he will regain it.”

Incumbents, he warns, should be careful not to bring in a lot of changes all at once, because that gets the electorate eager for more reform. One good change deserves another, and the next change could be in politicians.

“A hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves one toothing for another.”

Established incumbents don’t make waves lest their waves become a tsunami rushing to overthrow them.

The Incumbent Advantage

One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected.

What is prudent behavior for incumbents? Anything that keeps them in power, anything that doesn’t hurt their reputation, or awaken the public too much. Barring extraordinary circumstances, incumbents don’t have to do much at all to stay in power.

Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office through sheer inertia, rather than by great acts, reforming zeal, or by taking brave and principled stands. People forget why they first voted these councillors or aldermen into office. Yet people continue to vote for them years after the incumbent’s energy has drained away, when they are ineffective in office, slow to respond and out of date.

Why? Because the electorate is comfortable when the incumbents don’t challenge the status quo too much or too quickly. Changes encourage the people to want more of them. And that opens the door to newcomers who promise change. The result is what Machiavelli called a ‘new principality.’

“Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once… Too much change is traumatic and will lead to revolt.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 45

Yet Machiavelli warned against complacency in office. He stressed the need for rulers to always win the public’s love and gratitude to stay in power. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext in his book. When you do, you’re going to be ruined.

“That everything is fine today, that is our illusion.”
Voltaire: On the Disaster at Lisbon

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