Machiavelli called this Chapter III: Concerning Mixed Principalities. In it, he wrote about new principalities that had been conquered by outsiders, or their leaders overthrown by the populace. In today’s terms this could refer to a group of incumbents getting tossed out at election time, and replaced by a slate of like-minded newcomers. That’s not uncommon in municipal politics.
Everyone who has participated in a municipal election knows the roller-coaster ride of fear, thrill, anxiety, anger, excitement, disappointment, hope, and – if you’re among the winners – finally that great exuberance.
“It used to be said by those who ruled Florence from the year 1434 to 1494, that their government could hardly be maintained unless it was renewed every five years; by which they meant that it was necessary for them to arouse the same terror and alarm in men’s minds, as they inspired when they first assumed the government, and when all who offended against their authority were signally chastised.”
The Discourses: III, 1
Sometimes voters feel the need to chastise mayors and councils at election time. Newcomers rise to the occasion and campaign against the incumbents, angrily condemning their sloth and corruption.
“Without further opposition Pistoia passed into the hands of Castruccio, who, having forced the Signoria to leave the palace, compelled the people to yield obedience to him, making them many promises and remitting their old debts. The countryside flocked to the city to see the new prince, and all were filled with hope and quickly settled down, influenced in a great measure by his great valour.”
Description Of The Methods Adopted By The Duke Valentino
Unfortunately for newcomers, there is seldom a clean slate in politics: incumbents and newcomers get mixed at the table after an election. That always leads to a tussle between new ideas and goals and the old, status quo policies of previous councils.
Incumbents may try to get newcomers on their side. The attraction of siding with a well-established, experienced, well-connected politician is hard for newcomers to resist. But don’t make any hasty decisions. If you, as a newcomer, get pressured by an incumbent to make a choice without doing your due diligence or any time for investigation, consider Machiavelli’s advice to leaders:
“Here we are to note that when a prince would obtain something from another, he ought, if the occasion allow, to leave him no time to deliberate, but should so contrive that the other may see the need of resolving at once; as he will, if he perceive that refusal or delay in complying with what is asked of him, will draw upon him a sudden and dangerous resentment.”
The Discourses: III, 44
Every politician knows that each decision, each vote at the table, can tip the support of a fickle public; that special interest groups can galvanize the electorate for or against an incumbent; and that issues can be hijacked by a concerted effort to engage public opinion for specific groups or their goals.
“Men change their rulers willingly, hoping to better themselves, and this hope leads them to take up arms against him who rules. But in this, they are deceived, because they afterwards discover they have gone from bad to worse.”
Voters change their rulers, too. The lure of the campaign promise is often irresistible, and newcomers promise change and benefits that sound exciting and grandiose. But the reality after the election is not always what was expected, and the newcomers’ grandiose schemes fizzle and sputter into nothing against the implacable wall of bureaucratic indifference and financial necessity.
“…the mistakes which the inexperience of new men would have occasioned, as because from their ambition having a freer course, and from their having none near them in whose presence they might fear to do amiss, they would have grown less scrupulous; and in this way the public service must have suffered grave harm.”
The Discourses: I, 36
Mistakes get made. Blame gets laid. Plans fizzle and promises get forgotten or ignored. Post-election disappointment among the electorate, as well as among incoming politicians, is common. Sometimes that’s because newcomers promise what they know they can’t deliver.
“…these men, when they have promised great matters, and failed most shamefully, yet (if they have the perfection of boldness), they will but slight it over, and make a turn, and no more ado.”
Francis Bacon: Essays – Of Boldness
Electioneering often involves deliberate fraud:
“Men seldom if ever rise to great place from small beginnings without using fraud or force, unless, indeed, they be given, or take by inheritance the place to which some other has already come. Force, however, will never suffice by itself to effect this end, while fraud often will…”
The Discourses: II, 13
Newcomers in particular stumble and fumble as they try to get their political sea-legs. They discover other councillors’ agendas torpedo theirs; that staff resist their initiatives; that nothing moves as rapidly as you want, and the cost of a campaign promise proves much higher than imagined.
Every politician knows that each decision, each vote at the table, can tip the support of a fickle public; that special interest groups can galvanize the electorate for or against an incumbent; and that issues can be hijacked by a concerted effort to engage public opinion for specific groups or their goals.
When newcomers find themselves unable to follow through on promises, how quickly then does the public sour on their new political leaders! It’s not surprising when newcomers, having failed to live up to their promises, scurry to incumbents for support and guidance.
Newcomers to political office soon learn they don’t have the power or support they expected to have when they finally got elected; they learn that bureaucracies have deep foundations and are both resistant to new ideas and slow to change; that others who appeared as allies on the campaign trail have their own agendas that work at cross purposes to yours.
Even mayors, for all their authority and the grandeur of their position, only get one vote at the table. It takes a majority of council to get anything passed. But beware: a price may be extracted from you for the support you seek.
New municipal politicians learn about the necessity of alliances and cultivating staff in order to achieve their campaign promises. Those who don’t learn get sidelined. But what can you offer the others for their allegiance?
“You cannot subject men to hardships unless you hold out rewards, nor can you without danger deprive them of those rewards whereof you have held out hopes.”
The Discourses: I, 55
A much more recent comment from the early 20th century adds colour to Machiavelli’s words. The speaker was a U.S. senator and Tammany Hall leader of the 15th Assembly District, New York:
“…you can’t keep an organization together without patronage. Men ain’t in politics for nothin’. They want to get somethin’ out of it”
George Washington Plunkitt: A Series of Very Plain Talks on Very Practical Politics, 1905
If you feel pressured or forced into making an unsavoury deal or compromise, something that runs counter to your platform or your personal ethics, Machiavelli says you don’t have to honour it, especially if circumstances change:
“…there is no disgrace in not observing promises wrung from you by force; for promises thus extorted when they affect the public welfare will always be broken so soon as the pressure under which they were made is withdrawn, and that, too, without shame on the part of him who breaks them; of which we read many instances in history, and find them constantly occurring at the present day. Nay, as between princes, not only are such compulsory promises broken when the force which extorted them is removed, but all other promises as well, are in like manner disregarded when the causes which led to them no longer operate.”
The Discourses: III, 42
Not everyone can be bought by patronage or reward. Anyone on whose toes you stepped to get into office carries a grudge, especially those candidates you defeated to win your seat. They can’t be bought.
Special interest groups that you promised on the hustings to support now expect they have you on a string, and start demanding favours. Beware that showing too much favour to any special interest group can alienate the independent voters, as Dick Morris warns in The New Prince.
“The wisdom of the few may be the light of mankind; but the interest of the few is not the profit of mankind nor of a commonwealth.”
James Harrington: The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656
Getting into office means gaining opponents. The people you ousted or beat for your seat will hate you. The people you promised the world to if they helped you get into office, will hate you when they realize you can’t deliver. And because you owe them something for their support, you can’t ignore them or shut them out.
“You make enemies in all those whom you have injured in seizing that principality, and you are not able to keep those friends who put you there because of your not being able to satisfy them in the way they expected. You cannot take strong measures against them,
feeling indebted to them.”
The Goodwill of Staff
A ruler always needs the support of at least some of those he seeks to rule, especially if you want to avoid conspiracies against you. If they are not already your allies, you can get their support only by deception or by patronage. The latter strategy tends to be expensive and vulnerable to others who can offer more.
Machiavelli warned about needing the goodwill of the ‘natives’:
“For, although one may be very strong in armed forces, yet in entering a province one always needs the goodwill of the natives.”
The natives, in this case, are the municipal staff. It can also be taken to mean appointees on municipal boards and committees – often where the real power lies because these groups advise on policy, and too often their recommendations get passed into law with little or no debate.
Both have to be cultivated and won to your side. Or, as Machiavelli says, you need to have them eliminated.
“The best rewards are those which are generous and predictable, so that the people may profit by them. The best penalties are those that are severe and inescapable,
so that the people will fear them. The best laws are those which are uniform and inflexible, so the people can understand them.”
Han Fei Tzu: Sec. 49: The Five Vermin
There’s a popular myth in municipal governance that politicians should avoid interacting too much staff in case they “politicize” the staff, rendering them unable to advise effectively, or act in an objective and neutral manner. Poppycock.
In theory, a mayor and council are the bosses. We make decisions, and determine policies and strategies. Staff implement them. It ain’t that simple.
“Rulers do not implement their decisions directly, but must rely on several intermediate layers of administration. Most models of democracy… implicitly assume that the policy chosen at the top level will be implemented efficiently… In reality there are numerous problems and constraints at the stage of policy implementation, and the top-level decision-makers should look ahead and take these into account when designing their policies.”
Democracy, Autocracy and Bureaucracy, by Avinash Dixit, Princeton University, 2009
Councils are usually involved in the hiring of the top echelon of bureaucrats: city managers and CAOs, and often department heads. That council and mayor will choose the candidates who are seen to fit best with council’s own views, agendas and makeup and who are most likely to implement council’s decisions effectively. Don’t tell me that’s not a political decision.
Furthermore, when a council makes a decision, in many cases the decision is based on recommendations from staff, and then the responsibility and authority for implementing it is handed over to the bureaucrats. Councils often rubber stamp staff recommendations into law. There’s nothing apolitical about the process.
Senior staff have already been politicized by the hiring process. It’s sine non qua with their position. They will attempt to satisfy that mayor and council’s confidence in them through the process of implementing council’s decisions.
And what happens when a new council or new mayor comes in, with a different agenda? You get a clash of wills that is highly political in nature. Without political oversight, a council decision can undergo metamorphosis, often taking on a distinctly different shape than the council intended.
Staff and committees are a counterculture with fingers on all the buttons and ways of burying things they don’t want to pursue. They move at their own speed. They have their own goals, agendas and plans, and often go in directions that oppose your own intentions.
“In democracies and in autocracies, bureaucrats are agents of the top-level policymakers. This brings the usual moral hazard and adverse selection problems… problems facing
the ruler may involve both moral hazard (some or all of the bureaucrat’s actions are unobservable) and adverse selection (bureaucrat has private information about the productivity and his own caring).”
Democracy, Autocracy, and Bureaucracy, by Avinash Dixit, Princeton University, 2009
Departments and boards are never eager to change to suit the goals and agendas of a newcomer, especially if they enjoyed privileges and independence under the former council:
“While the laws of a city are altered to suit its circumstances, its institutions rarely or never change; whence it results that the introduction of new laws is of no avail, because the institutions, remaining unchanged, corrupt them.”
The Discourses: I, 18
You can seldom win their loyalty by force. You need their goodwill to succeed. And perhaps a bit of cunning and some inside help, if necessary.
You will always have those among staff who favoured the politicians who you ousted in the election. They see you as an interloper, or worse, the enemy. They can create problems, putting up roadblocks when you try to implement your goals. You need to act to secure your authority.
This is where returning incumbents have an advantage, writes Machiavelli:
“After acquiring rebellious provinces a second time, they are not so lightly lost again afterwards, because the prince, with little reluctance, takes the opportunity of the rebellion to punish the offenders, to clear out the suspects, and to strengthen himself where he is the weakest.”
Returning incumbents send a message to staff that the public is still on the politician’s side, so they better watch their step. Staff who may have been difficult last term can find their jobs in jeopardy if they continue their opposition. Appointees to boards and committees who may have clashed with the returned politicians get the message they have to toe the line this term or get booted off the board.
Machiavelli adds that, when new politicians deal with staff and departments, or committees and boards, it is necessary to destroy any allegiances to former politicians (especially to former opponents on previous councils).
However, you must still allow staff and boards enough liberty and control in their operations to feel they have some independence:
“It is enough to have destroyed the family of the prince who was ruling them… He who has annexed them, if he wishes to hold them, has only to bear in mind two considerations: the one, that the family of their former ruler is extinguished; the other, that neither their laws nor their taxes are altered.In a very short time they will become entirely one body with the old principality.”
Machiavelli offers several warnings about acquiring principalities that don’t speak the same language or share the same customs as the ruler. Imagine these as departments or department heads, or committees and their chairs, all with different strategic goals than the politicians, or with other allegiances aside from to you.
His advice is clear: make your presence known, and constant, and deal with problems when they arise, don’t put them off until later:
“He who has acquired new states should go and reside there… if one is on the spot, disorders are seen as they spring up, and one can quickly remedy them; but if one is not at hand, they hear of them only when they can no longer remedy them.”
Politicians, particularly mayors, but also those appointed as direct liaison to a department or as a council representative on a board, need to get hands-on, so they can deal immediately with any challenges to the current political authority.
Be there, be in their faces, stay in contact and respond to questions and queries right away. Be seen in city hall, be seen in the departments; speak to staff: ask about projects, initiatives, and policies. Answer their questions, offer your observations. You don’t need to boss them around a lot, just make yourself visible and accessible to staff.
At the same time, don’t be lulled by the pleasant chit chat and the smiles that they love you because you’re being polite and courteous. Once you step in to take control, once you let them feel your hand on the rudder, no matter how benignly or civilly, you will have stepped into the ring as a challenger. You will now have to be on your guard.
“And if your conduct were in every respect upright, your demeanor amiable, and your judgments equitable, all these would be insufficient to make you beloved. If you imagine otherwise, you deceive yourself; for, to one accustomed to the enjoyment of liberty, the slightest chains feel heavy, and every tie upon his free soul oppresses him.”
History of Florence, Book II, 8
While you’re there, you protect them from the ravages of your own subordinates who would otherwise be building their own power base in the department.
“Besides this, the country is not pillaged by your officials…”
This might go against a local policy of not ‘micro-managing’ staff, but you invested a lot of time, effort and likely money into gaining your position, so think of this as protecting your investment. And, as Machiavelli says, the presence of a powerful politician among the staff gives staff satisfaction for having,
“…prompt recourse to the prince.”
Having direct, immediate access to the mayor or senior politicians is reassuring. It makes decision-making faster and easier for staff, and helps calm dissent in the office. If a politician makes a decision, then the responsibility for it falls from staff’s shoulders and onto the politician’s. Machiavelli adds,
“Thus, wishing to be good, they have more cause to love him, and wishing to be otherwise, to fear him.”
Machiavelli repeats this theme several times: if you can’t make them love you, make them fear you. The mayor’s presence among the staff; visible and accessible during the daily operation of a department, also makes it more difficult for political rivals to unseat him or her:
“He who would attack that state from the outside must have the utmost caution; as long as the prince resides there it can only be wrested from him with the greatest difficulty.”
As a counterpoint, it is harder for you to take control of another politician’s area of influence, such as a committee or board, unless you have inside help.
If you can’t be there to control it yourself, Machiavelli recommends using allies to “colonize” the staff or committee:
“The other and better course is to send colonies to one or two places, which may be as keys to that state, for it is necessary either to do this or else to keep there a great number of cavalry and infantry.”
While your presence is effective alone, it takes more than one of your allies to achieve the same result.
The army reference in The Prince can be taken as staff allies or appointees who come in to “put a bit of stick about” on your behalf. They control unruly or undisciplined staff, sometimes by strong-arm tactics like selective dismissals or changes to job descriptions and roles.
It could also refer to a board appointee, preferably as chair, someone loyal to the politician, an ally who controls the content of the meeting agenda and may even help determine who gets appointed to or removed from the board. It could even mean changing committee appointments: replacing the chair or vice chair with your ally.
In The Discourses, Machiavelli wrote about how the Romans used insiders to help them conquer a territory:
“In a new province they always sought for some friend who should be to them as a ladder whereby to climb, a door through which to pass, or an instrument wherewith to keep their hold.”
The Discourses: II, 1
Crush Your Opponents
Your municipal staff is also your army. Like with the military, you need loyal, dependable and well-trained people to do the fighting for you, while you play the general.
If any staff were hired by the former mayor or council, they may still have allegiance to those former politicians and their agendas. If there is even the slightest whiff of a political appointment about them, dismiss them. Pay whatever you are legally required to pay and replace them with someone that your council selects, someone whose loyalty is to you.
This is especially true of CAOs, city managers and department heads: if the top staff members are not beholden to you or your council, they will resist your initiatives, erect bureaucratic roadblocks and delay your projects. You need your own people in the top echelon to further your own causes.
“If you are not cautious in your undertakings, if you do not hide their true aspect, then traitors will arise… Smash their cliques, arrest their backers, shut the gate, deprive them of all hope and support.”
Han Fei Tzu: Sec. 5: The Way of the Ruler
If you have to dismiss people, having allies on your side with power to help your cause – including their own power to dismiss staff or appointees, or at least recommend those dismissals – will keep the rest of the staff or board in line for fear that it could also happen to them.
Allies like this are inexpensive in terms of the favours you owe, because the ally in position gets satisfaction from the power of the position, and will feel beholden to you instead. It’s an inexpensive way to control things from afar.
“A prince does not spend much on colonies, for with little or no expense he can send them out and keep them there, and he offends a minority only of the citizens from whom he takes lands and houses to give them to the new inhabitants; and those whom he offends, remaining poor and scattered, are never able to injure him; whilst the rest being uninjured are easily kept quiet, and at the same time are anxious not to err for fear it should happen to them as it has to those who have been dispossessed.”
You take perks and privileges, benefits and even jobs, from the existing staff and give them to your favourites. You strip some staff of their responsibilities, and hand those to others. This keeps the rest of the staff quiet and obedient, in fear you’ll do the same to them if they make a fuss.
Machiavelli was personally very aware of how important unity was. He had seen the divided states of Italy fall prey to invading armies. He had seen the factions in his home city tear it apart, overthrowing its government three times in his lifetime. Allies, he reasoned, were necessary to create enough strength to avoid such disasters.
Machiavelli points out a basic choice of management, applicable to the public and private sector equally when trying to take control of a department or a company: do you treat staff well or punish them when you move in?
If you have to punish them, do it decisively in a way that sends a message to everyone that you’re not to be messed with:
“Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they will readily avenge themselves of slight grievances, but not more serious ones. Therefore the injury that is done to a man ought to be of a kind that cannot incur revenge.”
Crushed equals eliminated. Fired: keys turned in, personal effects shoved in a box, then walked out of the building by security.
There’s no half-way state for Machiavelli: either treat those you conquer well, or crush them so severely they can’t harm you later. Don’t leave them able to fight back.
“Injuries are either to a man’s life, to his property, or to his honour… Great danger is incurred in threatening, none at all is incurred from inflicting such injuries. For the dead are past thinking of revenge.”
The Discourses: III, 6
Robert Greene agrees:
“Crush your enemy totally… a feared enemy must be crushed completely. If one ember is left alight, no matter how dimly it smolders, a fire will eventually break out. More is lost through stopping halfway than through total annihilation: The enemy will recover, and will seek revenge. Crush him, not only in body but in spirit.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 15
If poorly or incompletely managed, this will create a problematic state of morale that attracts resistance and subterfuge from those survivors who feel oppressed. Unless you also build a base of allegiances and loyalties outside the troubled board or department you are vulnerable to intrusion by outsiders who play on the sympathies of the survivors and want to take control for themselves.
“Through the shifting of the garrison up and down all become acquainted with hardship, and all become hostile, and they are enemies who, whilst beaten on their own ground, are yet able to do hurt…”
You need to establish yourself up as the top dog, showing everyone you have the reins of power. Use it to weaken any potential challengers and steal their authority, while always seeming to be their ally and protector:
“A prince… ought to make himself the head and defender of his weaker neighbours, and to weaken the more powerful among them, taking care that no foreigner as powerful as himself shall, by any accident, get a footing there…”
Make yourself the ally of your weaker neighbours. Give them support, be their buddy, show them you care, offer to help and share services. Don’t try to befriend those more powerful than you, because they will always be looking for some way to take you over or to make you obligated to them.
If you leave anyone in a department or on a board who is both discontented and powerful enough to challenge you, those staff or committee members could bring in others from outside to undermine you, and even use your political opponents to counterbalance your actions and reduce your authority:
“Such a one will be introduced by those who are discontented, either through excess of ambition or through fear, as one has seen already… as soon as a powerful foreigner enters a country, all the subject states are drawn to him, moved by the hatred which they feel against the ruling power.”
Any challenger you did not crush in the beginning will be able to win supporters from those who chafe under your control, and encourage those who want to replace you.
Keeping control of your power means only allowing these staff or committees to have a limited amount of their own power. This is how Machiavelli recommends managing such situations:
“He has only to take care that they do not get hold of too much power and too much authority, and then with his own forces, and with their goodwill, he can easily bring down the more powerful of them, so as to remain entirely the master in the country.”
Give them just enough authority to do their jobs, but make them have to come to you for anything beyond that.
“He who does not properly manage this business will soon lose what he has acquired, and whilst he who does hold it will have endless difficulties and troubles.”
And, he says, when faced with this situation in historical times, the Romans did what all wise rulers today should do:
“…keep their eyes not only on present troubles, but also on the lookout for future ones, for which they must prepare with every energy. When problems are foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they have arrived, it is too late to administer the medicine, because the problem has become incurable.”
It is harder to see a small problem, but it is easier to fix when discovered. A big problem is much easier to see, but a lot tougher to fix. And by the time you discover it, it may be incurable. It’s too late to fix things if you wait until problems are that visible, as he also points out in The Discourses:
“In all matters of difficulty, wherein courage is needed for resolving, this uncertainty will always be met with, whenever those who have to deliberate and decide are weak.”
The Discourses: II, 15
Too much debate just delays finding a solution. Strong politicians use debate to clarify and decide. Weak politicians use it to delay and avoid decisions. A prudent ruler will cut off the discussion when it ceases to provide useful content, and force the vote.
Wise rulers, like the Romans, plan for future problems in good times, and are prepared for the worst case scenario:
“When the evils that arise have been foreseen (which it is only given to a wise man to see), they can be quickly redressed, but when, (through not having been foreseen) they have been permitted to develop in such a way that everyone can see them, it is too late for a remedy.”
So pay attention to the matters at hand, act with resolve, and don’t procrastinate:
“Time drives everything before it, and is able to bring with it good as well as evil, and evil as well as good.”
Machiavelli considered it natural for us to want to acquire power and everything that comes along with it – riches, honour, glory, adulation – and he didn’t criticize rulers for that. But, he said, when we attempt to acquire something, then fail to do so, that is where we deserve criticism and blame:
“The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised, not blamed; but when they cannot do so, yet wish to do so by any means, then there is folly and blame.”
It’s like making grandiose plans for a new municipal facility and then seeing them collapse under the weight of the escalating cost estimates and potential tax increases to pay for it.
You strove for the glory of building, but you get mocked and despised for failing, and for having to cancel it.
Machiavelli lists six errors that will hamstring and eventually ruin anyone looking to gain and maintain power:
- To destroy minor powers is to destroy potential allies (Better to win their allegiance and support than to wipe them out.);
- To increase the power of a major opponent is to weaken oneself (If you can’t defeat them, it’s better to ignore the opponent so you can turn on him or her later.);
- To bring in a foreign power in to aid your conquest is almost certain to mean later turmoil and disruption (Those not allied with you can’t be trusted to serve your needs and will likely try to take over for themselves.);
- Not to settle in a country implies the ruler’s inability to effectively control it (If you’re not there to oversee it, who will make sure it follows your directions?);
- Not to send colonies to a conquered land implies having to rely on mercenaries to manage and control it on your behalf (Mercenaries are only loyal to money, not to your cause. See Chapter 12 on consultants.);
- To offend a strong neutral power creates more danger for oneself (Don’t let your efforts in one area overflow onto someone else’s interests and cause them to despise you and support your opponents).
In Chapter 14, he elaborates on why it is important for politicians to study the rules of war.
While Machiavelli encourages rulers to develop allies, he warns against making those allies too powerful, for they would surely turn on their benefactors. He blamed the French failure to take and hold Italy in part on the King’s treaties that made the Papal states stronger and eventually allowed them to turn against the King.
“Louis made these five errors… he increased the strength of one of the greater powers in Italy…”
Louis also destroyed the smaller powers who might have been better made into allies against the Papal states; another of his five errors.
Conflict, Machiavelli wrote, was inevitable and not necessarily bad, but to elevate another to power or position in an attempt to avoid that conflict was another blunder that would bite you back:
“He who is the cause of another becoming powerful is ruined; because that power has been brought about either by astuteness or else by force, and both are distrusted by him who has been raised to power.”
In other words: if you have to have a fight, do so, and get it over with. Don’t help someone else rise to power or try to appease your opponent by offering him or her something that will eventually make them stronger. In the end they will only treat it as a sign of your weakness; the person you thought was your ally will turn on you with the weapons you provided.
“In politics, the most lethal wounds are inflicted from the rear.”
Dick Morris: The New Prince, Chapter 16
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