The first thing a new politician learns is that you can’t please everybody. It doesn’t seem to matter what decision you make, or what stand you take; there’s always someone or some group ready to take you to task for it. That really doesn’t matter: it’s just the nature of the beast called democracy. That’s the gist of in Chapter XIX: That One Should Avoid Being Despised and Hated.
You’ll need to grow a thicker skin if you’re to survive in politics.
“The prince must consider how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible; and as often as he shall have succeeded he will have fulfilled his part, and he need not fear any danger in other reproaches.”
Machiavelli warns that whatever you do, whatever decision you make, you can be successful – unless you allow yourself to become hated or contemptible.
Greed, he says, makes you hated:
“It makes him hated above all things, to be rapacious, and to seize the property and the women of his subjects, from both of which he must abstain.”
Be careful not to take too much for yourself. One sure way to garner hatred is to give yourself a raise, better benefits or more perks. This is especially true when you’re cutting costs at budget time and demanding staff hold off their salary increases, or even reduce people in their departments.
“When their ruler does not steal either their property or their honour, the majority of men live contentedly, and he has only to contend with the ambition of a few, whom he can easily curb in many ways.”
You can’t play ‘do-as-I-say, not as-I-do’ without generating severe criticism and hatred. When people are worried about rising taxes, inflation, and living on a fixed income, don’t be caught feathering your own nest, giving yourself a raise or more perks. Working folks already see politicians as part of the privileged class. Don’t exacerbate their envy and dislike of you.
If the electorate sees in you unbecoming behaviour or characteristics, you will become contemptible to people. You do not want to be,
“…considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited, irresolute.”
You need to look strong and resolute, even if you’re a marshmallow inside. It’s that thing about appearances mattering, again.
Contempt is like a fungus, or a virus: it grows and spreads, and is hard to stop. It can be spawned through whisper campaigns, but much more effective is the online campaign: Facebook, forum and blog posts. They are much more difficult to control or respond to than criticism in traditional media.
You will be contemptible if your opposition laughs at you, and turns you into a figure for comic relief. Jokes and editorial cartoons that lampoon you will erode your reputation faster than an angry comment or letter to the editor.
If you’re looking to bring fellow politicians down, and reduce the public’s affection for them, cast them as buffoons to be laughed at. They can survive your challenges at the council table, but not being ridiculed in public.
Conversely, if you find yourself a victim of such attacks, turn them around: laugh with them, show you have a sense of humour and a thick skin. People will like you, if you show you can take a joke without rancour.
To avoid seeming wimpy and indecisive, Machiavelli writes, you need to act more like a leader and put on some bravado to,
“…show in his actions his grandeur, courage, gravity, and fortitude. When settling private disputes among with his subjects, he should show that his judgments are irrevocable…”
Stiff upper lip and all that. And meanwhile, guard your reputation as if from a plague:
“He must maintain his good reputation so that no one would be able to either to deceive him or cheat him.”
Or at least, as the previous chapter noted, have the appearance of those attributes that people admire, which will make you less vulnerable to conspiracies:
“That prince who creates this good impression of himself is highly esteemed, and he who is highly esteemed is not easily conspired against. Provided that everyone knows that he is an excellent man and is revered by his people, he cannot be attacked easily.”
Dress well, don’t pick your nose at the table, get caught playing solitaire or fall asleep in a council meeting. Pursue your ugly habits and vices out of the public’s sight.
“The vices of our age are the more odious in that they are practised by those who sit on the judgment seat, govern the State, and demand public reverence.”
The Discourse: II, preface
Appear to be focused, alert and competent, appear to pay attention and listen carefully, even when you don’t feel it inside. Make eye contact, smile, and give a firm handshake. What people see in front of them matters more than what you do out of their sight.
“Think as you like, but behave like others… It is safer to blend in and nurture the common touch. Share your originality only with tolerant friends and those who are sure to appreciate your uniqueness.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 38
Rulers face two serious threats to their position and authority:
“…one from internal subversion, the other from external aggression by foreign powers.”
The biggest threat is from within; from the top staff and your inner circle. They’re the closest to you; they see your flaws more clearly and more often, and they know what skeletons are hanging in your closet. They will talk about you behind your back:
“But concerning his subjects… if he fears that they will conspire secretly, a prince can easily secure himself from this by avoiding being hated and despised, and by keeping the people satisfied with him… One of the most powerful safeguards that a prince can have against conspiracies is not to be hated and despised by the people…”
He’s not saying you need to be loved to succeed. Just not hated and despised. You can avoid this by earning their respect, and maybe by a little show of force now and then to make sure they know you’re in charge.
As he says in Chapter 17, being feared isn’t a bad thing, as long as you aren’t hated.
Machiavelli had a lot to say about conspiracies: he dedicated an entire chapter in The Discourses (BK III, 6) to the subject.
Conspiracies from outside develop among the electorate, usually dissidents aiming to unseat you in the next election. These are usually easier to spot. If you are hated by the voters, they will want to bring you down and get a new candidate elected.
“For it may reasonably be assumed, that when a prince has drawn upon himself this universal hatred, he must also have given special offence to particular men, which they will be eager to avenge. And this eagerness will be augmented by the feeling of general ill-will which the prince is seen to have incurred.”
The Discourses: III, 6
More hidden are the conspiracies that develop among staff or advisors, and people within your inner circle. They come from those whom you have wronged or slighted, but also come from those to whom you have given too many benefits. These people become angry when the giving stops, and turn against you:
“The great majority of conspirators have been persons of position and the familiars of their prince, and that their plots have been as often the consequence of excessive indulgence as of excessive injury…”
The Discourses: III, 6
If the people do like you, you’re probably safe from most conspiracies because the people form your base of support that conspirators cannot assail. But, Machiavelli adds, if people don’t love you, a little paranoia is safer than being too trusting:
“A prince ought to reckon conspiracies of little account when his people hold him in esteem; but when the people are hostile and hate him, he ought to fear everything and everybody.”
Conspiracies don’t only spawn in the office or coffee shop. They can spawn online, too. Pay close attention to your staff’s and associates’ blogs, their Facebook pages, their tweets and other online posts. These can be particularly successful when opponents want to create support for dissidence and even rebellion.
Politicians can easily be criticized and mocked online by anyone, and often anonymously. When it gets shared around, you have almost no ability to respond effectively or to control the damage.
Even if they aren’t used for conspiracies, blogs and Facebook posts are superb platforms for generating public contempt for a politician, and maybe even a little hatred, too. You must strive to avoid both stains on your reputation. And, of course, you can use these services to polish your own reputation and show everyone how good and how great you are. Cyberspace is its own political battlefield you have to use shrewdly.
“Well-ordered states and wise princes should be careful not to anger the nobles, and to keep the people content. This is one of the most important goals a prince can have.”
Since you sometimes have to act tough to maintain control, Machiavelli suggests you get others to do your dirty work, let them take the blame, and save the good deeds for yourself so you can bask in the accolades:
“Princes ought to leave affairs of reproach to the management of others, and keep those of grace in their own hands.”
Keep in mind the lesson of Cesare Borgia’s scapegoat, told in Chapter 7. He used Ramiro de Lorqua to do his dirty work, then sacrificed Ramiro to make himself look good.
Sometimes you can use bylaws or budgets to accomplish your goals, then make a big deal about how your hands were tied by the legal process. You then promise to change the laws, after the fact or add some spending to the budget after the need to use it has gone.
“Keep your hands clean: You must seem a paragon of civility and efficiency: Your hands are never soiled by mistakes and nasty deeds. Maintain such a spotless appearance by using others as scapegoats and cat’s-paws to disguise your involvement.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 2
Some councillors use special interest groups or local dissidents to do their work for them – these groups make the noise, they make the complaints, they make the demands – and the councillor only presents them at the table as the champion of the people… but not the originator of the content. Very slick. The council member’s hands remain clean while others do the dirty work.
Mayors and councillors need to gain the respect of staff, and even their affection, but not so much that the people turn against you because they perceive that you cater to staff. The electorate often sees municipal staff as opponents who stand in the way of their desires and who get extraordinary privileges and unwarranted status.
“A prince ought to cherish the nobles, but not so as to make himself hated by the people.”
Your allegiance should be to the electorate, not staff. The two may have greatly different goals, as Machiavelli suggested of soldiers and the people in ancient Rome:
“It was a hard thing to give satisfaction both to soldiers and people; because the people loved peace, and for this reason they loved the unadventurous prince, while the soldiers loved the military prince who was bold, cruel, and rapacious, and was willing to exercise those qualities on the people, so that the soldiers could get double pay and give free rein to their greed and cruelty.”
It’s a popular perception that public sector workers have cushy jobs, work fewer hours than the average person, and get paid a lot more for a lot less effort. Although it’s seldom true, like the army of ancient Rome, public sector workers generally get better pay and benefits than their counterparts in the private sector. That creates jealousy and anger among the voters.
Staff like the politicians who side with them, and who protect their jobs and benefits. The voters like politicians who cut them back and reduce their perks.
But, Machiavelli adds, someone will dislike you no matter what you do or whose side you come down on, so all you can do is try to avoid spreading that dislike so everyone ends up sharing it:
“Princes cannot help being hated by someone. They should try to avoid being hated by everyone, but when they cannot achieve this, they should strive with the utmost diligence to avoid the hatred of the most powerful group.”
If you have to choose between sides, it’s best to make the stronger ones your allies and let the weaker ones be your enemy.
Who, then, is the most powerful group in your municipality? Staff or the people? Which offers greater longevity and opportunity for you as a politician: the consent of the people, or the consent of staff? You will have to decide for yourself. Just remember who has the most power to re-elect you next time around.
You don’t have to be evil to garner enemies. What you think as a good decision may be seen by others as evil. Any number of controversial issues can polarize a community, with virulently opposed sides. Think of what reactions would arise if council debated locating an abortion clinic, a halfway house, or a methadone treatment centre in your municipality.
No matter what you choose, no matter how just you believe your decision, one side will despise your choice. Hatred, says Machiavelli,
“…is caused as much by good deeds as by bad ones… a prince wishing to maintain his state is very often forced to do bad things when the faction he needs to maintain his rule is corrupt – whether it may be the people, the soldiers or the nobles – it is to your advantage to gratify them, but then good deeds will do you harm.”
You will always offend someone, even by acts you think are good. That new ice rink you thought everyone wanted? Someone will be unhappy because it was painted green, not red. Someone else will be unhappy it faces east, not west.
Machiavelli adds as a warning that if you choose to side with the people against staff, make sure you don’t harm those who work close to you, at least not too seriously:
“Be careful not to do any grave injury to those whom he employs or has around him in the service of the state.”
So again, Machiavelli recommends, that you be flexible in your approach, and learn from the great emperors of classical Rome: Marcus Aurelius (known for his integrity and wisdom), and Severus (renowned for his military prowess) depending on whether you are a newcomer or an incumbent:
“Take from Severus the attributes which are necessary to found a new state, and from Marcus those which are proper and glorious for conserving an existing one.”
In other words, use those attributes that best suit the circumstances.
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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