Chapter 21: Saving Your Reputation

Nothing, wrote Machiavelli in Chapter XXI: How a Prince Should Conduct Himself So As To Gain Renown, is as important to your political career as having a good reputation:

“Nothing makes a prince so well esteemed as undertaking great enterprises and setting a fine example.”

While those great enterprises are building the community, at the same time they’re building your prestige, honour and glory.

“The prince who would maintain his credit in his princedom must do likewise; since nothing helps so much to make a prince esteemed as to give signal proofs of his worth, whether by words or by deeds which tend to promote the public good, and show him to be so magnanimous, generous, and just, that he may well pass into a proverb among his subjects.”
The Discourses: III, 34

Every politician wants to stamp his or her name on something significant, something that will make a difference; something that will be remembered and establish us a place in history. We want a legacy. There’s nothing like having your name carved into a dedicatory plaque or stone that’s going to last a century or two. A photo op in the local media is almost as good, especially if it gets onto page one.

“So much depends on reputation – guard it with your life. Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win. Once it slips, however, you are vulnerable.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 5

And, says Machiavelli, it doesn’t matter if you are sincerely supportive, or you take on those enterprises under some guise that justifies your actions. What matters is how the public perceives you. Remember his other lesson: you don’t have to be good, just act that way.

We all know the fickle nature of public affection and voter support. It’s not just unpopular decisions at the table that can topple us: an unguarded comment, a flippant response to a media question, or a simple human failing or mistake will expose how fragile a politician’s reputation can be.

Machiavelli cites the example of Ferdinand of Aragon, king of Spain, who grew his domain into a world power and conquered Islamic opponents to enlarge his empire, pretending to the world all the while he was doing it for the sake of his religion – his ‘pious cruelty’ – and the greater glory of the church:

“…using religion as a plea, so as to undertake greater schemes, he devoted himself with a pious cruelty to driving out and clearing his kingdom of the Moors… Under this same guise he assailed Africa, he campaigned in Italy, and attacked France. His has always planned and achieved great undertakings, which have captured the imagination and admiration of his people, and kept everyone in suspense about their outcome. He has undertaken his actions in such a way and so quickly that men have never have the opportunity to conspire against him.”

In a similar way, you can use the guise of civic betterment or civic honour to increase your own honour and glory. And if you keep people busy with grandiose projects and plans, no one will have the time to conspire against you.

Even if they do make a move to challenge you, an unsuccessful attempt will only make you stronger. But it will probably make you angry and vindictive towards the conspirators, which can hurt you more in the long run. So be cautious in how you treat them so that you don’t become the victim anyway.

“The prince of a city attacked by a conspiracy, if not slain …almost always attains to a greater degree of power, and very often has his good disposition perverted to evil. The proceedings of his enemies give him cause for fear; fear suggests the necessity of providing for his own safety, which involves the injury of others; and hence arise animosities, and not unfrequently his ruin. Thus these conspiracies quickly occasion the destruction of their contrivers, and, in time, inevitably injure their primary object.”
The Florentine Histories: VIII, 1

Machiavelli recommends the ruler get intimately involved in the civic administration and municipal affairs, in such a way that his or her actions create a lot of discussion and comment among the people.

Savvy politicians know that no publicity is ever really bad publicity, and that media attention keeps your name in the public mind. People will remember your name long after they’ve forgotten the event associated with it. If they remember your name in the voting booth, you have a winning advantage over those candidates’ names they don’t recognize.

“It is very profitable for a prince to give outstanding examples of his abilities in his government’s affairs… when anyone in civic life does something extraordinary, either good or bad, they should be rewarded or punished in a way that will arouse considerable comment…”

By rewarding people, too, you gain some of their glory for yourself. By punishing them, you show that you won’t tolerate bad judgment, improper procedures, or inefficiency. Either way, you look good.

Appearances matter, so does your reputation. Try always to keep both polished and look for opportunities to show yourself off.

“Above all, in every action a prince should strive to gain for himself the reputation of being a great and remarkable man…”

Neutrality is for Sissies

Who you choose as friends and as enemies also matters.

“A prince is also respected when he is either a true friend or a true enemy …When he declares himself in favour of one party against the other, without any reservation, this action will always be more advantageous than remaining neutral.”

Even if you lose, people will recognize that you took a firm stand on issues. Machiavelli wasn’t one for neutrality. He considered it inexcusable, indecisive and ultimately fatal.

In late 1514, when the King of France was threatening to attack and retake Milan (held by the Swiss at the time), Machiavelli was asked by his friend Francesco Vettori whether the Pope should side with the French, the Swiss, or remain neutral.

In his response, Machiavelli advised siding with France. He wrote that a policy of neutrality,

“…is an exceedingly dangerous path that leads to defeat… If a prince remains neutral when two others are fighting, he allows himself to be hated and despised: hated by the combatant who believes the prince is obliged to side with him (in the name of an old friendship or in return for favours granted or performed); and despised by the other combatant, who will consider him timid and indecisive, an enemy not to be feared.”
(quoted in Viroli: Niccolò’s Smile, Ch. 17)

Machiavelli disliked ditherers and hesitant rulers who preferred to wait and see, rather than act:

“It will always be more advantageous for you to declare yourself and to wage a vigorous war. If you do not declare yourself, you will invariably fall prey to the winner, which will be to the pleasure and satisfaction of the loser, and you will have nothing nor anyone to protect or to shelter you.”

When a decision comes up at the table, even a controversial and uncomfortable one, Machiavelli says you must take a stand because neither victor nor loser will respect you if you try to remain neutral or defer the question:

“The winner does not want doubtful friends who would not aid him when he was in difficulty; and the loser will not harbour you because you did not willingly come to his aid with your sword in hand.”

You were elected to make decisions, not to dither, not defer, not abstain. Only postpone them when it is to your strategic advantage, but be careful not to abuse that privilege, or the public will see you as indecisive.

Of course, both sides will lobby you, if not for support, then at least for your neutrality:

“The one who is not your friend will demand your neutrality, while your friend will ask for your armed support… Irresolute princes, to avoid immediate dangers, follow the path of neutrality, and are generally ruined. But when a bold prince declares himself in favour of one side, if his allies win, although the victor is powerful and may have the prince at his mercy, the winner is indebted to the prince, and a bond of allegiance is established. Men are never so unprincipled as to show such monumental ingratitude by oppressing you after you aided them.”

How should you respond to those who attempt to buy or force your support (or neutrality)? It depends on whether they are weaker or stronger than you:

“A prince, therefore, who is attacked by an enemy much more powerful than himself, can make no greater mistake than to refuse to treat, especially when overtures are made to him; for however poor the terms offered may be, they are sure to contain some conditions advantageous for him who accepts them,
and which he may construe as a partial success.”
The Discourses: II, 27

Win or lose, a decisive politician will always gain some respect, and perhaps even support, for taking a stand, and this may be used later when promoting other initiatives:

“Victories are never so complete that the victor must not show you some regard, especially to justice. Even if your ally loses, you may be sheltered by him, and he will help you while he is able, and you become companions whose joint fortune may rise again.”

Winning is always better than losing. The winners get to determine what ‘justice’ gets doled out to the losers. If you helped others win, those you sided with will owe you a debt:

“When you are not worried about who will win, it shows greater prudence to be allied with one side, because you instigate the destruction of the other ruler by the aid of your ally who, if he had been wise, should have saved the other. It is impossible that your ally should not win with your assistance, so he remains your debt.”

Alliances can be brokered by appealing to the self-interest of another, more powerful councillor. But be careful with whom you side. Win or lose, those who wield more political power than you may not always be your best allies:

“A prince should never make an alliance with a more powerful ruler than himself simply for the purpose of attacking another, unless necessity compels him… If your ally conquers, you are in his debt, and princes should avoid as much as possible being in debt to anyone.”

Sometimes it’s better to side with the underdogs, because they will feel more obligated to you than more powerful councillors will. And the public usually loves the underdog more.

When lobbying, make the other council member believe that supporting you actually furthers his or her political agenda or goals. Convince the other person that your loyalty will benefit them better than your opposition. Then use that alliance against your weaker opponents on council.

“When asking for help, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 13

In The Discourses, Machiavelli describes the three methods by which a state expands. These are the same methods you use to build alliances and secure your own authority among council and staff:

“Three methods have been used by republics for extending their power. One… is to form a confederation of many States, wherein none has precedence over the rest in authority or rank, and each allows the others to share its acquisitions… The second method is to provide yourself with allies or companions, taking heed, however, to retain in your own hands the chief command, the seat of government, and the titular supremacy…
The third method is to hold other States in direct subjection to you, and not merely associated with you as companions.”
The Discourses: II, 4

Of these, he recommends the second as the most effective: allies, but not equals. You, Machiavelli reminds us, need to remain in control in your alliances and hold the reins of power in your own hands. You want to be primus inter pares: first among equals.

Be careful of the jealousy of those with whom you ally, however. Envy, Machiavelli tells us in the preface to Book II of The Discourses, is one of the two main reasons others will hate you (the other cause is fear). If you appear too successful, especially if your talents eclipse theirs, they will envy you. That will drive them to want to humble or destroy you.

“…many citizens are found, who, envying the reputation these men have justly earned, seek to be regarded not merely as their equals but as their superiors.”
The Discourses: III, 16

Let them think they’re the better, the smarter, the most accomplished; shower them with praises and they won’t envy you your talents.

“Never outshine the master: Always make those above you feel comfortably superior.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 1

In municipal politics, you can’t abstain. Machiavelli would have agreed that abstaining is for cowards. Leaders take sides. And when it comes time to vote at council and you are not disqualified by a valid conflict of interest, you have to take a side:

“When it cannot be avoided… the prince should enter an alliance with one of the parties.”

This should be equally true of all municipal boards and committees: no one should be allowed to abstain. Neutrality is not a wise option, and your procedural bylaw should enforce this – if it doesn’t already – by making any abstention a negative vote, even at board and committee level. Machiavelli would have considered an option like abstention to be cowardly and self-destructive.

“He who looks carefully into the matter will find, that in all human affairs, we cannot rid ourselves of one inconvenience without running into another.”
The Discourses: I, 6

Politics is a complex, sometimes perilous, craft and what seemed today like the right decision may prove tomorrow to have been a mistake. You try to avoid trouble by voting one way, only to find the decision causes problems in unexpected ways.

Machiavelli recognized that nothing was ever sure with any decision, and there are always risks involved:

“Never let any government imagine it can always choose perfectly safe courses; rather let it regard all choices as risky, because in everyday affairs, when one tries to avoid one trouble, you always run into another. Wisdom consists of knowing how to distinguish the nature of trouble, and in choosing the lesser evil.”

Champion Culture and Community

In his final notes about ways to further your reputation, Machiavelli says that rulers – mayors and councils – should both encourage and promote culture among their people and staff, as well as encouraging local business and commerce:

“A prince ought to show himself a patron of talent, and to encourage proficiency in every art… He should encourage his citizens to practice their business unhampered and peacefully, in trade and agriculture and in every other profession. No one should be afraid of accumulating possessions for fear these will be taken away from him; nor deterred from opening a business for fear of taxes. The prince should offer rewards to whomever wishes to do these things that improve or honour his city.”

Every municipal mayor today should be aware of the importance to a vital community of both cultural/creative industries and economic development. Machiavelli links cultural prosperity with municipal support, and vibrant business and trade with fair laws and low taxes. In austere times, municipalities are wont to withdraw funding from soft services like arts and culture, or raise taxes to make ends meet. Machiavelli says that’s the wrong way to go.

It also helps your reputation: people who champion culture are considered cultured themselves. People look up to cultured leaders. Doesn’t matter if you can’t tell a cantata from a cow bell, or a Van Gogh from a Velvet Elvis, as long as you’re up front promoting arts and culture you will be perceived as partaking in them.

He also recommends rulers entertain the electorate with events, festivals and spectacles:

“Further, he should entertain the citizen with festivals and spectacles at suitable times of the year. Since every city is divided into guilds and organizations, he should respect such bodies in esteem, and meet with them regularly. He should show himself the prime example of courtesy and generosity; while always maintaining the majesty of his rank, which he must never abate.”

Create honours and awards ceremonies to recognize outstanding citizens; show the public you’re not jealous of their achievements. Hand out plaques and pins. Host an annual levee or gala in which this year’s worthy citizens are recognized for their efforts, for their volunteer time, for their philanthropy. These are a small cost for the large goodwill they generate for you and your council.

“Even where a republic is poor, and has but little to give, it ought not to withhold that little; since a gift, however small, bestowed as a reward for services, however great, will always be esteemed most honourable and precious by him who receives it.”
The Discourses: I, 24

It never hurts your own reputation to be photographed by the media for giving out honours to a deserving citizen. Some of their repute will rub off on you.

Spectacles and ceremonies, aside from distracting public attention from more serious issues and keeping them too busy to conspire against you, will improve the ruler’s reputation and standing among the people. Need to divert attention from a problem? Have an extravagant fireworks display. Everyone loves a spectacle.

“Create compelling spectacles. Striking imagery and grand symbolic gestures create the aura of power – everyone responds to them… Dazzled by appearances, no one will notice what you are really doing.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 37

Taxpayers won’t grumble at the expense when you put on an extravaganza that pleases them because they will think it’s for their benefit.
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