Carl von Clausewitz, the famous military theorist, said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” He meant military means. Conversely, politics is the art of war cloaked in civility and procedure. Alasdair MacIntyre wrote in his book, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), that politics is “civil war carried on by other means.”
Politicians need to study war, says Machiavelli, not simply learn the art of fighting and defending through on-the-job training. That’s like learning to play world-class poker in front of the TV cameras against skilled players. You will learn many lessons, but you’ll lose a lot of hands, too.
You may not carry a gun, or a sword, but every politician is a soldier nonetheless. The council table is our main battlefield, but we fight equally in the media, on the street, in coffee shops and in committees. Sometimes we’re fighting for the community, sometimes for council at large; other times we’re fighting for ourselves and our own ideals.
Some of us are foot soldiers, others are generals. All of us need to know the rules of the battleground, however. Anyone who comes to office thinking politics isn’t a battleground, or isn’t willing to learn the rules of the fight, will lose – lose votes, face, reputation, respect and honour. Politics is war.
Machiavelli opens Chapter XIV: That Which Concerns a Prince on the Subject of the Art of War, with:
“A prince ought to dedicate himself to no other art, nor study anything other than war with its rules and discipline. This is the sole art that is expected of rulers. It is so powerful that it not only maintains those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private citizen to that rank.”
Power and knowledge are linked. You need knowledge to put the edge on your weapons. Similarly, Sun Tzu wrote,
“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.”
Sun Tzu: Book 1: Laying Plans
If you don’t know the rules, Machiavelli warns, you will lose your status, your reputation and possibly more:
“When princes have thought more of pleasure than of arms, they have lost their states. And the first reason you lose it is because you neglected the art of war; and the best way to acquire a state is to become master of that art.”
What rules? How about your procedural bylaw? Do you know it well enough to derail an opponent with points of order, or well enough to defer a challenge? When can you call for a recorded vote, and why do you want one? Have you read your municipal and departmental policies? What about your strategic plan? Your mission or vision statement? Your code of conduct and confidentiality documents?
What about your provincial municipal act, the planning act, conflict of interest act, libraries act – these and similar legislation all provide the ground rules. But they’re not all you need to learn.
Other Weapons, Other Tactics
Communication is a weapon, too. Having a good communication strategy coupled with good relations with the media so you can use them to get your message across can be a game changer. You need to know how and when to communicate, and what to say (and not say). You need to know when to speak, and when to shut up, when to deflect questions, when to go ‘off the record.’
Facebook, blogs, Twitter and other social media are a new battleground you have to understand and use. You need to know how to monitor cyberspace, and how to use it for your own advantage.
Are you comfortable enough in cyberspace to Google information to support your argument while your opponent prattles on trying to kill your motion? Can you email fellow councillors during a debate and round up support on-the-fly when necessary? Or do you believe it isn’t proper to use the modern tools of communication to your advantage?
Are you blogging yet? Do you have a Facebook page, or a LinkedIn account? Do you correspond with the media via email or Facebook updates? You can be sure your opponents will be using these and other online services, and using them as weapons against you when they can. Learn how to wield them for yourself.
If you come to the table without a good knowledge of these rules and services, others in your council who do know them will take advantage of your ignorance. They will score points and they will trick and belittle you. You, in turn, won’t trust those who are able to use procedure and legislation to their advantage (and likely to your disadvantage):
“Among other evils, being unarmed brings causes you to be despised, and this is one of those ignominies against which a prince ought to guard himself.”
Like in any sport, the person who knows the rules controls the field and decides who plays on the team. Arm yourself with knowledge, he says, otherwise you’re a casualty-in waiting:
“There is nothing comparable between the armed and the unarmed. It is not reasonable that an armed man should willingly obey someone who is unarmed, or that the unarmed man should be secure among armed mercenaries. Because, there being in the armed man contempt, and in the unarmed man suspicion, it is not possible for them to cooperate.”
The public and your supporters will think you a fool, too, and you will lose your base among the electorate if you frequently get tripped up by those rules they expect you to know:
“A prince who does not understand the art of war will not be respected by his soldiers, nor can he rely on them.”
And you will be easily fooled by staff, too. Staff will take advantage of your ignorance to get things past you that further their own agendas.
Machiavelli recommends you study all the relevant laws and bylaws, policies and procedures, so you know how and where to fight:
“…to find out how the mountains rise, how the valleys open out, how the plains lie, and to understand the nature of rivers and marshes… The prince who lacks this skill lacks the essential trait that a captain should possess, for it teaches him to surprise his enemy, to select quarters, to lead armies, to array the battle, and to successfully besiege towns.”
We all know politicians who barely read their agenda, let alone bylaws and policies. They come to the table unprepared; they go off track because they don’t follow proper procedure, they make motions contrary to existing policies and bylaws, and they fumble with irrelevant questions during debates. Not only are they ineffective as politicians, but they take council along unnecessary detours that usually waste time and sometimes resources pursuing their goals.
Knowledge is a weapon you need to be able to wield to be a successful politician. The better you know the rules, and the better informed you are, the more you are armed for the fight at the council table.
“Among other qualifications essential in a good captain is a knowledge, both general and particular, of places and countries, for without such knowledge it is impossible for him to carry out any enterprise in the best way. And while practice is needed for perfection in every art, in this it is needed in the highest degree.”
The Discourses: III, 39
Study your politics, study your history for examples from the past. Pay attention to contemporary news to learn how others rise and fall so you can imitate their success and avoid their failures:
“To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have conducted themselves in war, and discover the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former.”
Read and heed the local media, especially. Whether you agree or disagree with them, whether you have confidence in their objectivity or coverage, doesn’t matter. It matters is that you keep abreast of local events and issues. Don’t comment on a local issue you are ignorant of.
Always know what the editorials are saying about you. Too many politicians turn against the media when they get criticized in an editorial, or when a story wasn’t as flattering as expected. That’s unwise: if you don’t deal with them, if you don’t do interviews, if you don’t read or watch the local news, you’re like a general giving up the field to the enemy after a minor skirmish.
You will make enemies of the media if you make a point of ignoring or dismissing them. Better to make them your allies or at the very least keep them neutral. Make a show of greeting them, compliment them on their coverage; joke with them when you are criticized. If you show them a friendly, human side, rather than take an adversarial stance, the media will develop at least a modicum of respect for you.
“When the lion fawns upon the lamb,
The lamb will never cease to follow him.”
William Shakespeare: Henry VI, Part 3, Sc. IV
And grow a thicker skin if what they say bothers you.
Be prepared, says Machiavelli, something he reiterates in Chapter 25. Don’t stand idle. Don’t wait until problems occur – plan for them, plan for the worst, and be ready to respond when adversity arises:
“A wise prince ought to observe some such rules, and never take things easy in peaceful times, but instead should vigorously use the time to his advantage in such a way that the resources may be available to him in times of adversity, so that he is prepared to resist fortune’s blows.”
A skillful and farsighted mayor never stops studying the issues, never ignores the media reports, never stops observing his or her opponents to see where they are headed. That way, when trouble does raise its head, the mayor is prepared to meet it.
If you don’t already know it, learn to play chess. Even if you never win a game, chess will teach you how to strategize, plan ahead and move your pieces in concert with the others; supporting and defending one another. There are many lessons in politics a wise mayor can learn from chess.
“To win or to lose a chess game against Machiavelli would be equally entertaining, as either scenario would unfold as a tale of interesting interpersonal conflict, camaraderie, treachery, and above all, rich strategic thinking.”
Playing Chess with Machiavelli, by Andrew S. Gordon,
IBM TJ Watson Research Center, 2001
Look to the addendum for a summary of the rules of war Machiavelli presented in his work on military science, The Art of War.
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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