8 Delusions of Western Democracy We Could Do Without
Machiavelli is a Beter Pundit Than Most of the Idiots on TV
With our newsfeeds flooded with “fake news,” “post-truth,” and “alternative facts,” it seems harder than ever to know what’s real in politics, or to tell a realistic policy from a crowd-pleasing fantasy.
Maybe it’s time to seek help from the man widely hailed as the father of modern realpolitik, Niccolò Machiavelli. Five centuries ago, the infamous Italian political philosopher declared that it is “more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it.” As a civil servant in the Republic of Florence and through his writings—which include political treatises like The Prince but also wickedly satirical plays, poems about Ambition and Fortune, and histories—Machiavelli spent much of his life urging leaders and citizens to develop a robust sense of the realities that shape politics, however ugly they might be.
Machiavelli’s realities aren’t just “hard facts” that anyone of sound mind can agree on. Historical memories are among the stubborn realities that can kick back against political ideals. So are desires, fears, and patterns of behaviour that seem rooted in unchanging human nature. “In any city whatever” and in states big or small, Machiavelli says, one sees frictions between two kinds of people. On the one side are those who aim to climb to high and higher up social and economic ladders. On the other there are people who worry that high-flying elites might end up controlling public life, monopolizing every advantage, and dictating terms of social interaction to everyone else. Realistic policies need to face these tensions head-on, Machiavelli says, and take both sides seriously. If you whitewash the conflict, suspicions fester. If you play one side off the other, democracies get sick, sometimes fatally.
Machiavelli knew that it isn’t easy to cultivate a sense of political reality. Doing so is less a matter of formal education or native smarts than of coming to understand the dire consequences of un-realism. People are so caught up in their present troubles, he says, that they’re easily “deceived by a false appearance of good” and moved by “great hopes and mighty promises”—even when “the ruin of the republic is concealed underneath.”
It might seem perverse to seek help from a man routinely portrayed in popular culture as an adviser muttering darkly in politicians’ ears, telling them to use shrewdly crafted appearances—lies and spin—to control people’s minds and actions. It’s true that Machiavelli sets out this arch-manipulator’s path to power in his Prince—but only to highlight its follies. The hyper-ambitious leaders who populate his book fly high for a while on big promises, popular fears, money, and foreign support. Then they crash, leaving their countries in a sorry mess. No wonder early readers were sure that far from being a treatise for would-be tyrants, the Prince was a brilliant exposé of princely stratagems: a self-defense manual for citizens. “The book of republicans,” Rousseau called it.
So how can Machiavelli help us develop the sense of political reality needed to rescue today’s flailing democracies? Here are a few common delusions he warned citizens against, even if shedding them means confronting some uncomfortable truths:
Delusion 1: politics should aim at uniting citizens as much as possible.
“Those who hope that a republic can be united,” Machiavelli says, “are very much deceived,” and want something harmful to freedom. Why: because one of the unalterable realities of political life is that people have different brains, interests, and values. Orderly clashes of rival political parties ensure that differences are represented and allowed to breathe freely. When one part of society—whether left- or right-leaning, traditional or progressive—tries to dominate the other and control public space, this infuriates the other parts, and threatens everyone’s freedoms.
Delusion 2: democratic freedom is safe in vastly unequal societies.
Machiavelli isn’t a strict egalitarian, but he does insist that personal and political freedoms are eroded when people lack the resources and social respect needed to enjoy them. To avoid corruption, democracies need to preserve “an even equality” among citizens. Excessive inequality destroys public trust because it makes it easier for the wealthy few to dominate the rest. It makes the less well-off feel that the system is stacked against them, and upsets the overall balance of freedoms that keeps democracies stable.
Delusion 3: strong leaders and states don’t need to compromise.
Nothing could be less realistic than the idea that the powerful can do whatever they want with impunity. No matter how strong you are, in politics “one inconvenience can never be suppressed without another cropping up.” So realistic politics is the art of “choosing between inconveniences”—including the awkward fact that even much weaker people and states can find ways to upset your power. Those “who do not know how to measure themselves and put limits to their hopes” usually come to ruin.
Delusion 4: when democracies go astray, leaders or the “system” are the root of the problem, while citizens are innocent victims.
Machiavelli has no time for this kind of easy blame-game. Bad leaders and corrupt institutions are symptoms of democratic ailments, not their root cause. In manically competitive trading and banking societies like Machiavelli’s Florence—which had much in common with commercial democracies today—corrupt leaders and the super-rich aren’t the only ones who make life harder for poor and middling citizens. People from status-conscious middle levels are often the fiercest defenders of social hierarchies. They can be ruthless about pushing ahead of the pack lest they fall behind, “since it does not appear to men that they possess securely unless they acquire something new.” Such people should ask whether the policies they support can sustain healthy democracies in the long run.
Delusion 5: when citizens choose bad leaders and policies, popular ignorance is to blame.
Machiavelli was brutally realistic about how easy it is to pull one over people. “He who deceives,” he observes, “will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.” But the deceivable aren’t necessarily uneducated, lazy, or stupid. In his day, Machiavelli points out, intellectuals and citizens of all social classes were among the devotees of Girolamo Savonarola, a rabble-rousing Dominican friar who claimed to get his political directives straight from God. It wasn’t ignorance that made people fall into his demagogic snares; he appealed to their longings for self-assured guidance in disorienting times. Citizens who “let” such leaders mislead them aren’t so much ignorant as impatient and irresponsible: too ready to put their faith in quack doctors of state instead of searching hard for better remedies.
Delusion 6: troubled times need “unshackled” leaders.
When democratic foundations are cracking and political practices look rotten, it’s tempting to give audacious leaders a free hand to purge the rot, shake up the system, and save the nation. Machiavelli says: resist it. Frustrated citizens often “persuade themselves” that some leader’s lawless conduct and “wicked life can make freedom emerge.” They let him or her override constitutional checks on their power, trample on the laws in the name of safety or necessity or national greatness. But it almost never happens that someone who bolsters his power in these ways “ever wishes to work well, or that it will ever occur to his mind to use well the authority that he acquired badly.” A leader “who can do whatever he wants, unshackled by the laws, is crazy.”
Delusion 7: the surest way to national safety is to build walls.
Physical barriers against enemies and the movement of peoples are, in Machiavelli’s opinion, basically “useless.” Citizens who won’t talk to one another, corrupt practices of government, poisonous inequalities: these things make states vulnerable from within, while frail alliances and shoddy diplomacy weaken them from without. Walls and heavy policing just advertise your failure to deal with them. Massive migration has always caused turmoil, Machiavelli observes. But free countries can always find ways to manage the floods that are more effective than adding border guards and red tape, and that show more self-confidence. The ancient Romans were “so generous in admitting foreigners,” he says, “that Rome began to depart from its old customs.” So what did they do? Believing that free movement helped make their city great, they gave newcomers better representation so that they wouldn’t attack ancient Roman ways as outsiders.
Delusion 8: the strong don’t need to respect the weak.
No fantasy beloved of powerful leaders, classes, or states is more damaging to their health, or that of their countries. Viewed realistically, power is changeable and relative. Today you might have oodles of it compared with your neighbour, but tomorrow theirs may wax and yours wane. You might find that your power rested on “very constant and unstable things” such as other people’s temporary misfortunes, or money and favours used to buy fair-weather friends. Real political power needs stable props, and the best props, Machiavelli tells us, are other people whose support you can count on through thick and thin. To get and keep them on side, you need to treat them reasonably well, even if you’ve just crushed them in a war or political campaign. After all, as we read in the reputedly amoral Prince, “victories are never so clear that the winner does not have to have some respect, especially for justice.”
Erica Benner’s Be Like the Fox: Machiavelli In His World is out now from W.W. Norton.