The main theory behind The Prince is a dramatic departure from previously held beliefs concerning morality in politics. Before Machiavelli, princes and heads of state were expected to act out of morality and the understanding that good begets good and is therefore sanctioned by God. Machiavelli presented a new, much more cynical view of the purpose of political movements: they maintain power once it is won, and politicians should utilize whatever methods necessary to this end. He emphasized that the ends very much justify the means in politics, and strongly encouraged politicians to appear good instead of actually being good, because seeming good allows one to pursue one’s own agenda while maintaining the trust of the constituency. The main struggle in politics, then, is that between the prince and his people, as he battles to maintain power against a public that may not necessarily agree with his politics or methods.
Portrait of Niccolo Machiavelli, by Santi di Tito (Wikimedia)
The Prince, therefore, is a manual on how to manipulate and deceive the common people, and much of this rests on the maintenance of a happy civil society. Machiavelli warns that the prince who ignores or openly abuses the people by taking their land, taxing them unfairly, or misusing their military resources runs the distinct risk of being ousted. These revolutionary challenges justify deceiving the public, because if politics were run entirely to keep the citizens happy there would be no room for national improvement, much less the personal desires of the prince. Therefore, Machiavelli encourages the prince to engage civil society on a number of fronts, from arbitrating national issues and encouraging private enterprise to reinforcing the presence of the Church in community. He even goes so far as to recommend that, “He should at suitable times of the year keep the people occupied with festivals and spectacles” (91).
Unfortunately for modern politicians, this method of courting the public relies heavily on subterfuge and secrecy, which is no longer reliable. With the incredible reach of the media, politicians run the risk of being destroyed by their own methods of manipulation, as the public is now much less forgiving of the prince that forgoes the truth for his own gains. Transparency now plays a roll Machiavelli could never have foreseen, with private news outlets, international news coverage and the omnipresence of the internet keeping wayward politicians and dictators in check. The scandals of Wikileaks and Watergate both demonstrated how much modern civil society dislikes being lied to, and the presence of a leader who seems good without actually being good just adds insult to injury. In 2004, when the atrocities perpetrated at Abu Ghraib first went public, one of the main sources of the public’s ire was the constant insistence by the Bush administration that the War on Terror was morally praiseworthy. The White House fought to maintain a pristine example of American idealism while every day details were leaked of appalling crimes being perpetrated by members of the military. In the end, when the administration was forced to face the music and admit its part in the scandal, the American public viewed the entire regime as amoral, deceitful and out of touch, a reputation it never entirely recovered from.
Machiavelli would be flabbergasted if he could witness the thirst for information, and indeed intrigue, that now controls the media and civil society as a whole. If a Machiavellian prince wants to practice his subterfuges now, he’s going to have to be good at it.