Rumor has it that Karl Rove keeps a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince on his office bookshelf. I have been wondering what Mr. Rove might get out of the work of a 16th Century Italian political observer. Now it is true that Machiavelli is mostly loved and hated by those who have never actually read any of his writings and it is possible that Rove cultivates this story as a way of building a myth of himself as a ruthless and masterful political operative. On the other hand, Machiavelli’s observations often ring true in a way that could well resonate with a strategist who values winning above all.
The Prince is above all about power. It is dedicated to Lorenzo Medici, the grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent, in the hopes of gaining favor with the Prince. He outlines a strategy for success that deliberately flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Rather Machiavelli draws on examples from his contemporary society and history to elaborate on a politics of practicality. It is really very simple. A Prince has power. A Prince wants to hold onto power by whatever means he can. In 15th and 16th C Italy Machiavelli paints a picture of a number of rulers jockeying for position, conquering their neighbors, making alliances, being overthrown. The question is how to thrive in this atmosphere.
For Karl Rove, the first question is how that political landscape relates to contemporary America. Rove isn’t concerned with conquering other states with military power, as Machiavelli was. His Prince is the Candidate and the power he seeks to maintain is the political office. His Candidate enlarges his power by running for higher office, rather than actually conquering his neighbors. As an aside it must be noted that this administration does engage in conquering and occupying foreign lands but not generally in accordance with Machiavelli’s advice and not under the direction of Karl Rove, except as it relates to the American political landscape. In fact, it is possible that Cheney and Rumsfeld might have avoided some of the pitfalls they stumbled into in Iraq through study of The Prince.
The first point that would appeal to Karl Rove is that you have to rely on your own strength. Although it is tempting to find an ally that will supply the troops needed for a campaign, that will ultimately put you at your ally’s mercy. If you have your own power base, you need not fear that your troops will turn against you. Rove has had great success in cultivating the religious right as a strong base that can be counted on to turn out and fight for him when needed. He has, consequently been able to defeat opponents with a less committed base.
Machiavelli didn’t think that virtue was its own reward. He did think that it was well for rulers to be thought virtuous but if there was a conflict between virtue and success, “He need not make himself uneasy at incurring a reproach for those vices without which the state can only be saved with difficulty, for if everything is considered carefully, it will be found that something which looks like virtue, if followed, would be his ruin; whilst something else, which looks like vice, yet followed brings him security and prosperity.” As an example, he cites Hannibal, whose success in maintaining order in his heterogeneous army is attributed to “his inhuman cruelty, which, with his boundless valor, made him revered and terrible in the sight of his soldiers, but without that cruelty, his other virtues were not sufficient to produce this effect.”
Karl Rove’s campaign strategy often seeks victory by undermining the reputation of his opponent, often through the use of half truths or surrogates as we saw in the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry. Although voters say that they are turned off by these negative attacks, they can be effective, especially if the attacks appear to come from a third party and not the campaign itself. This preserves the appearance of virtue in the candidate while allowing the attacks to damage the opponent, Rove’s specialty. As Machiavelli says, “ It is unnecessary for a prince to have all the good qualities I have enumerated, but it is very necessary to appear to have them.”
In all things, Machiavelli holds that it is possible to be overcome by a less virtuous and more ruthless opponent. The appearance of weakness that comes of an unwillingness to violate common decency can lead to a breakdown of order that in the end leads to more suffering that could have been avoided by a little judicious betrayal, lies or viciousness that would have avoided large scale lawlessness. It is easy to see Karl Rove, and indeed the whole administration taking heart from this lesson.
Perhaps the final lesson is that when Machiavelli presented his ideas to Medici, he was spurned. He had to satisfy himself with the role of analyst, rather than be the king maker he aspired to. He might have done a better job selling his services by following his own advice and not being quite so direct. It may have been his blunt amoral approach that turned off his potential benefactor. Rove may have been wise to start with Bush at the beginning of his career, when he didn’t have to explain his philosophy in so many words. He could simply use these techniques successfully to push a compliant candidate up the political ladder, rising with him to the top.