If there was ever a person in history who earned the title of infamous it has to be Niccolo Machiavelli, who lived at the turn of the 16th Century. He was a politician in Italy who, believe it or not, is considered the founder of the study of political ethics. Those of us who are students of current politics may not find that as surprising as history purists. Much of what passes for contemporary political ethics may easily qualify for the term machiavellian. It isn’t a compliment.
Machiavelli’s ascribed political theory can be simplified by the term, “the ends justify the means.” That is to say, the result of something is more important than the method used in achieving that result. It is a concept most recently applied to the use of torture in carrying out international intelligence gathering. It flies in the face of most Judeo-Christian thinking, in which ethical considerations must be applied to the method by which one attempts to achieve a goal.
“Machiavelli is the only political thinker whose name has come into common use for designating a kind of politics, which exists and will continue to exist independently of his influence, a politics guided exclusively by considerations of expediency, which uses all means, fair or foul, iron or poison, for achieving its ends – its end being the aggrandizement of one’s country or fatherland – but also using the fatherland in the service of the self-aggrandizement of the politician or statesman or one’s party.”**
It has become common in contemporary political commentary to apply the term machiavellian to practices which either border upon or wallow in unethical behavior. But the interesting factor is the recognition by literary scholars that Machiavelli, himself, is not so much known as a practitioner of such behavior as he is the proponent of that behavior in his writings, particularly the piece known as The Prince. In his writings, the characters carry out political intrigue which is borderline illegal, but in which success is achieved by whatever means are available. The publication of his works was regularly protested, especially by the Roman Catholic Church, which deemed his work immoral and capable of infecting the thinking and practice of governments.
The term “dirty tricks” has come to be known in American political campaigns, particularly in the attempt by soon-to-be-Secretary of State John Kerry, the Senior Senator from Massachusetts, who ran for President in 2004. A group of anti-Kerry activists closely affiliated with the Republican Party waged a battle against Kerry in which they demonized his military history in the Vietnam War, effectively undermining his ability to win the election. They were known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, their tactics becoming known as “swift-boating.” It is generally recognized as a dirty tricks advertising procedure which falls under the category of machiavellian ethics.
In subsequent national elections the use of less than ethical advertising and social media methods has become common, perhaps reaching a high point during the recent re-election campaign of President Obama against Republican Mitt Romney. The exchange of unflattering, questionable information regarding the candidates with the express purpose of undermining them and affecting the public’s opinion of them was daily. Both campaigns as well as extra-campaign bodies practiced the methods, leading both candidates and their supporters to earn the title of machiavellian at least several times during the campaign.
Painting Credit: Santi di Tito
* Definition Credit: Online Dictionary
**Leo Strauss (1958, p. 297)