Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, November 2, 2012

Machiavelli would vote for Obama

Moderate conservatives have never trusted either mass opinion or their own zealots. Until Lincoln, nowhere in the Western world were they confident that America’s federal democracy would survive, let alone create Machiavelli’s effective state.

Today, they itch to get the dreamers and the masses out of the business of governing. They support the presidential candidate they think will most likely turn Washington back to a half-imagined age when grown-ups cut deals and made timely, wise decisions.

The candidate with the least attachment to his own votes, his own party idealists, or ideas generally, has won the endorsement of Washington’s most respected moderate conservative, David Brooks. The Upside of Opportunism concludes:

“The bottom line is this: If Obama wins, we’ll probably get small-bore stasis; if Romney wins, we’re more likely to get bipartisan reform. Romney is more of a flexible flip-flopper than Obama. He has more influence over the most intransigent element in the Washington equation House Republicans. He’s more likely to get big stuff done.”

In today’s National Post’s, Kelly McParland echoes Brooks’ case:

“Still, I’d vote for Romney, precisely because I think he’s capable of compromise, and I don’t believe anything will get done in Washington over the next four years without a sea change in the willingness to compromise.”

Apparently, victorious Republican radicals in Congress would be further embittered by the re-election of Barack Obama and wouldn’t give him the modest tax increase he was elected on, nor even one of their own concoction. On the other hand, first-term flip-flopper Mitt Romney would have a realistic chance of getting them to break their election promises and agree to raising taxes.

We’ll have to leave it to Glenn Beck and Paul Ryan to tell us what the Founding Fathers would make of this confidence in the motive power of flip-flopping. However, we’re all free to wonder what the West’s first modern political scientist would think.

Machiavelli didn’t have to worry about elections, free speech, or the rule of law. Consequently, he’s famous for readily endorsing fear as the surest instrument for getting things done.

However, it’s doubtful he’d offer the same advice today without first making sure that we’re still playing politics by the same rules. In this free, troubled society, he’d worry a lot more about what the people on the streets think of the character of his prince and less about what goes on in his dungeons.

Since the people now elect and re-elect leaders, he’d care a great deal about what his prince had promised and whether his prince had the skill, trust, and popular appeal to ask the people and their representatives to change their minds, to sacrifice.

Machiavelli wouldn’t bother to moralize about flip-flopping. But, unless there was no other way to feed his family, he wouldn’t offer his services to a compulsive flip-flopper. What, Machiavelli would ask himself, would the flip-flopper use to break the impasse in Washington?

He wouldn’t have the people waiting on the hills to back him up. After all, his promises avoided tough change and aren’t taken seriously anyway.

A flip-flopper is not a complex intriguer with a sophisticated hidden agenda. He’s nothing more than an office-seeker who can’t sit still.

Machiavelli would be intrigued, however, by the incumbent, Barack Obama. Here’s a compromiser with some magic. He’s changed his mind on a range of dangerous issues, kept his reputation and won. He can go back to the negotiating table without fear of being able to close or able to explain his actions.

He can pursue private promises he’s made in public.

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