Mainstream common wisdom tells us that the American public cares deeply about the moral fiber of their elected representatives. The average voter is said to take an interest in the virtues and vices of a politician’s personal life because there is a belief that good virtue is necessary to create good governance. But I wanted to challenge this notion using Machiavelli’s The Prince as a lens to examine the relationship between perception, public life, and private virtue.
Machiavelli may have been writing in a political context fundamentally different from our current political system, but the advice he gives in The Prince is still relevant to understanding how politicians strageize and control public perception. Machiavelli claims that the sole duty of the prince (or similarily our political leaders today) is to maintain the state. Machivelli values humanist virtues like generosity, mercy, and kindness but says that these values may at times conflict with the duty of maintaining the state. As a result, Machiavelli claims that leaders can compromise these values if they run counter to our duties as political leaders. Machiavelli is essentially arguing that public and private morality are disconnected and should remain that way. This is of course a departure from how we appreciate political leadership today. In order to get elected, politicians usually have to appeal to their constituent’s in an emotional context that stresses their likeability, family values, honesty, etc. But there are some holes in Machiavelli’s argument. For example, the watergate scandal is something that the vast majority of Americans find absolutely inexcusable and unbecoming of a President. Many would say impeachment was the right course of action. Machiavelli would argue that Nixon was merely doing what he could to quash the power of the opposition, hold on to his power, and as a result create better maintain the state. Machiavelli’s views here come in direct conflict with our own values today.
While Machiavelli’s views might not be as relevant for citizens living in a republic… he does offer some interesting insight into how politicians should handle issues of their own public image. When looking at contemporary examples of politicians who have “fell from grace”… the American public has demonstrated an incredible willingness to forgive or even give a pass to those who have transgressed public standards of morality. Current Louisiana senator David Vitter is a prime example of this phenomenon. Senator Vitter enjoyed popular support in his home state until he faced serious allegations that he solicited prostitutes from the escort service the D.C. Madam. The senator did not face charges because the statute of limitations had expired and as a result was not forced to resign from office. The decision to leave the Senate would be his alone. Machiavelli would argue that Vitter’s liason with a prostitute may be morally apprehensible, but does not constitute a legitimate reason to dismiss him as a political leader. According to Machiavelli’s reasoning Vitter’s personal indiscretions have no relationship to his ability and duty to maintain the state. In the end, he did what Machiavelli would advise all politicians should do when faced with a similar situation. Do not resign, the public may be upset but as long as you demonstrate your virtu you will nevertheless be able to thrive politically. Public scrutiny may be hard, but the news cycle is so fickle that the controversy will blow over quickly. The public will always weigh leadership abilities more heavily than lapses in moral judgment. This is perhaps why comebacks are so common among politicians and perhaps why David Vitter just won re-election.