Tag Archives: Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli’s advice to Mayor DeBlasio on his recent education defeat

“…there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” – The Prince, Chapter 6, by Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito, courtesy of Wikipedia

How does a state function when its prince has a mountain of moral and ethical rectitude and not an ounce of political sense?

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio learned this lesson the hard way this Friday, as the far more politically adept princes of Albany reached a bipartisan budget deal that slapped the mayor in the face.

Earlier, DeBlasio acted on a campaign promise to put a leash on the charter movement in New York; a movement run rampant under his predecessor.  This was following his earlier push to tax rich New Yorkers to pay for universal pre-kindergrarten programs for all city children.   In the latter, DeBlasio went at odds with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who introduced his own Pre-K program into the state budget that didn’t require additional tax revenue.  At any rate, DeBlasio would get what he wanted, albeit through more capitalist means.

Then he decided to get personal—and stupid.

Blindsiding just about everyone, the mayor on February 27 announced the closing of three charter schools.  The three were part of about 12 that were approved in a frenzy of activity in the waning days of the Bloomberg administration, of which two were in the Success Academy network run by former city councilwoman and frequent education critic Eva Moskowitz.  DeBlasio made a point of singling out Moskowitz during his campaign, making her the poster child of everything wrong with education reform and the charter movement.

In the wake of the decision, Moskowitz staged a rally in Albany with the support of the Governor, an act that crowned her with legitimacy that DeBlasio wished he had.  The Albany minions quickly moved to silence the new mayor’s power by creating a budget deal that not only forces the city to provide space for charter schools, but also orders it to pay rent for the private building that house charters.

Andrew Cuomo comes off as the savior of New York schoolchildren, Eva Moskowitz as the Virgin Mary, and Bill DeBlasio as the demon out to unravel the whole sanctified process.

DeBlasio did not lose because he didn’t have right on his side.  He lost because he didn’t have enough political might to buttress his right.

As an Italophile of the first order, the mayor obviously overlooked the writings of the foremost political philosopher of the Italian Renaissance, Niccolo Machiavelli.  Therefore, let’s look at DeBlasio’s failings through the pages of The Prince, the seminal work of power politics, and see where he can do better:

“…the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.”  – Ch. 6

DeBlasio woefully underestimated the forces that benefit from the charter school movement, from the parents to the operators to the businesses that fund them and the civic institutions that make their bureaucratic process easier.  Under Bloomberg, these people have always been at the table of power—putting them at the kids’ table requires political finesse and (dare I say) Machiavellian subterfuge.  The mayor exhibited neither.

“A prince being thus obliged to know well how to act as a beast must imitate the fox and the lion, for the lion cannot protect himself from snares, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize snares, and a lion to frighten wolves.”  Ch. 18

You have to hand it to Eva.  As much as she makes many peoples’ blood boil, she is an astute political operator.  The minute she heard of the closings, she made sure her kids (along with their parents) were ripped from school and sent straight to Albany for a rally.  The sea of cute children and weeping parents was a PR masterpiece.  The addition of the governor sealed the deal; it neutered the DeBlasio narrative of any righteous indignation.

“…the injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge.” – Ch. 3

Andrew Cuomo, contrary to what DeBlasio might think, is not running for re-election.  He is running for the Presidency.  Thus, he doesn’t need to—nor does he have to—listen to his constituency: a people who will vote Democrat even if their candidate is caught in bed with farm animals.  Cuomo is pandering to the swing states, where the education reform movement has been in full swing and maintains a solid popularity.

So when Cuomo saw what he thought was a power grab by the mayor, his action was swift, shady and merciless.  A bipartisan deal is like two stab wounds, in the front and in the back…and you’re not sure which hurts more.

“The first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him.”  – Ch. 22

The mayor conducted a campaign that used commercials and live broadcasts to great effect.  Yet upon his administration, why was there not a single coherent ad campaign to “prepare the ground” in military terms?  Not a single ad, bulletin board, radio spot, etc. to whip up support.  DeBlasio’s PR machine in the campaign didn’t make a dent when confronted with the charter closings, and it speaks volumes of the people who work under the mayor.

“…it should be borne in mind that the temper of the multitude is fickle, and that while it is easy to persuade them of a thing, it is hard to fix them in that persuasion. Wherefore, matters should be so ordered that when men no longer believe of their own accord, they may be compelled to believe by force.” – Ch. 6

This battle could have been won, and won easily.  The DeBlasio administration made the assumption that the goodwill generated from the campaign and the election still carried over into the spring.

What happened was the thaw that unleashed the fickle multitude.

DeBlasio never made a point to win the hearts and minds of his supporters.  This was largely due to going into battle without a wellspring of hate towards Eva Moskowitz in general and charters in particular.  He was haranguing the masses without the masses.

The smoking guns are there, and they are plentiful: The recent allegations that Success Academy cherry-picks students and excludes students with special needs.  The studies that show charters don’t really outperform other public schools when measured accurately.  The high rates of student and teacher turnover.  The uneven distribution of resources, funds and support.  The bully tactics used when charters share space with public schools, only to see public schools swallowed up by charter monoliths.

DeBlasio never even bothered to launch a campaign for support of charter closures.  On the other hand, campaigns funded by fronts for the Koch brothers, et. al.  sprang up all over the television dial, showing smiling, happy children of various ethnicities with teachers who were just integrated enough…all praising the value of charter schools and tearfully pleading with the mayor to not take that away.

The counter argument is there, and well documented.  So why no buildup of support?

The people need to be reminded, or “persuaded by force” in Machiavelli’s words, of the supposed evils of charter schools.   This episode shows just how fickle New Yorkers can be when it comes to the education of our children.  It took some well-placed media ops to overtake the message and the battle.

Mr. DeBlasio, you got played, plain and simple.

If you want to institute the reforms you think are necessary, learn from this debacle.  Line up your allies.  Whip up support by any means necessary.  Use the resources at your disposal.  Win the PR war.

Most importantly…be ruthless and merciless to your enemies.

The time for congenial debate and finding “common ground” is over.  The opposition doesn’t bother with such niceties, and neither should you.  Play the game, and play it well.  Play to win…at all costs.

In other words:

“Hence it comes that all armed prophets have been victorious, and all unarmed prophets have been destroyed.” – ch.6

By the way…I have a spare copy of The Prince on my bookshelf if you need it.

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This Day in History 5/3: Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527)

If you don’t like today’s post in the Neighborhood, simply fear my wrath.  At least, that’s what today’s birthday boy would suggest.

Happy birthday to 16th Century Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli.  Among his talents, including a leading politician in the Republic of Florence during the early 1500’s, was the writing of perhaps the first book on modern politics, The Prince.  Rare is a college student who did not sit through an introductory philosophy or political science course without reading Machiavelli’s seminal work.  It’s a remarkably short read, but is full of ideas that still resonate today–even though most of us are loathe to admit it.

Machiavelli still evokes controversy today.  Many perceive him as favoring dictatorships or autocracy, as well as the use of brute force to maintain power.    We even have the word “Machiavellian” to describe measures that are cunning and deceitful.  Richard III, Cleopatra, Stalin, and even some modern politicians come to mind.  If it were this simple, then a lot of pretty rotten people would still enjoy power. 

To counter this, a little context is in order.  The Prince was written at a time when the Republic of Florence was about to collapse under the weight of war with the Hapsburgs and the Holy See.  The republican government, which existed in Florence for at least two centuries prior, was to end once and for all, and republican politicians like Machiavelli would feel the wrath of the incoming rulers, the powerful Medici clan that had ruled Florence from behind the scenes.  For Niccolo to avoid being drawn and quartered, it was important for him to play nice with the new leadership.  Even the preface of the book is dedicated to the new duke, which shows that even Machiavelli can be Machiavellian.  He basically wrote this, in part, to save his own ass. 

However, the lessons of the republic were not completely lost.  The Prince was prescribed as a manual for the attainment and preservation of power.  It was not the basis for a fair and just society, as Plato and Aristotle attempted in their works.  Machiavelli did not see it that way.  He saw power, and especially morality, as the maintenance of societal norms and functions using necessary, swift and short-term uses of aggressive force.  However, he also believed in the patron-client relationship, and viewed prescribed rewards as beneficial in maintaining power.  In short, a prince (or a government or a President, for that matter) needed to balance the use of force and authority with the rhythms and needs of elites and the people.

We hate to admit it, but most governments today are pretty much maintained through Machiavelli’s principles.  In fact, the use of opinion polls, instant access to current events, and internet communication make today’s politicians even more like Machiavelli’s prince than ever before.  Whereas political elites of yore can act on principle every once in a while and get away with it, today’s leaders must at least use a veneer of popular opinion to advance their agenda.  If he/she chooses not to–and actually act on principle, heaven forbid–then it is seen as a loss of credibility and legitimacy.  How can a person make decisions if he/she refuses to answer to the people that elected that person in the first place?

For high school students, Niccolo Macchiavelli’s work can lead to awesome discussions about power, morality, ethics (or lack thereof) and modern politics.  I would not recommend teaching about this to younger children, though.  It’s probably better to make sure they have a good set of morals before teaching them they are really subjective to your needs.

Besides, they’ll figure that out in the playground soon enough.

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