Sunday, June 26, 2005

Brief comments on Rove and Machiavelli

Over here, Echidne draws a connection between Machiavelli and Karl Rove. Given that "The Prince is supposedly bedtime reading for our administration," we need to analyze Rove's comments the way we do Machiavelli's esotericism, or at least we need to analyze them through Machiavelli's prism. Fair enough. As a Straussian -- even a liberal one -- I'm all for the careful reading of the great works of political philosophy and literature. Rove's speech to the New York Conservative Party, however, doesn't qualify. For its motives seem to me to be fully transparent (and a reflection of current political climate, where Bush's approval ratings are collapsing and Republicans are desperate). Cesare Borgia may have left the people of Romagna "satisfied and stupefied" (see Chap. 7: clearly, this was how Bush won in 2004, satisfying the far right with moralistic wedge issues like same-sex marriage and stupefying everyone else with colour codes and hollow rhetoric of war and terror), but Rove just leaves me pissed off and more eager than ever to defend liberalism against its enemies on the right.

(And as a long-time student and teacher of Machiavelli, let me suggest that he wouldn't be too pleased with the current theocratic leanings of the American right (nor Bush's reckless foreign/military policy; if anything, he wanted religion to serve politics, not vice versa), given that The Prince is very much the handbook for bringing down theological-political power (i.e., the Church, back then) in the name of new modes and orders that, under Hobbes and Locke (both much indebted to Machiavelli), would become the foundations of liberal political philosophy and of modern political liberalism generally.)

So there.

Now let me add a few comments on just why Rove said what he said, an addendum to my earlier post on his speech (see also Seeing the Forest, an excellent blog that has just kindly added The Reaction to its blogroll, which chimes in here):

Rove may or may not be the evil genius the left makes him out to be, but he doesn't do things by accident. He's not a politician who just made some imprudent remarks. His speech was carefully calculated to contribute to the current political climate -- and to try to rescue Bush from the mess he's in (see my previous post on his approval ratings).

Republicans have no interest in discussing the issues because they know they're on the wrong side of public opinion on almost all of them (including Iraq). So the strategy is to divide Democrats (and liberals) and to shift the discussion over to the discussion of the discussion. You know, a sort of meta-discussion. Talk about the talk. That's what the Durbin flap is all about. No one on the right is really engaging Durbin on what's really going on at Gitmo -- because that would mean focusing on all the prisoner abuse itself. Much better to attack the messenger.

So, too, here. Rove went after Democrats (and liberals, more specifically, though he obviously equates the two, as he does Republicans and conservatives) to bait them. Get them to respond. There's little unity among Democrats on Iraq, or indeed on many of those issues he mentioned. Democrats will be all over the place condemning Rove's remarks, but that only means that they won't be discussing the issues themselves. See? Because Rove becomes the issue. Isn't that what you do when you're down in the polls? Divide and conquer, by any means necessary.

I would add that the flag-burning amendment is another such distraction. Remember that playing the patriotism card is usually a sign of desperation (the last refuge of the political scoundrel). And the Republicans are desperate. Behind Rove's arrogant condemnation of liberalism, America's founding political philosophy, lies a good deal of anxiety.

Rove may be something of a Machiavellian, broadly speaking, but Machiavelli himself would hardly approve of his transparent cowardice.

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  • I very much enjoyed your post. Your analysis on Rove's intentions seems correct. It's too easy to divide the democrats. How can one unite a party whose central theme is tolerance. Do you
    think Dean will be a uniter or a divider?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:45 PM  

  • Wow. I don't know if you're right, of course, but that's quite sharp. Certainly the most entertaining interpretation of Roves remarks that I've read.

    -Tom Strong

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:19 PM  

  • Thank you, Tom, that's very kind of you. I realize we all give Rove a bit too much credit, but I have a hard time believing that his words weren't measured to strike just the right note.

    Thank you, too, Citizen. Thus far, Dean has been more of a divider than a uniter, but I do think that he can make a fine DNC chair -- if he only learns how to measure his own words. He's not on the stump anymore, and he needs to realize that he doesn't just speak for himself as a candidate but for the entire Democratic Party.

    I wrote a couple of lengthy posts on the Dean flap. If you're interested, I hope you check them out:

    Part I: A sign of passion that's good for Democrats

    Part II: A perception of extremism that's bad for Democrats

    Thanks to both of you for adding your comments here. I hope I'll see more of you in future.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 1:58 AM  

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