Saturday, January 18, 2014

On Love and Fear in Politics

January 18, 2013, 9:20 a.m. -- and see, "Governor Christie's 'Plausible Deniability; And Why Democrats Should Care," January 13, 2014.

From Machiavelli to Christie

[A] question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but [it] . . . is much safer to be feared than loved . . .. [People] are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours . . .. [The] prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships . . . cannot be relied upon . . .. [L]love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

-- Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1532), Chapter 17, "Concerning Cruelty And Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared"
Machiavelli's The Prince was the Governing for Dummies of his day. First distributed in 1517 -- nearly 600 years ago -- as advice to 16th Century politicians and rulers, it was not actually printed until after his death in 1527. It has, since then, been the desk reference manual for public officials the world around, and a subject of much study by the political scientists in the academy. Its how-to observations and suggestions are the ultimate in pragmatism, as the quote, above, illustrates. It is what, in foreign relations, is characterized as realpolitik. [Portrait by Santi di Tito.]

So why is a blog that focuses on 20th and 21st Century issues offering book reviews of 600-year-old publications? Because The Prince seems relevant to the issues of our day -- namely, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's current challenges that have earned him a "gate" from the media: "BridgeGate." See "Governor Christie's 'Plausible Deniability'; And Why Democrats Should Care," Jan. 13 (with its links to more background).

The end of that blog essay addresses the distinctions -- and the relative moral and political judgments by voters -- between the one-off instance of a deliberate creation of traffic jams on the George Washington bridge, and what may be a personality prone to anger, mean-spiritedness, petty revenge and retribution. [Photo credit: multiple sources.] Here are the excerpts used there from a New York Times's itemization of past paybacks:

Kate Zernike, “Stories Add Up as Bully Image Trails Christie,” New York Times, Dec. 25, 2013, p. A1:
• In 2011, Mr. Christie . . . accused State Senator [and former Governor] Richard J. Codey of being “combative and difficult” in blocking two nominees. . . . Three days later, . . . the state police superintendent inform[ed] him that he would no longer be afforded [a state] trooper . . .— a courtesy granted all former governors. [Codey’s] . . . cousin . . . [a state employee] was fired, as was [his] former deputy chief of staff [from another state position]. . . .

• [T]he governor . . . wanted [redistricting commission member, Rutgers political scientist, Alan] Rosenthal to vote for the [Republicans’ redistricting] map, . . . but [Rosenthal] chose the Democrats’ plan . . .. Soon after, Mr. Christie used his line-item veto to cut $169,000 [from Rosenthal’s Rutgers] institute . . ..

• Mr. Christie was smarting from [Republican State Senator Sean T. Kean’s] criticism that [Christie should have called] earlier for a state of emergency [following a] blizzard [that] paralyzed the state . . .. [Christie] . . . held [a] news conference in Mr. Kean’s . . . district. [A] member of the governor’s staff warned [Kean] not to show up. His seat was eliminated in redistricting the following year. . . .

• Republican, State Senator Christopher Bateman, [who] voted against the governor’s plan to reorganize . . . public medical education . . .. had been working with the governor to get a judge appointed . . .. Suddenly, after months when it looked as if it would happen, the nomination stalled.
When you start a discussion with lawyers about such matters they immediately want to leap to what is legally permissible and what is prohibited. That's understandable. Had I discussed the issues with engineers, they might have leaped to the engineering of bridge design.

As someone who teaches in a law school, I am not disinterested in the constitutional and legal rights and wrongs here. They are involved, and they are important. They're just not what I want to explore at the moment.

Neither is the focus here on Christie. He is simply the catalyst to this exploration. His political future is not insignificant, for some of the reasons explored in the Jan. 13 blog essay linked above. If the voters of New Jersey, and the rest of America, find him an unacceptable potential presidential candidate because of BridgeGate, that will impact what the Republican Party can and does become, who its ultimate 2016 candidate turns out to be, and therefore the chances of Hillary Clinton, or whomever else the Democrats may settle on for their candidate.

The focus is more general. It is, how can we as individuals, and a body politic, go about at least thinking about political executives (e.g., for the most part, presidents and governors, but actually any institution's chief executive) and the means they use to persuade or manipulate others into bending to their will. Addressing norms, rather than "the law," what behavior should we consider (a) perfectly acceptable, (b) unacceptable but forgivable, or (c) unacceptable, unforgivable, and grounds for ousting them from office?

While there will be some overlap, these are judgments that will vary significantly from one individual to another. They will be influenced by one's religious, moral and ethical values, and the standards of one's family and peers. They will likely also be influenced by one's ideological and political affiliations -- being more forgiving of transgressions by members of one's political party than those of "the opposition." See "Snopes, Popes, and Presidents; Believing is Seeing," Dec. 26.

Let's begin with a continuum.

At the far right end of our continuum, the most extreme and unforgivable means would include beheading and other forms of assassination -- seen in modern times from North Korea's young leader, terrorist organizations, as part of many of the ongoing wars around the world, the Mexican drug cartels and other criminal organizations. Only marginally better would be techniques of torture, or credible threats of physical harm to oneself or family members. Imprisoning "political prisoners" would be another example.

At the far left of the continuum would be techniques used not just by politicians, but by almost everyone in everyday life: establishing a social relationship out of repeated contacts ("three cups of tea"), doing favors and giving gifts (such as an elected official with above average fundraising leverage passing out money to fellow legislators). (The rule of thumb when I was in Washington was that you would do 10 favors for a House member before asking him or her for a favor.) Some techniques of negotiation, presentation and persuasion -- unassociated with any suggestion of reward or presentation -- are more effective than others (the "Johnson Treatment" of LBJ comes to mind). Good, basic social skills can go a long way.

Presumably, most people would find these minimal, positive techniques well within the "perfectly acceptable" category. Somewhat to the right would be shouting, berating or otherwise frightening an opponent -- especially in public. (In this case it might be hard to separate the negative reaction of others to this kind of (a) immature and boorish behavior by anyone, from (b) the inappropriateness of a public official using this technique of persuasion.) Further to the right would be news conference, speeches, or other public statements by the official in which someone's professional competence or integrity is disparaged.

What are some of the factors we might find relevant within these two extremes? Here are some that occur to me:
(1) "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away." Would we make a distinction between (a) rewarding a legislator with something they otherwise would not have had for supporting the president or governor, and (b) punishing them by taking away something they already had for not supporting him or her? The reward might be a visit to their district for a fundraiser, selecting them for an overseas junket delegation, a ride on Air Force One, an invitation to a dinner at the White House (or governor's mansion). The punishment might be the opposite of all of the above (e.g., cancelling your participation at their fundraiser), working behind the scenes to have them denied a committee assignment they need, or influencing their major donors to switch their support to an opponent. (Each of the New York Times's examples of Christie's past behavior involve taking something away: the trooper traditionally given all prior governors, the appropriation for the professor's institute, the district formerly represented by the legislator, the judicial appointment formerly on track.) In both instances, whether reward or punishment, the executive is intervening in the process, introducing a factor unrelated to the merits of the matter at hand.

(2) Tradition. Is the executive's behavior out of the norm -- such as the denial of a trooper for an individual former governor? The fact that predecessors have done whatever it is doesn't make it right. But it is at least makes the executive's behavior not a novel extension of arbitrary, punitive power. We might ask, "Is it common for governors to line-veto appropriations for non-supporters?"

(3) Merits. Should we make a distinction between an executive's use of persuasive techniques (of whatever nature) to accomplish something that can plausibly be asserted to have a "public interest" component (such as President Lincoln's efforts on behalf of the Thirteenth Amendment), as distinguished from something more personal to the executive (such as a Democratic mayor's failure to endorse a Republican governor's re-election)?

(4) Motive and fear. What of Machiavelli's observations regarding the necessity of leading through fear? At what point do an official's motives in the use of recrimination techniques to engender fear, to make people think twice before crossing him or her, cross over the line into "unacceptable"?
What other factors should be considered?

Clearly, the Christie case is worthy of consideration in its own right. But it is also a gateway into this broader inquiry.

Any and all help with this, in the form of comments, suggestions, additional approaches would be appreciated.

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