Machiavelli Reigns: Dirty campaigns beg the question: “Is everything fair game in American politics?

After the midterm elections and after almost any major political campaign in America, we are so disgusted by the process and suspicious of both winning and losing candidates who have been thoroughly “slimed” that we question the character of even our favored candidate. Staggered by the ferocity and baseness of the campaigns, we ask the question: “By what means? Is everything “fair game?”

We have gone the way of Niccolo Machiavelli, who in 1513 lauded the use of any means to win, contending that in the winning the means will be blessed. Machiavelli wrote:

“Let a prince then concern himself with the acquisition or the maintenance of the state; the means employed will always be considered honorable and praised by all, for the mass of mankind is always swayed by appearances and by the outcome of an enterprise.”

I live in Georgia, where the recent gubernatorial campaign provided vivid examples of the putrid attack ads that questioned not the very different political philosophies of the two candidates, but basic issues of character.  Eventual winner Nathan Deal implied that the losing candidate, former governor Roy Barnes, had bought judges; and Barnes implied that Deal was insensitive to rape victims. The ads were so over the top that both sides scoffed at the suggestions that the opponents was as evil as suggested.

You probably have similar examples in your own state. Dirty tricks and character assassination are no respecter of parties. It appears the only politicians who beg off negative, attack ads are retired or comfortably ahead in polls. Many who begin campaigns pledging to “stay focused on the issues” resort to negativity when margins tighten. Magnanimity falls in the heat of battle. There is nothing new about this; it is an unfortunate part of the American tradition.

Here are some examples:

1800 In the country’s first contested presidential election, supporters of Thomas Jefferson claimed incumbent John Adams wanted to marry off his son to the daughter of King George III, creating an American dynasty under British rule. Jefferson supporters said: “John Adams is a blind, crippled, toothless man who secretly wants to start a war with France,” intones a worried voiceover. “John Adams is a hideous hermaphroditical character with neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.”Jefferson haters called the challenger a fraud, a coward, a thief, and “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father.” Jefferson won.

1884 This race for the presidency produced two of the most infamous slogans in political history. One came from a Catholic-bashing Protestant minister who dubbed the Democrats the party of “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” The other one emerged after the Democrats’ candidate, New York Gov. Grover Cleveland, was accused of fathering an illegitimate child: Supporters of Republican James Blaine taunted, “Ma, ma, where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” Cleveland had the last laugh: He did go to the White House.

1964 The Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, started the race with a reputation as a dangerous hawk. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign leaped on that liability, creating what may be the most famous political ad ever. The film features a little girl pulling petals off a daisy until her game is interrupted by a nuclear holocaust. Johnson won.

1968 Richard Nixon had the last laugh over Hubert Humphrey in this race for the White House, but Humphrey’s team fielded the most memorable ad. On the screen: the words “Agnew for Vice President?” On the soundtrack: a man laughing hysterically, louder and louder, until the laughs veer off into a groan.

1984 Incumbent Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) sensed early on that the state’s moderate Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, posed a strong re-election threat. So Helms started running TV ads attacking Hunt a full 18 months ahead of Election Day, taunting him as a liberal flip-flopper with the tagline, “Where Do You Stand, Jim?” Hunt fired back with a graphic spot linking Helms to right-wing death squads in El Salvador. Helms squeaked out a narrow victory.

2004 The venomous Kerry-Bush match-up got the headlines in 2004, but connoisseurs of political nastiness prefer a redistricting-induced Texas congressional race that pitted Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican stalwart, against Democratic Rep. Martin Frost, a member of his party’s leadership. Late in the campaign, Frost aides gave the press a 1970s-era picture of college streakers, one of whom was Sessions. The Sessions campaign shot back by blasting Frost’s planned fundraiser with Peter Yarrow of the folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, on the grounds that Yarrow had served three months in prison for taking “immoral and indecent liberties” with a 14-year-old fan. The streaker beat the folkie.

As a culture, we don’t care enough to stay engaged in the political process and demand fairness and fair play. There is not a community of character in the nation that produces a backlash against campaigns that do not respect the privacy of family or any personal matters, or against campaign tactics that attack the person—ad hominen–rather than policy positions or governing philosophy.

The antidote to Machiavelli is early Bostonian John Cotton, a father of New England congregationalism, who wrote in the 1630’s: “Now faith is like a poise: it keeps the heart in an equal frame: whether matters fall out well or ill, faith moderates the frame of a man’s spirit on both sides.” Commenting on these early American Puritans, British scholar Os Guinness said: “Puritans acted as if they had swallowed gyroscopes; moderns act as if they have swallowed Gallup Polls.”

Can we expect that our leaders will be guided by a personal gyroscope that will direct them away from ends-by-any-means campaigning or governing? Will public discourse and strategy forever follow Machiavelli rather than Cotton?


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group ( Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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