There are people who believe that negative campaigning in American politics is base, unnecessary and harmful to democracy. These people are naive and foolish. Negative campaigning is woven into the very fabric of all politics. Even if it didn't work, we would never be rid of it. Human beings can be an ugly lot, and we should not be surprised that our politics are ugly as well.
The problem, then, with Hillary Clinton's latest set of smears against Bernie Sanders is not that they are wildly dishonest. The trouble is that they are stupid, unconvincing and ineffective.
Niccolo Machiavelli would be outraged.
Most people claim to be shocked, horrified, repulsed and worse by Machiavelli's writings. But successful political operations, from the ancient world to the present day, have relied on the strategies he detailed in the early 16th century. It would be very nice if, as Bertrand Russell once claimed, Machiavelli's best-known work, The Prince, was nothing more than "a handbook for gangsters." Alas, it is a masterpiece.
Listen to HuffPost's analysis of the 2016 Democratic primary in the latest episode of the "So That Happened" politics podcast below. The discussion begins at the 17:15 mark:
In the latest Democratic primary debate, Clinton alternately accused her rival of supporting the indefinite detention of immigrants, quietly allying himself with the Koch brothers on fossil fuels and opposing President Barack Obama's auto industry rescue. As The Washington Post has noted, these hefty claims are supported by only the thinnest threads of truth. It's a too-clever maneuver -- Clinton technically cannot be accused of lying, even as she suggests Sanders' positions are the exact opposite of what they actually are.
But the fact that Clinton cannot lose a slander case over her attacks does not mean that anyone actually believes them. And they do not. Clinton first rolled out her auto bailout assault the Sunday before the Democratic primary in Michigan. At the time, she had a wide lead in every single poll of the state. Clinton's accusation proved so effective … that Sanders won.
To Machiavelli, forms of deceit that are easy for the public to see through are not worth pursuing.
"The populace may be ignorant," Machiavelli writes in Discourses on Livy, but "it is capable of grasping the truth and readily yields when a man, worthy of confidence, lays the truth before it."
This is what happened at Wednesday's debate. Clinton failed at being devious.
Ruling a kingdom is, in some ways, easier than winning a Democratic primary against a more liberal opponent. Clinton's attacks can be sharp and deadly when she attacks from a position of progressive strength. Witness the brutalizing she brings on Sanders' gun record. She faces a structural deficit: Effective attacks in a Democratic primary come from a liberal direction, and there just aren't many potential clean shots to take against a self-described democratic socialist.
Machiavelli tells us that political success is not only divorced from moral virtue, but often requires acts of violence and deception that we find abhorrent among mere citizens. "A man who strives after goodness in all his acts," Machiavelli writes, "is sure to come to ruin."
This was a dramatic break from classical and medieval political theory, which had emphasized the need for successful rulers to be virtuous people. That preposterous idea had persisted, even as thinkers relied on a moral system inherited from the Roman emperor Constantine, a horrible person who murdered his own wife and son. Constantine was nevertheless an excellent emperor whose legacy reaches even into your own personal religious views. Whether you identify as Christian or not, you are grappling with the consequences of Constantine's conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity.
So Machiavelli is, for the most part, right about politics. But he does not celebrate immorality for its own sake. He only applauds it when it works. A good prince, Machiavelli counsels, "ought not to quit good courses if he can help it, but should know how to follow evil courses if he must."
If forced to choose between the two, Machiavelli would prefer to be feared rather than loved. But better still is to be both feared and loved. And to be loved, a ruler has to at least maintain the appearance of being virtuous.
"The prince must consider ... how to avoid those things which will make him hated or contemptible … It makes him contemptible to be considered fickle, frivolous, effeminate, mean-spirited." (Like most humans, Machiavelli was a horrible sexist.)
Clinton also stumbles in her public acts of virtue. To Machiavelli, a good leader must be careful with the praise and honor he (again, sexist) bestows on others. "Liberality exercised in a way that does not bring you the reputation for it, injures you," he writes.
On Friday, Clinton praised Ronald and Nancy Reagan for somehow helping to combat the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. She was being very careless with her liberality. The problem is not that her comment was historically incorrect or morally abhorrent -- though it was both -- but that she can receive no plausible gain from issuing such praise. Since the Reagan response to AIDS was, in fact, terrible and bigoted, there are no potential Reagan-lovers to win over by celebrating his AIDS record. Clinton quickly apologized following an uproar.
None of this should imply that Sanders is a more virtuous person than Clinton. Like Clinton, Sanders wants to run the most powerful military and economic empire the world has ever known. Good people do not seek such power; they are content to feed the poor and treat the sick. (Although if Sanders did not actually set out to become president, instead seeking only to highlight economic inequality on a national stage, he may in fact be a good person.)
Despite his uplifting ads and optimistic speechifying, Sanders can be utterly ruthless. He's good at it. Sanders never misses an opportunity to bring up Clinton's paid speeches to Wall Street. Every time he does so, Clinton resorts to rhetorical flailing that makes the problem worse, invoking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, demeaning the very basis for campaign finance reform, and other self-imposed terribleness.
Even as he has twisted the knife, Sanders has maintained the comforting image of a loving grandfather. As The Master urges, Sanders appears to embody "mercy, good faith, integrity, humanity," despite systematically tearing down his opponent in an act of naked self-interest.
Clinton is still (probably) going to win the Democratic nomination, but her strategy for securing it runs afoul of yet another of Machiavelli's axioms: "Men ought either to be well treated or crushed, because they can avenge themselves of lighter injuries."
Sanders supporters can recognize a cheap shot when they see it, and Clinton will need their votes in November. Sanders backers offended by Clinton's recent attacks aren't going to vote for a Republican in droves, but many could take their revenge by simply not voting. And Clinton needs help with voter turnout. She's only winning the primaries where few Democrats actually show up.