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'New Prince' as amoral as Machiavelli himself

THE NEW PRINCE: Machiavelli Updated for the Twenty-first Century; by Dick Morris; Renaissance Books; 252 pages; $22.95."When a man can take a poll and tell what everybody is thinking, that means nobody is really thinking anymore," Marshall McLuhan wrote back in 1951, recapitulating Gertrude Stein. McLuhan never knew Dick Morris, but he laid the basis for understanding him.

Morris's candid book about the machinery of professional politics is premised on an absence of thought deeper, though, than McLuhan -- or indeed anyone only a decade ago -- could have predicted.

And Morris's philistinism, by which I mean his complete unconcern for the highest goals of any society, is so complete it is fascinating.

Take the substance of what Morris has helped turn our politics into. This is what Morris calls "issues." According to "The New Prince," issues -- not spin, not character, not charisma -- get candidates elected and keep them in power. What the issues are, however, has nothing to do with a judgment of what the country needs, what history demands or what a politician's accumulated set of principles intimates.

What the issues are is determined primarily by polling: "The icons of the past relied on political instinct. Now, presidents can use scientific polls and focus groups. I fail to see the difference."

The use of the right issues in the right way enables a president to stay popular, and this is important because, without popularity, he is not really president: "An elected executive -- whether president, governor or mayor -- needs a popular majority every day in his term. . . . When he dips below 50 percent, he is functionally out of office." So much for elections, electoral colleges or, for that matter, the Constitution. What matters, when one peels away the political onion, is the nightly tracking poll.

But if Morris's book is sometimes chilling, it is also often acute. Many of his micro-observations, like many of his master's micro-policies, are on the mark. He is underwhelmed by the power of special interest groups, and he doesn't buy the notion that the sound-bite culture inherently degrades political discourse ("There is literally no such thing as an idea that cannot be expressed well and articulately to today's voters in 30 seconds").