The New Prince

By Dick Morris

In the early 16th century, Florentine courtier Niccolo Machiavelli added his name to the language by writing a cynical book on how to get and maintain political power in the weasel hole that was Italy at the time. Though often attacked, its major principles have also been widely endorsed. After five centuries, however, Bill Clinton spinmeister Dick Morris feels the lessons of the master are in need of a radical overhaul.

At least it seems radical. If Machiavelli sanctioned the use of unethical methods for practical ends, Morris holds that idealism is the safer, more practical route, and that honesty is the best policy for the would-be 21st century prince.

The simple premise of The New Prince is that “if American politicians were truly pragmatic and did what was really in their own best interest, our political process would be a lot cleaner, more positive, non-partisan, and issue-oriented.”

Though we tend to think otherwise, Morris believes that in the end (but not without some “conscious manipulation”) message triumphs over money, issues over image, substance over scandal, and strategy over spin.

That is the thesis. Its main assumption is that the American electorate is smarter, better educated, and has more information than at any time in its history. What this has led to is a transformation from Madisonian (representative) to Jeffersonian (direct) democracy.

New technologies like the Internet can be expected to exploit this trend, as a citizenry grown distrustful of political institutions increasingly takes things into its own hands through forums like the Web-site town meeting.

It is possible to believe that American voters are getting, if not smarter, at least more sophisticated, especially if you consider that “American voters” are less than half of the people in the U. S. who are eligible to vote. And it also seems possible that – among this same segment of the population – this “upward shift” will continue.

This said, The New Prince is a thin and superficial blueprint for the future. As one of Washington’s premier insiders (Time magazine has called him “the most influential private citizen in America”), Morris is able to draw on a large amount of inside-the-beltway experience to make his argument. Unfortunately, he is so convinced of his own correctness that he frequently fails to consider other points of view.

It is, for example, perverse to say that the failure of Hillary Clinton’s health care reforms demonstrated how policies rise or fall on their own merits without media manipulation. Surely the lesson to be learned from that episode was just the opposite: The way the insurance companies defeated the proposed legislation because they had a better advertising campaign.

But that is by the way. The larger problem with The New Prince is the paradox at its core, its argument for what Morris calls Pragmatic Idealism. The belief that honesty and idealism can, and should, be used as nothing more than tools to gain power belongs with the mind-set that sees getting elected as a politician’s only job. Our candidates and office-holders, Morris tells us, must change – “not in the interest of better government, but in order to succeed in their chosen line of work.”

Ah, that’s right. Now I remember. I knew there was a reason why I forgot to vote.

Review first published August 7, 1999.


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