Does Machiavelli really know what he’s talking about?

December 10, 2011

Political Theory


Current Congolese president, Joseph Kabila

The Democratic Republic of Congo held their presidential elections this past week. According to the New York Times, the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, was declared the official winner of a very shady election. He beat his opponent, Étienne Tshisekedi, by 16 points; however, many citizens believe that it was not a fair election. Before the vote took place, Kabila began

taking suspicious actions in order to secure his spot as president by eliminating a second round of voting and appointing a majority of his party on the electoral commission.

The article refers to the sadness of the people that can be felt throughout the streets of Congo. Many people have remained quiet and are fearful of what will happen in the future, specifically with respect to political violence. According to the International

Crisis Group, there has been “growing dissatisfaction” with Kabila’s rule especially since the Congo has remained at the bottom of the Human Development Index for some time and has

Opposing candidate, Étienne Tshisekedi

approximately 70 million Congolese people who are undernourished. A few people have taken to the streets to contest the election and sadly 18 people have been killed in violence associated with election.

In The Prince, Niccoló Machiavelli addresses whether it is better to be loved or feared as a leader. He states, “It might be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved.” He determines that commitments that are made peacefully are not always kept, however, when people make commitments out of fear, those commitments are kept. Still he makes clear that a prince does not want to be feared to the point of hatred.

Currently, I believe that Kabila has reached the point of constituents’ fear turning into hatred. The people did not want him to be reelected and now that he has been reelected the entire country is not happy. I understand Machiavelli’s belief that a leader should be feared because commitments will be permanent, however, at this point, the fear of the citizens is so strong that they no longer want to keep the commitment of Kabila as their president.

A lone man confronted the police in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, during a violent protest challenging the results of the recent presidential election. (Jerome Delay, Associated Press)

The first question surrounding this situation is, is Machiavelli even correct in assuming that it is more beneficial to be feared as a leader rather than loved? Will instilling fear in your constituents really encourage them to vote for you in a democratic process? I don’t know if I would personally vote for someone that I was fearful of. I’d rather vote for a politician that shared the same views as me and that I respected, or in other words loved. If you do believe that it is better to be feared rather than loved, can you give an example in which being a feared leader could be a positive situation?

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3 Comments on “Does Machiavelli really know what he’s talking about?”

  1. hoeylue Says:

    I think Machiavelli’s ideas don’t necessarily apply to democratic leaders nowadays. But they still might apply to dictators who are, in there nature, much closer to the princes and lords Machiavelli addressed his book to. The legitimacy of leaders in democratic countries however. is strongly related to a theory called selectorate theory. This theory claims that every leader has to respond to the demands of the group who brought him to power. In democratic countries this is the whole range of people who go to elections, in a dictatorship this is only a small group of elites and military officers, who get the chance to elect their leader. The leader therefore chooses his actions depending on the size of his selectorate. In a democratic country this size is big, consequently the leader has to address all the problems and worries everybody has in his country. Because, as you also mentioned in your text, people are only going to vote for him, if he’s able to find solutions to their problems. In a dictatorship however, the leader has to please only a small group of people. He can either do this by giving them bonuses or by frighten them. But the leader obviously can’t frighten a whole country. Therefore I think that President Kabila can’t continue his tyranny of fear and that sooner or later he’s going to be replaced.

  2. finkelbr Says:

    This is a very interesting debate in my eyes. Everyone wants to be loved. When one is loved they are respected and looked up to. However, when it comes to power there is no real question. Fear has a lot more power than love. Fear can make people do things that they would not normally do. Think of it this way: would you rather betray someone that would just get mad at you or that would torture and maybe kill you? I think we would all say that we would rather get yelled at then tortured. I definitely agree with Machiavelli when he says that fear is more powerful than love.

    When it comes to voting, I do not think fear is that important. You emphasize that the voting is done through a democratic process. If this is the case then that means that no one knows, including the politicians, who you voted for. Since you know that no one will be aware of who you voted for, fear is not a factor. I would not be afraid of the politician when I know that he doesn’t know whether I voted for him or not. I do not believe that fear comes to play when it comes down to voting in a democratic process.

    Unfortunately, I can not think of a situation where being a feared leader can turn into a positive thing. I do not like the idea of being feared however, as I said, the feared leaders have much more power over the people than the ones who are loved.

  3. weinben Says:

    Machiavelli is absolutely correct in assessing, for a king or ruler, having a populous that fears you more than it loves you is far safer for a smooth and easy rule. People can still love you while being intimidated. What is not discussed is the source of this fear. People should feel their king is powerful, intelligent, and assertive- all characteristics of a great leader. Also, Machiavelli, in his piece, is talking about the rule of the king itself, not the state of the people. He is saying a king, in the best interest of his own rule, should be feared. He must be held in reverence way above an average man, and his power must be respected. Without the lingering thoughts that a king is truly powerful, the fear would not exist and his subjects will view him as soft or, even worse, like a common folk.
    The case of the Congo is not exactly the same. Kabila is feared, certainly, but not in the same vein as Machiavelli construes the idea. Kabila is feared through direct violence, not because he commands respect and people are scared to anger him. He is feared because he is irrational and given power he obviously is not responsible enough for nor power he knows how to use to be a great leader for his nation. The Congo has been in political strife since its conception because its leaders use guerilla tactics to assume office; they are not legitimate leaders in the eyes of their people, but ruthless thugs who bully and scheme their way to power and riches, but not real respect.

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