Politics is about Power

Be it known, then, that there are two ways of contending, one in accordance with the laws, the other by force; the first of which is proper to men, the second to beasts. But since the first method is often ineffectual, it becomes necessary to resort to the second.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

Politicians will tell you they are not out for power, but they’re lying.  There is no other reason to be in politics.  The business of politics involves two activities:

  1. Seizing power
  2. Exercising power once you have seized it

If that sounds cynical, know that power is not always bad.  Some people want it in order to do good things.  Other people, to quote a Batman film, just want to watch the world burn.

You can tell whether someone is good, bad, or otherwise by looking at their handling of point no. 2 above-what do they do with power, having seized it?

The problem is, if they turn out to be bad, there’s not much you can do about it at that point, because, well, they have power.

So, you need to find out whether they are bad earlier, when they are still at point no. 1.

But history suggests that the skills needed to seize power are often precisely the skills that are undesirable in people who actually wield power. That is, the ruthless, win-at-all-costs mentality that is needed to successfully seize power is not the kind of mindset you want in someone who holds power.

(The reverse is also true. The spirit of compromise and tolerance that’s desirable in a person holding power is absolutely crippling in someone trying to seize power.)

This is true seemingly across different time periods and forms of government.  Be it the countless revolutionaries-turned-dictators who were ultimately overthrown or disgraced, or the rule of thumb in modern politics that the best campaigners are often the worst office-holders, the pursuit of power and the use of it seem to always demand different skill sets.

The American Revolution is one of the big exceptions I can think of–in that one, the people who seized power don’t seem to have become bloodthirsty monsters once they won.  Maybe this was because they were wise people, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment.  Or maybe it was because the government they were rebelling against was headquartered across an ocean, and so they didn’t have to be too vicious in order to defeat it.

But this seems to have been an exception that proves the rule.  And thus we are left with the dilemma that few who are capable of getting power are fit to wield it.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?

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