Joe Biden, Machiavelli and the limits of decency

The US president-elect will need more than “good character” and expert advisers to lead successfully.

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Regardless of your party-political affiliation in normal years, Joe Biden represents an undeniable and badly-needed improvement on Donald Trump, for a very simple reason. He is a man of good character who trusts and solicits the advice of qualified experts, and who looks to surround himself with people of whom the same is true.

To elect a man of bad character to the presidency as a gesture of frustration – an enfant terrible to scourge a class of leaders felt to have abandoned their duty to the nation – might be understandable when times are good. In 2016, Americans may have felt they could afford to introduce chaos into politics. But to renew the gesture under circumstances of pestilence, protest and penury would be masochistic. An act of national suicide.

This, at least, was the message the Biden campaign sought to convey in advance of the US presidential election in November. Character was on the ballot. Truth and science were on the ballot. It was hoped, and so it came to be, that moderate Republicans in the suburbs would, in recognition of these grave stakes, put country before party.

The scene in the US today is indeed much grimmer than it was four years ago. Americans continue to die of Covid-19 in their thousands every day – more than 3,000 on 9 December, which was the worst US death-toll from a single day so far in the pandemic. Fresh lockdowns in New Mexico and much of California were unaccompanied by a new stimulus from Congress or economic aid for cash-strapped states, heralding near-certain devastation for restaurants and high-street shops which had been counting desperately on holiday-season business. Fourteen million Americans are set to lose unemployment benefits at the end of the year unless a deadlocked Congress manages to act.

The toll of the virus is only part of the story. The death of George Floyd – after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes – and the summer protests that followed were a painful experience for Americans of all persuasions. National confidence was thoroughly shaken – confidence in law enforcement, in the safety of cities from violent clashes and businesses from physical destruction, in the nation’s progress on racial equality.

Months later the scars on the American urban landscape were still visible. Wary of the summer’s example, business owners across the country boarded up in anticipation of riots following the November election. These failed to materialise – would they have, had Biden lost? – but plywood barriers in front of shops from Washington to Los Angeles were a reminder that American cities are little better than the grim Hobbesian “fortresses” the left-wing writer Mike Davis makes them out to be.

In my own hometown of Ventura, California, the plinth in front of city hall where a bronze statue of Spanish missionary Junípero Serra once stood now lies vacant, after protests over the toll his work wreaked on native populations in the area. Americans have gotten rid of their old heroes, having changed their minds about them. Who will take their place is anyone’s guess.

It is little wonder that under such circumstances a nation would turn to an old hand and ostensibly decent person such as Biden. But how far can good character and deference to one’s counsellors carry one through the rough and tumble of US politics? Not very far, says Niccolò Machiavelli: to save oneself and one’s country from destruction, the statesman must “learn to be able to be not good”. The cautionary tale in the annals of the US presidency is Jimmy Carter, a “nice guy”, who, having failed to stem oil shocks and Iranian revolution, was ousted in a landslide victory for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Machiavelli likewise dismisses the notion that employing good advisers guarantees good decision-making. A leader “who is not himself wise cannot be soundly advised” – unless he trusts everything to a single adviser, who would in turn promptly usurp him. Even the most elaborately credentialled team of public health advisers will not free Biden from having ultimately to rely on his own judgment when it comes to combating the US’s runaway rates of Covid-19 infection.

Matters are made more complicated by the fact that – as in Machiavelli’s time – the advisers will contradict each other, and even change their minds. Public health experts have given a diverse and ever-changing set of recommendations for measures to control the virus. Masks were first discouraged, then encouraged. Sweden’s much-maligned “herd immunity” strategy was backed not by leaders who spurned public health, but rather by the country’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell

Scientific best practice means changing your mind when new evidence suggests a different course of action. But the harsh logic of politics means that, to some degree, changing your policy as a leader means losing face – no matter how often the scientific justification for the change is repeated. To preserve their power, leaders must combine a confidence that science will vindicate their judgment with a certain sleight of hand. When they do have to change course in the face of new evidence, they must make it seem like they have not done so.

Leaders must carefully balance trusting their own judgment and listening to their advisers. It must be tempting, after witnessing in Trump a figure who trusted his own judgment to a fault, to delegate decision-making to specialists. But too much of this can result in decisions that are just as destructive. Excessive faith in one’s advisers produces indecision, inconstancy, backtracking – not that Trump avoided any of these by shunning experts. Biden's intended nomination for health secretary, Xavier Becerra, who is a grizzled veteran of political battles over healthcare, indicated something other than pure deference to expert advice on Biden’s part, though it presents its own risk to the president-elect’s pose as nonpartisan healer of wounds.

As Biden’s national security picks were announced – all old hands – predictably effusive praise circulated in the bastions of the foreign policy establishment. One of the last bipartisan bureaucratic cadres left in American politics, which maintains with ironclad firmness its dogma and esprit de corps, this grouping – which Barack Obama adviser Ben Rhodes famously called the “Blob” – was overjoyed to be restored to power after four years in the wilderness.

Those who were passed over, wounded but mindful that further opportunities await, were quick to signal on Twitter their approbation for those who were chosen. Samantha Power, Obama’s UN ambassador, found the suggestion that Biden’s appointees were “kind” people to be “deeply, thrillingly true”.

Perhaps she is right. But it hardly matters, beyond warming the bleeding hearts of Capitol Hill–dwelling fans of the West Wing. Kindness is irrelevant in political advisers. Supplying good advice to a president prepared to judge it well is not.

Nick Burns is a contributing writer at the New Statesman.

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