Lana Stein is emeritus professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of several books and journal articles about urban politics, political behavior and bureaucracy.
Representative democracies are rarely models of gentility. Their elected officials, motivated by self-interest and a certain belief system, often see their views as right and proper and those of their opponents as wrong-headed and dangerous. The U.S. system, based on separation of powers and checks and balances at all levels, has necessitated a certain need for compromise and the importance of being able to govern. The result has usually been country above party -- although that did not eliminate some hyperbolic rhetoric or using the system for personal gain.
Too often governmental scandals become couched in blaming an administrator for the problem. Critics seldom look at a bureaucratic organization for its failings or how bureaus channel the behavior of their employees. One element that should be examined is how success is judged.
In the case of the Veterans Administration and Gen. Eric Shinseki, we see staff at VA hospitals responding to how they would be evaluated. Such evaluations affect compensation and promotion and hence behavior. Employees also tend to go along to get along.
Our world is never free of conflict. There are many “we” versus “they” imbroglios in which an exalted group lets pride lead to disdain, second-class status, or even violence against those outside the group. The lines of demarcation include race, ethnicity, religion or nationhood.
American governmental structure began to take on its present form during the Progressive Reform Era, 1900-1915. Progressives decried the waste and corruption in government at all levels and desired professional administration based on fixed principles.
In common parlance, use of the adjective “Machiavellian” implies a ruthless practice of politics where ends justify means and maintenance of power is the ultimate goal. Yet, a careful reading of “The Prince” and “The Discourses” leads to a more nuanced view of this political philosopher.
He certainly reflected 15th century Italy, populated by city-states that competed with each other in many realms. Interestingly, Machiavelli’s ruminations on human nature and governance can help to illuminate the peculiar politics of early 21st century America, nationally and locally.