What Did Machiavelli Say About Leaders Who Fail to Keep Their Promises?

There's the perception that politicians have been at ease to make campaign promises and, when in power, to forget everything (and continue with business as usual) because the people will not react. But is it always convenient (and to whom) for the them to react? Is this reaction spontaneous or provoked?

Once upon a time, the people would rise up against a leader who would fail to deliver on his promises (ex: King Louis XII and the conquest and loss of Milan, within the context of the Great Italian War); and therefore a ruler would tread very carefully if he wanted to maintain his power over a kingdom. Having said this, even though people were living in a monarchy it seems like they held more power over public affairs than today – even though that power was expressed with the useful help of the Nobility and the Bourgeoisie, whenever Monarchs would get in the way of their interests.

The great Political Master, Niccolò Machiavelli, has taught us:
For the very people who had opened the gates to the French King, when they found themselves deceived in their expectations and hopes of the future benefits, could not put up with the insolence of their new ruler.

Because when men “seek to better their condition, [they] are always ready to change masters; and in this expectation will take up arms against any ruler” (idem) - although this irrational behaviour never works for too long either, especially if persistent and in the absence of considerable periods of stability. Eternal reactive deportments suggest puerility and fickleness of those who plot and fund such popular reactions.

Until recently, it was widely accepted that a politician would not fulfil his word. Then Barack Obama came and showed that it was possible to deliver quite a number of promises made on the campaign trail – in other words, he set the bar very high (even though he disappointed a lot of people in a wide range of issues too). In spite of all this, the fact is that in the past people could easily break their 'word' and get away with it; until our version of 'Nobility and Bourgeoisie' recalled past tactics to press any leader who gets in their way.

So, today, we have an extremely (and constantly) reactive 'population' that express their anger either through public protests or through the Social Media. But with a caveat: this time the costs of such protestations is much smaller, since the rioters in the streets are always the same (professional protestors, who often travel around the world) and the activists on the Social Media are a very small group of individuals with several aliases and online accounts (professional trolls). Another detail to take into account is that, nowadays, the “Nobility and Bourgeoisie” is slowly being replaced by Private Companies – with ties to Government Intelligence Agencies – who go after any politician, any government, and any entity, they feel that can get in the way of their plans.

What is, then, the solution to this problem? One solution would be for politicians to have a serious conversation with people, who know how the system works, before making promises they may not keep – due to the reality on the ground – especially when there are people waiting to go for their jugular the moment they turn the wrong corner.
To understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People. - Niccolò Machiavelli, in The Prince 

(Image: Entrance to the Grand Canal & the Church of La Salute - Canaletto)

[The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dissecting Society]


  1. So you're saying half my facebook friends can actually be fake profiles, nice. This means half my Russian lady friends are actually FSB? Damn.

  2. A lot of people woukd react to failed promises but then the state squashes any attempt to bring the government down with extreme violence.

  3. In vibrant democracies, politicians who do not deliver on promises made before election, stand to loose the next time around. The main reason for making promises is to win elections, and having won, realities strike home. Your solution is good, but in the heat of the electoral process, that is hardly possible.

    The problem lies in the term of their office when little can be done to punish them. Even where there is a recall mechanism, for some strange reason, the electorate is loath to use it.

  4. Rummuser said that in vibrant democracies "politicians who do not deliver on promises made before election, stand to loose the next time around." but unfortunately this is simply not true, being countries like Portugal, Spain, Brazil a case in point. And then we have instances when politicians have kept their word in the first term and nevertheless they get the boot, if so it interests a small group of special interests. So yes, perhaps the solution is to not only talk to people within the system but also tackle the special interests first. Good job, Max.


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