The Machiavellian Tendencies of Leftist Tribalism

Highly influential leftist Internet personality Sean McElwee recently quipped, “You don’t win over these people [Republicans], you crush them … I don’t make friends with Republican operatives. I don’t try to reach across the aisle. I think they’re bad people and I don’t want to be associated with them and you’ll never find a picture of me shaking hands with David Frum or something.”

McElwee made this comment in an article at FiveThirtyEight where Claire Monroe profiled several young Democrats and the influence they have on the party’s movement away from capitalism. However, what this article also communicates clearly is the Machiavellian tendencies of the new left. I’m not proposing that the right is perfect or free from Machiavellian tendencies because both of those would be patently false, but that is a different topic for a different, future article. New left activists like McElwee preach that it is not good to engage in a vigorous debate; debate should not even happen. Don’t persuade, just crush. When asked to define what would constitute success, McElwee stated, “It’s power, it’s having a vision of the world that’s different from the status quo and enacting that vision.” When power is the political goal instead of persuasion, you know there is a problem. It implies that power can come from somewhere other than the will of the people being persuaded.

The parallels to Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince are striking. Machiavelli writes, “If one has to do hurt to men it should be in such a mode that there is no fear of vengeance.”[1] Crush your opposition, don’t make friends with them, get to power by whatever means necessary, and ultimately rise above in triumph to impose your values on everyone you have trampled over. Beyond that, make them fear you. Make them worry about the consequences of opposition rather than trying to be friends or at least civil. To quote Machiavelli again, “Love is maintained by a chain of obligation which, because of men’s wickedness, is broken on every occasion of their own utility; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never abandons you.”[2]

You may be thinking that this is simply a conservative nut being overly worried about the left, kind of like the monster in the closet that scares children but isn’t really there. However, this monster is really here, and we know that because this tendency to seek domination is not foreign to the human heart. We know what happens when people start echoing Machiavelli. History tells us. Jonah Goldberg, in his new book Suicide of the West, cites research by Nicholas Wade which highlights something very important about tribal societies. “Even so, their casualty rates were enormous, not least because they did not take prisoners. That policy was compatible with their usual strategic goal: to exterminate the opponent’s society.”[3]

When you consider the strategy employed by McElwee and others on the left, they are not in the business of taking prisoners. It is a tribalistic technique, driven by hatred of the other. The left and right have both collapsed into tribalism, but the tendencies on the left point in a much more Machiavellian direction whereas the right tends much closer to populism, a separate problem worthy of its own discussion. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explain how many on both sides of the aisle have fallen into what they call negative partisanship. “Negative partisanship means that American politics is driven less by hope and more by the Untruth of Us Versus Them. ‘They’ must be stopped, at all costs.”[4] Negative partisanship is characteristic of tribalism. We fear everyone outside of our tribe which Lukianoff and Haidt suggested is one of the major reasons we are seeing particularly our universities but society in general unravel.

The result is an uncivilized society. We might hate to admit it, but all you have to do is go read some Twitter comments, and you will question how civilized our society actually is. This is a problem on the left and the right. Goldberg defines civil society as a, “vast social ecosystem—family, schools, churches, associations, sports, business, local communities, etc.—that mediates life between the state and the individual.”[5] Civil society civilizes people. That is why these institutions are in place. The consequences of failing to support them are dire. As Goldberg emphasizes, “When we fail to properly civilize people, human nature rushes in. Absent a higher alternative, human nature drives us to make sense of the world on its own instinctual terms: That’s tribalism.”[6] We fall back into our lowest aspirations and retreat to tribalism. The left is showing a particular tendency to connect with their Machiavellian roots where they seek to dominate and desire power as shown by McElwee. In a tribal society, if you don’t fight for survival, you get eliminated. You have to outlast the other tribes in a zero-sum game where there is no room for compromise or even debate.

How much clearer can it be? This sentiment is made blatantly clear by what people like Sean McElwee are spouting from the left. What is his purpose? He wants to get power and crush the right.

Forget persuasion, forget debate, forget all of the hallmarks of American democracy as we know it. One of the amazing things about the West is how we solve these problems. Os Guinness provides a very different vision, one that we should aspire to. He suggests, “One index of a healthy, free, and democratic society is its ability to deal constructively with differences and disagreements.”[7]

Civil societies do not seek to crush; they seek to persuade. If your case is good enough, you don’t need to resort to totalitarian, Machiavellian tactics. The best ideas should carry the day in the marketplace of ideas.

Let’s commit to doing better. Let’s commit to preserving a society of intellectual debate where ideas are judged on their merits and not forcibly silenced or ignored without consideration. If, after going through this process, an idea is still bad, then we should throw it out. That’s how democratic society works, and that’s how we advance as a society.


[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Leo Paul S. de Alvarez (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1989), 14, Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid., 101.

[3] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 31, Kindle Edition.

[4] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (New York: Penguin Publishing Group, 2018), 132, Kindle Edition.

[5] Jonah Goldberg, Suicide of the West (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 12, Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Os Guinness, Last Call for Liberty: How America’s Genius for Freedom Has Become Its Greatest Threat (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018), Kindle Location 299, Kindle Edition.

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