What Would the Florentines Do? What Modern Conservatives and Libertarians Can Learn from Renaissance Italy

The Italian prophet versus the Pope

In his description of the fiery, late 15th-century Florentine monk Girolamo Savonarola, historian Will Durant describes the approach of a man devoted to a cause — reform of the corrupt Catholicism of Renaissance Italy – and what he saw as the town’s insufficient devotion to a purer faith. The rhetorical skills possessed by Savonarola were remarkable and the preacher took dead aim at the moral hypocrisy of Florence’s rulers as well as the corrupt Pope, Alexander VI. Another historian, Sidney Alexander, remarks on how the preacher could bring an entire congregation to its knees, weeping and crying over their sins and searching their souls—a revivalist of the sort later seen in New England in the 18th century.[1]



Savonarola was doubly irritating to the rulers of Florence because, as Durant notes, the monastery from which Savonarola preached, San Marco, was founded and enriched by the grandfather of Florence’s the Medicis.

[ Piero] Lorenzo was disturbed. His grandfather had founded and enriched the monastery of San Marco; he himself had given to it lavishly; it seemed to him unreasonable that a friar who could know little of the difficulties of government… should now undermine, from a Medici shrine, that public support upon which the political power of his family had been built.[2]

Durant notes how the Medicis attempted to appease and reason with the popular preacher but to no effect. The critic would not be moved from his assertions that Florence’s rulers had strayed from Savonarola ’s beatific vision of purity.

[Lorenzo] tried to appease the friar; he went to Mass in San Marco’s, and sent the convent rich gifts. Savonarola scorned them and remarked in a subsequent sermon that a faithful dog does not leave off barking in his master’s defense because a bone is thrown to him.[3]

The contending examples from 15th century Florence – rulers who must necessarily compromise versus reformers or purists – are found in every movement, religion, advocacy group and political party. All have their share and shades of Medicis and Savonarolas. Roughly stated, with the acknowledgement that exact parallels are impossible in a continuum, one side of the divide — the Medicis and their supporters – might be labelled realists, pragmatists, moderates, incrementalists, compromisers, or sell-outs; on the other side there are the Savonoralas — categorized as principled, purist, or stubborn or naïve, and unrealistic dreamers.

The description of the particular “Medici” or “Savonarola” reveals as much about the person who uses a term as it does about the side thus described, and the divisions are easier to spot at the extremes. For example, former Greenpeace founder Patrick Moore was once called an “eco-Judas” by another Greenpeace member, Jim Hunter; this after Moore famously quit the group when he thought it became too religious about its mission and abandoned objective science in pursuit of green radicalism. Hunter used the language of religion and devotion about fellow travellers (or -ex ones) because that is what Savonarola-like men do when life and politics are viewed in terms of devotion or betrayal.

The conservative movement’s Medicis and Savonarolas

The battle between pragmatists and purists is nothing new. In Canada, it includes an ongoing discussion among conservatives/libertarians. The state of the Medici-Savonarola dispute is illustrated by two recent books. The first is a revised edition of Harper’s Team — Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power from former Conservative campaign manager and University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan.

The other is from Gerry Nicholls, former vice-president of the National Citizens Coalition, who recently published Loyal to the Core — Stephen Harper, Me and the NCC, where the Prime Minister worked as president before his latest job.

Flanagan’s initial essay on this matter was first published in C2C in mid-2007 and as readers might recall, he described his approach and advice as incremental (he has objected to any description of his advice as being about pragmatism – which posits infinite flexibility in the pursuit of power as the only means and end. On the other side, there is Nicholls, who in Loyal to the Core asserts his former colleague, the Prime Minister, has “sold his ideological soul to the devil of political expediency.”

Critics of incrementalism such as Nicholls assert it has failed small-c conservatives. In Loyal to the Core as well as in his op-eds over the last several years, Nicholls cites as evidence the increase in federal spending, additional regulation, pandering to Quebec nationalists, Harper’s praise for “our socialist health care system”, the embracing of the global warming gospel of Al Gore, and the Prime Minister’s complaint about capitalists who “care more about the almighty dollar than the safety of their customers.” For Nicholls, this is proof the Prime Minister has betrayed conservatism.

If actual conservative policy delivered by the federal Tories is pointed to, Nicholls is unimpressed, including tax reduction measures such as the two GST rate cuts or the fall 2008 attempt to end taxpayer funding for political parties.[4] And he dismisses other arguably conservative policies such as tougher law-and-order policies (or attempts) as merely tactical and strategic — either appealing to the Conservative party’s base, or the general public based upon pollsters informing the party about what kind of tax cut most impresses the masses (the GST cuts). Harper’s former NCC colleague argues the Conservative party lacks leadership; that the Prime Minister has time and again taken the path of least resistance.

As for successes based on incrementalism, Nicholls asserts that strategy hasn’t even been that successful for Big-c conservatives (the federal Conservative party) — witness the lack of a majority of government under Stephen Harper.

Nicholls’ criticism has merit but his overly broad dismissals – he claims Stephen Harper “has never used his office to extol free markets,” for example, is unpersuasive. Unlike most other governments these days, Canada’s Conservative government has, for all its faults, signed multiple free trade agreements and tried to remind Latin American countries in particular of market alternatives to the program offered by Hugo Chavez and Eva Morales.

Or consider Harper’s foreign policy on Israel where the Prime Minister’s position can be summed up as follows: don’t blame our liberal democratic ally in the Middle East for aggressively responding to years of suicide bombings, rocket and mortar attacks and kidnapping of its soldiers. On international matters, Harper’s actions have been more sensible, more conservative, than any Prime Minister since at least William Lyon Mackenzie King.

But for Nicholls, it appears conservative measures are dismissed as gimmicks – not enacted from the conservative heart – while any omission in orthodox conservatism becomes overwhelming proof that Harper has morphed into a socialist. Nicholls never adequately explains why some conservative actions are merely window-dressing while non-conservative measures are the true measure of the Prime Minister.

Harper’s Team – Incrementalism Revised and Reassessed Circa 2009

The question of how to prompt the Tories and Canada into more sensible conservative policy will be addressed shortly, but first, if Nicholls has his critique, so too has Flanagan – of the critics of incrementalism.

As in the original edition of Harper’s Team, Flanagan draws not just from Aristotelian theory (useful in itself – Aristotle was a theorist but one who drew his theory from observations about what works) but also from his practical experience in Harper’s multiple campaigns. He has added two chapters: “Getting Closer, 2008”—i.e., about the 2008 campaign and almost-majority win of the federal Conservatives in October 2008, and “The Politics of Survival,” Flanagan’s take on the government’s post-2008 election record, including its near-death experience after it proposed to cut off most taxpayer financing for political parties in November that year .

Before detailing the new chapters, consider Flanagan’s initial criticism of his/Harper’s critics. In his C2C essay, “Incremental Conservatism: Mr. Harper Goes to Ottawa,” Flanagan noted criticism from the right seemed to be in vogue: “Economists from the Fraser Institute have condemned aspects of Conservative tax policy. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation called the 2006 budget “Liberal Lite.” Gerry Nicholls, who used to work for Mr. Harper at the National Citizens Coalition, has become a frequent critic.”

Early on, in columns and in his book, Flanagan noted the reason why Harper in power has not satisfied all the expectations of his “erstwhile supporters” – because the math wasn’t there: The Tories won only 36% of the vote and 125 of 308 seats in 2006, “the most fragile minority position since Arthur Meighen tried to govern in 1925 (for four days) with 116 of 245 seats,” writes Flanagan. Add to that just 23 Conservatives in the Senate compared to 63 Liberals (at that time). That math totals have changed since the last election but not the calculation: a minority is still a minority.

Despite that reality which serves as partial justification for incrementalism, Flanagan reminds conservatives of a laundry list of items he thinks constitute progress in the battle to restore common sense and limited government to federal operations. They include:

· Broad-based tax relief through reduction of the GST;

· Stopping the movement toward a national system of publicly operated child-care centres;

· Making federal income tax less hostile to families—something that conservatives had demanded for years;

· Re-arming the Canadian Forces;

· Multiple criminal-justice initiatives to reinforce the concepts of personal responsibility and punishment for wrongdoing;

· An amnesty for long-gun owners;

· Breaking up the Wheat Board’s monopoly by introducing dual marketing for malting barley;

· Cancellation of the Court Challenges Program;

· Movement towards deregulation of the communications industry;

· Paying down the federal debt ;

· Pulling the plug on the Kelowna Accord, which would have pumped an additional billion dollars into Aboriginal programming, with no clear standards of accountability;

· Introducing a regime for controlling greenhouse gas emissions that ignores the completely unrealistic Kyoto targets.

Beyond those measures, Flanagan’s main defense as to why big-c conservatives don’t win very often is pinned on movement conservatives themselves and is again connected to the arithmetic needed for majoritarian rule: conservatives are too often fractured, focused on their own issues, and thus break at least three of Flanagan’s ten commandments on how conservatives are to win elections (found in both editions of Harper’s Team). They violate: Commandment One—unity among all the “conservatives” be they social conservatives, libertarians, Red Tories et al; Commandment Two – moderation, defined as not being too far to the right of the median voter; and Commandment Four—avoid sweeping visions in partisan politics and embrace incrementalism.

Curiously, in the latest version of Harper’s Team, the two new chapters reveal a Flanagan frustrated with Harper and is in one sense, closer to the Nicholls critique. Now, Flanagan gives the reader a strong sense that Harper’s team might have paid a tad too much attention to incrementalism and engaged in too many strategic moves to the “centre” and not enough to another key commandment, Commandment Five:

We have to develop well-thought-out policies and communicate them effectively. Since conservatism is not yet the dominant public philosophy, our policies may sometimes run against conventional wisdom. The onus is on us to help Canadians to understand what they are voting for. [5]

Despite Flanagan’s Commandment Five on policy in Harper’s Team, it’s never been clear what Flanagan’s post-2006 criticism of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Fraser Institute et al was meant to accomplish. It is those very groups and others which have attempted to develop and “sell” good, defensible small-c conservative policy.

For instance, should critics of the Harper Tories been less consistent or vocal on the party’s reversal on corporate welfare? On this matter, the Conservative government’s flip-flop makes them indistinguishable from the pork-barrelling Mulroney Progressive Conservatives of the 1980s.

Or should this author not have not pointed out last year the Bloc Quebecois has been propped up for years by taxpayer subsidies – and at a cost to extra federalist seats in Quebec for both the Tories and Liberals? Flanagan has lately argued for a reduction in public subsidies for parties but over multiple years – fair enough as an incremental approach. But that the Tories chose the wrong way to approach the issue in November 2008 (timing and strategy is everything) is not an argument that somehow a third party (myself or others) is somehow mistaken to raise it as an issue.

Partisans and political parties are necessary creatures and certain ideas might be better advanced by being in the political thick of things. John Williamson, a former colleague of mine at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, is now Harper’s chief of communications while another former CTFer, Jason Kenney, has been in Parliament since 1997 and is now Immigration Minister. One serves where one thinks one can do the most good. And partisans understandably have to compromise but that’s the dilemma and problem for partisans. The job of those outside the political parties is quite different.

So insofar as Conservative partisans get hung up on loyalty they think deserved from think tanks and groups — they are wrong, and misunderstand the very reason such groups exist: to frankly identify useful or an ill-conceived policy, and to do so without partisan pestering or politically inspired-spin. In other words, they’re attempting to fulfill Flanagan’s fifth commandment.

The re-education of Dr. Flanagan?

Flanagan’s disappointment with the Harper government since its 2008 re-election is palpable. His columns have become more frank in disagreement with the Conservative government. Also, the two new chapters in Harper’s Team are more critical than were his original nine. Some insiders attribute the shift to Flanagan’s status as an “outsider.” That’s doubtful and likely more reflective of how partisans too often see matters in Manichean us vs. them terms.

But the new edition is telling. Flanagan now notes where the Prime Minister has engaged in policy pirouettes since the Tories first took power in 2006. In the newer Harper’s Team, Flanagan produces a rather different list than the one first used to argue for incrementalism. That other list still appears but is supplemented by a chart of disappointments. Flanagan’s warnings are paraphrased below:

· Harper once promised (in his 2004 platform) to cut corporate subsidies but has embraced them—see even a new “regional development” agency for southern Ontario;

· After promising in the 2005-06 campaign to maintain special tax treatment for income trusts, the Prime Minister suddenly reversed position on Halloween 2006;

· Harper promised not to count resource revenue in equalization calculations—until he did;

· Harper introduced fixed election dates, only to break that promise without a substantial reason to call for an early election in the fall of 2008;

· Harper ran on balanced budgets in the 2008 campaign only to take Canada back to deficit spending in the 2009 budget.

“All of these reversals may be defensible in its own right,” writes Flanagan, who points out he has defended some of these in print. “But taken together, along with other less publicized reversals, they have created a widespread impression that Harper stands for nothing in particular, except winning and keeping power.”

At the end of the new edition of Harper’s Team, Flanagan offers what might be called a modified mea culpa on his previous call for incrementalism, akin to how the Supreme Court occasionally quickly revisits a recent questionable judgment. Thus, Flanagan argues:

· Conservatives should recall that good government can be good politics and forget about the tricky tactics (i.e., cutting off the money supply to one’s opponents);

· Reconnect with the Conservative base and do so by pushing actual conservative policy in Parliament—“the necessity of constructing a Liberal budget for political survival doesn’t imply the necessity of junking the whole conservative agenda,” writes Flanagan;

· Be conservative in substance but trans-partisan in style. For an example of the latter, see Barack Obama. Obama is the most ideologically left-wing president since Lyndon Johnson (if not Franklin Roosevelt) but Obama has successfully been seen as “above” politics because of his surface willingness to engage opponents in a friendly manner.

Was Nicholls right?

A question naturally arises: given Flanagan’s new wariness of how the Tories have acted in power, were critics such as Nicholls right all along and Flanagan wrong?

That question isn’t of much help. It’s akin to asking if Savonarola erred in his criticism of the Catholic church in the 1490s when in fact Savonarola was correct about its many faults. But the question is not whether Harper and co. have departed from some purity on sensible policy on occasion; they surely have. A more useful question is why, and then a secondary follow-up is how to convince not only governing Tories of the sense of our preferred policies – many in the caucus chafe at the overspending, corporate welfare, defeatist rhetoric on Afghanistan, and Quebec pandering – but how to persuade other parties, those in the media, bureaucracy and ultimately the public on the usefulness of conservative ideas and remedies on those and other matters.

And it is here that Nicholls misses the mark and could, along with some other critics, learn from another Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Machiavelli’s take on Savonarola was that he was a “prophet without arms,” meaning he could not ultimately win because rhetoric isn’t enough; it requires resources and troops-literal or figuratively understood, to win against established interests. The Medicis had such arms, be it troops, and public opinion after Florentines soured on Savonarola’s too-pure abstract ideals without paying attention to the behaviour of Renaissance Italians.

Nicholls and many libertarians too often cloak this debate in the language of religion: purity, devotion, betrayal, what constitutes a “good” conservative and so forth, without much attention to why a politician or average voter should buy what small-c conservatives sell.

A useful counter-example to Nicholls is Macleans columnist Andrew Coyne. Since the Conservatives took power in 2006, Coyne has made no secret of his many disappointments with their rule. But Coyne will tell readers why the GST cut is dumb policy vis-à-vis cuts to capital, income or business taxes; Coyne takes the time to explain why corporate welfare is a bad idea, why expensive high-speed trains are ill-suited to Canada, and why taxpayer funding for political parties is not just bad conservatism but poor public policy.

In contrast, in Loyal to the Core, this absence of explanation is replaced by a personal narrative that is wholly unhelpful. Thus, the book is unsatisfying as analysis and in part because Nicholls mentions himself time and again and with generous self-flattery. Thus, he begins the book by only half-jokingly referring to himself as one of the “top five political minds in the country.” In just the first four pages of the book, Nicholls references himself 22 times. He also informs the reader the purpose of the book is, alternately, a way of saying thank you to former National Citizen Coalition supporters, and/or a form of therapy. [6]

Nicholls also engages in unnecessary, personal diversions. For instance, was it really necessary to inform readers some NCCers called Harper “fat boy” behind his back? Then the book is also hollowed out by his fantastical claim that Nicholls himself “probably saved the Harper team’s bacon” in the 2002 Alliance leadership campaign. Moreover, Nicholls claims Harper had surrounded himself with “egghead amateurs who clearly didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing,” i.e., Ian Brodie — Harper’s chief of staff, and of course, Tom Flanagan.

In a similar manner, Nicholls slags others, including Mark Kihn, a Conservative party fundraiser and Harper confidante from the 1990s onward. He describes Kihn, past owner and editor of a cattle magazine, as “an expert on bull semen and cow breeding [but one who] knew very little about politics or advocacy or fundraising.”

Problematically for Nicholls, those around the NCC the same time as Nicholls, Harper, and Kihn have a different take on the skills of Kihn and Nicholls. Also, Kihn, Brodie and Flanagan, unlike Nicholls, are probably three of five or six people responsible for getting Stephen Harper to the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, then the merged Conservatives, and into 24 Sussex — where at least some conservative policy has been implemented — say on international matters of some importance such as Israel and on international economics, i.e., nine free trade agreements. Thus, the results of what Kihn, Brodie, Flanagan and Harper and a few select others have been up to — unification of two parties and two election wins, speaks louder than score-settling, all too frequent and transparent and which mar Loyal to the Core.

General principles are not enough: Where’s the policy beef?

Insofar as Loyal is meant to help small-c conservatives advance their agenda culturally and politically, the book skips over the two most important elements: a discussion of policy beyond generalities and trench-fighting—i.e., how to organize a party to win, or at least advice to the blue elements within the Conservative party on how to have more influence, capture more ridings, and to advance their candidates, advice which Flanagan does provide in Harper’s Team.

Instead, Nicholls writes in generalities and bromides. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Mike Harris are invoked as patron saints that conservatives/libertarians should follow — fine, and they are rightly admired as conservatives who led and accomplished much of substance. But Thatcher and Harris also had majorities; Reagan, whose Republicans were always outnumbered in the House and in the Senate most years, luckily had “Reagan Democrats” who helped pass portions of his agenda. Stephen Harper has no such equivalent in the Canadian Parliament.

Nicholls also misses part of the historical record of Thatcher, Reagan and Harris that turn out not to be so conservative either. Smaller government was never a Reagan success — he enlarged it over eight years. Harris was as “socialist” on health care as Nicholls accuses Harper of being and Harris couldn’t be bothered to even privatize a single liquor store. And in a colossal big government-promoting blunder, it was the Ontario Progressive Conservatives who pushed amalgamation of the cities. That destroyed natural competition between Ontario’s municipalities; a straight line can be drawn from the PC’s forced amalgamations of Ontario cities in the 1990s to David Miller’s bureaucrat-heavy Toronto in 2009. Harris did some good conservative work – but also missed much else that could have been implemented during his terms.

As for Thatcher, despite her many conservative successes, even the Iron Lady couldn’t push conservative ideas without regard to the consequences: Thatcher ultimately lost power after pushing a poll tax—a defensible conservative policy which posited the inverse of the Boston Tea party: representation without taxation is also undesirable as it leads to political demands to spend someone else’s money. But she lost her job on just that principle.

None of that excuses Prime Minister Harper and caucus from battles they have chosen not to fight, including even rhetorically. Reagan, Thatcher and Harris rarely gave rhetorical ground in the manner as has Harper–a surprise for anyone vaguely acquainted with Harper and his ability to rhetorically put most anyone on the political defensive. It is one thing to excuse a few of Harper’s policies on the grounds of a mathematical minority impossibility to do otherwise; it is quite another for Harper to imitate both the policy and rhetoric from past Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. Think of corporate welfare and regional development agencies, to note just two examples.

Still, if Harper has not always been engaged in the verbal war of ideas, his former colleague at the NCC, Nicholls, mostly ignores discussions of policy. In Loyal to the Core, Nicholls asserts that “winning the war of ideas is more important than winning elections.” True enough, but the author rarely discusses why his ideas are preferable to those from liberals and socialists. The result is platitudes of the left are only matched by nostrums from the right instead of surgical eviscerations which would be of far more use.

Instead, Loyal to the Core serves as a podium for paybacks, for personal attacks – “ideological eggheads” with reference to Harper’s campaign staff and “cheapskate” with reference to Harper not buying Nicholls a computer in his NCC days, and as a canvas for broad-brush accusations about his former colleague.

But even where Nicholls’ charge that Harper has failed to be as conservative as he might is accurate, it might only provoke a “so what” shrug from much of the public who are not as conservative/libertarian as Nicholls. It is here – where conservatives interact with the public, where discussions of ideas and policy then become critical but which are mostly ignored in Loyal to the Core and elsewhere.

Conservatives should learn from the other Florentine

To move the public, Nicholls and others who dislike where the Tories have gone must more often discuss ideas and not labels, policies and not personalities. They must explain to the public, press and politicians why a particular idea or policy is preferable—or not. But this is something Nicholls and too many others rarely do. Think tanks and some advocacy groups do this—the economic and moral idiocy of corporate welfare has been explained in great detail by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Fraser Institute; in its heyday, Nicholls and the National Citizens Coalition once did a bang-up job of explaining the “why” of why gag laws should be opposed (and also fighting them); the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies has properly pummelled equalization and showed why such programs are a public policy disaster. The list could be lengthened with other groups and a multitude of issues.

But Nicholls rarely engages the reader in such conversations. Instead, the reader is treated to Savonarola-like sermons about ideological purity combined with some personal score-settling and elf-disclosure. Problematically, Savonarola met his end because he didn’t pay attention to what Machiavelli later observed was needed to win: arms.

In the context of modern-day domestic (and thankfully, peaceful) politics, “arms” are equivalent to massive public support, on-side bureaucrats, and the media–or a majority government, though ultimately, without public support for an initiative, even majorities will find themselves quickly stymied by an offside bureaucracy or a hostile media. In short, those who want to change policy must find enough support somewhere — in the bureaucracy, parliament, media, or in the public to effect change. And ultimately, the last group is the most important. Without public support, any initiative will fail in time, no matter the parliamentary majority or ideological purity of a leader.

But to garner such arms, greater public support et al, requires sustained attention to the justifications for this or that policy, not just religious-like incantations of betrayal or purity. After all, the argument from conservatives is supposed to be that that certain things work better than others and can be empirically verified–e.g., that markets create wealth better than overbearing regulation and excessive redistribution; that human nature has a fixed side which policies and laws must conform to if the reality of human experience is to be reflected in public life.

If that is so, then a burden falls on libertarians/conservatives to explain how their ideas and policies would work in practice, be it in health care, the size of government, foreign affairs, education, or other issues. It is not enough merely to say idea battles are important—of course they are, but to explain what those ideas are and how they would improve the life of men and women. Ideological “slagging” of others is not enough; in fact, it is usually counter-productive.

Savonarola was not wrong in his condemnation of the excesses of Rome or of its local religiously-connected rulers in Florence. But the Medicis were also correct to observe that Savonarola was a priest who didn’t recognize the practical difficulties in governing actual human beings. And it was they who ultimately triumphed because when Savonarola overreached, he gave them a chance to reassert their authority. They could do so precisely because by then they had both soldiers on their side and much public support. They knew the basis of real power later alluded to by that other Florentine, Machiavelli: even if your cause is just, without support and a means to implement change and make it permanent, rhetoric alone comes to nothing.

Mark Milke is chairman of the C2C editorial board and research director of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

[1] Alexander, Sidney. 1974. Lions and Foxed: Men of the Italian Renaissance. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.

[2] Durant, Will. 1953. The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 A.D. New York: Simon and Schuster: 1953, p. 147.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicholls, Gerry. 2009. Loyal to the Core: Stephen Harper, Me, and the NCC. Jordan Station: Freedom Press, pp.161-166.

[5] Flanagan, Tom. 2009. Harper’s Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, p. 283.

[6] Some background here is helpful. Nicholls was fired from the NCC several years ago; he claims it was because he was being too critical of his former colleague, Stephen Harper, and that made some in the organization uncomfortable. Others close to the NCC have a different version.

Like this article?


Leave a comment