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  • Machiavellian Democratic Innovations:McCormick's People's Tribunate
  • Graham Smith (bio) and David Owen (bio)

In Machiavellian Democracy,1 John McCormick offers an intriguing re-reading of Machiavelli's commitment to democracy and his suggestions for institutional reform. Central to this re-interpretation is a distinction that Machiavelli draws between the humours of patricians and plebians: the interests of the political-economic elite lie in the domination of common citizens; the interests of common citizens are in avoiding such domination. In order for common citizens to protect their interests within the republic, institutions need to be crafted that give them the power to hold elites accountable for their actions, through for example the power to veto and propose legislation and to sanction official misbehaviour. Most of the book focuses on Machiavelli's analysis of the political situation in Florence and his celebration of the Roman tribunes. However, in the last chapter McCormick draws lessons from Machiavelli's insights to provide a provocative institutional design to remedy specific contemporary democratic ills. And for McCormick, these democratic deficits are not so different from those faced by pre-modern republics: first, "the absence of extra-electoral means by which the general citizenry renders political elites accountable;" and second, "the lack of a quasi-formal distinction between economic-political elites and common citizens."2 [End Page 203]

To this end, Machiavellian Democracy concludes with a provocative suggestion for institutional reform:

I propose the establishment of a People's Tribunate of fifty-one lottery-selected, nonwealthy citizens who would wield powers reminiscent of those entrusted to the Roman tribunes for one-year non-renewable terms.3

McCormick makes clear that this is a thought experiment "intended to contribute in a constructive way to the burgeoning literature and practical trend in institutional reform . . . . This is a heuristic proposal intended for critical but not necessarily practical purposes; it is meant to be loosely instructive rather than strictly prescriptive."4

This commentary attempts two things. First, it sketches McCormick's reading of Machiavelli and explores the contemporary salience of Machiavelli's argument on the significance of the humours. Second, it brings McCormick's institutional thought experiment into dialogue with current trends in institutional design, in particular what is often termed 'democratic innovations': institutions that aim to increase and deepen citizen participation in political decision making.5 This is arguably one of the most vibrant areas of analysis in institutional design and McCormick's proposal provides a valuable vantage point from which we can interrogate the assumptions and limits of the current trajectory of this area of work.

I.

A central feature of Machiavelli's break with the traditional reading of the history of the Roman Republic is his insistence that the institutionalisation of class conflict was central to the longevity and robustness of the Republic. This remains a controversial claim but, for Machiavelli, the nobles and plebians are characterised by distinct 'humours' that arise from their relational constitution as opposed class/status groups. This feature is fundamental to McCormick's compelling re-interpretation of Machiavelli and to the conclusions that he draws from Machiavelli's thought. There are three central strands to this re-interpretation.

The first explores the rhetorical and political character of The Discourses as a text which aims to persuade its youthful grandi dedicatees that the [End Page 204] Roman Republican model (rather than the Venetian model) offers the best bet for wealth and glory, and to show that, at least in some important areas, the wisdom of the people can be held to exceed that of the few. The second addresses Machiavelli's analysis of the class-bias of the seemingly neutral character of general, especially elected, bodies and the importance for political liberty and equality of both class-specific institutions such as the Tribunate from which the nobili were excluded and other mechanisms such as political trials when these were genuinely participatory. McCormick's basic claim here is that Machiavelli shows us that

the aristocratic effect and privileged access to resources and information enjoyed by magistrates in modern republics render elections inadequate mechanisms of elite accountability and responsiveness; moreover, a socio-political definition of the "the people" that includes wealthy citizens, rather than...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-9731
Print ISSN
1089-0017
Pages
pp. 203-215
Launched on MUSE
2012-02-16
Open Access
No
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