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  • Machiavellian Democracy:An Engine for Reform
  • Kevin O'Leary (bio)

Machiavellian Democracy, a sterling effort by John McCormick to rescue the Florentine sage from a conservative civic republican tradition, is at its heart a plea to take modern democracy back to the future.1 McCormick believes the elitist procedural account of popular sovereignty, as championed by writers from Guicciardini to Schumpeter, sanctions elective oligarchy and control over public policy by the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.2 "Modern popular governments are no less vulnerable than their historical antecedents to corruption, subversion, and usurpation by the wealthy," writes McCormick.3 In the case of the United States, recent work by Larry Bartels, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson and David Cay Johnston, among others, documents the great success America's economic elite have enjoyed in shaping policy and tax rules to their liking since 1980.4 Given this economic and political fact, how can average citizens maintain control of the government?

McCormick's scholarship on Machiavelli is exciting and valuable in several respects.5 First, he convincingly demonstrates that Machiavelli is one of the few major political philosophers who is a radical democrat and that Machiavelli went well beyond others in the republican tradition in defending and championing popular rule not by the well-bred gentry, but the people themselves. Second, along with Bernard Manin's The Principles of Representative Government, McCormick allows us to break free from the view that modern democracy is fundamentally a choice between the romantic Rousseau and the elitist Schumpeter, with a theorist [End Page 141] such as Benjamin Barber leaning toward Rousseau and a scholar such as Robert Dahl, in his early work, working in the same room as Schumpeter.6 Manin champions choice by lot and iségoria (the equal right to speak in the Assembly), while McCormick articulates Machiavelli's understanding of class-based politics as being essential to both democracy and freedom and excavates the tribune and assembly model of popular rule. Together, McCormick and Manin dramatically reframe the debate between defenders of the current democratic status quo and their critics.

In the case of the United States and modern constitutional democracy, McCormick writes, "Arguably, the aristocratic character of elections and the abandonment of class-specific or directly participatory practices portended the pacification of modern democracy before its triumph."7 Stillborn. McCormick's rich account of Roman institutions as seen through Machiavelli's eyes allows us to view elective oligarchy for what it is and to consider the tribune and assembly path not taken at the Founding.

Ever since Walter Lippmann's famous debate with John Dewey at the start of the twentieth century, the defenders of democracy as elections and the set of rights lumped together as polyarchy have held the upper hand over those who argue that democracy means something more than the rule of law, competitive oligarchy, and the substitution of the myth of popular sovereignty for the myth of monarchy.8 Part of the advantage held by Lippmann, Schumpeter, and early Dahl was the understanding that the scale, complexity and economic speed of modern life completely outstripped Rousseau's bucolic vision in The Social Contract.9 For those who read Rousseau closely it is clear his project is existential and utopian. Rousseau wants to know if complete moral freedom is possible while living in society. His radical project reaches beyond democracy to aspirations for an unfettered authentic life and his mental experiment leads him to the perfect city-state republic—an entity too small and too homogenous to exist in the modern era.10

Reading Manin and McCormick helps us appreciate the degree to which the American founders were conservative revolutionaries. On the one hand, the Founders rejected monarchy and opened the door to modern democracy. On the other hand, Madison and his colleagues proposed a representative structure that consciously kept the people at arms length and defined the key danger as instability from below, not corruption from above. As McCormick writes, "Madison achieved the de facto elitist results desired by [End Page 142] Machiavelli's aristocratic-republican contemporary, Guicciardini, without resorting to the overtly elitist, formal restrictions on the general populace's participation in politics that the...


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pp. 141-156
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