- Do We Need the Vote?Reflections on John McCormick's Machiavellian Democracy
I. Democracy Without the Vote
John P. McCormick has written a radical and outrageous book: he wants to imagine democracy without the vote. With Machiavelli at his side, McCormick shatters the deification of "the vote," that treasured activity which seems to define democracy in the modern world. We trace the spread of democracy as the expansion of opportunities to vote and see elections as "the institutional centerpiece of modern democracy."1 We proudly paste "I voted" stickers to our lapels as we leave the polling centers. Iconic pictures of newly enfranchised South Africans waiting to vote on lines that wind around the African plateaus or Iraqi ex-patriots traveling multiple hours to vote for the first time satisfy our sense of progress: the more people who vote, the better place the world is. McCormick, though, asks: "Is it?" Taking as his guide the radical and outrageous Machiavelli who challenged the givens of his own time, McCormick challenges the sacred beliefs of our democracy-focused world, marked as it is by a vote fetishism, or what McCormick calls "election fixation."2 The vote has failed us by not ensuring the liberty and security of those without social and economic resources. And so McCormick turns to Machiavelli, not the republican Machiavelli who has been the darling of political theorists of late, but the democratic Machiavelli of the title of his book, the one who understands that the real threat to freedom is the desire and power of the few to oppress the many. Machiavelli, in McCormick's reading, puts to shame all contemporary [End Page 170] theorists who imagine themselves as democrats but who, in their concern with the vote, only re-enforce a class structure that protects the social and economic elite.
For McCormick, Machiavelli understands that anything that preserves and/or augments the power of the elite is worthy of assault. Much recent literature on Machiavelli finds in him the quintessential exponent of a somewhat satisfying republicanism, demanding political engagement and a commitment to a common endeavor and offering fame and glory to the political regime as a whole. McCormick rejects such readings of the Florentine—especially those of the so-called "Cambridge School"—which cast Machiavelli as the founder of modern republicanism. Such readings fail, in McCormick's view, to capture the thoroughly revolutionary tenor of Machiavelli's critique of the elites who had treated him so poorly after the fall of the Florentine republic, the elites who seek in general to oppress those, like himself, without economic resources. According to McCormick, we can find in Machiavelli's reflections on events from ancient Rome and contemporary Italy insights that can help us establish and preserve democracies where the people will escape oppression. The insights from Machiavelli, though, do not lead to a dependence on those institutions—the vote, legislative bodies—we so commonly associate with democracy.
Despite the multitude of volumes and manuals highlighting the lessons that Machiavelli offers for one interested in acquiring and maintaining political power—be it in the business world, the world of academia, or even in the realm of love—Machiavelli is, for McCormick, the guide to the institutions necessary for a just and effective democratic regime. Machiavelli's value, McCormick suggests, lies not in guiding our behavior: telling us whether to be feared or to be loved, whether to keep faith with others, what to learn from the lion and the fox. We should use Machiavelli's writings instead as a manual for institution building: alerting us to the mechanisms that can ensure freedom and protection for the many against the power of the few. Students of behavioral politics trying to analyze why we vote the way we do, what influences our voting, whether the voter votes in ignorance or with knowledge of the issues—all those [End Page 171] studies that fill our scholarly journals—are asking the wrong questions insofar as they think their work supports the propagation of democratic regimes. Similarly, much of the work done in political theory in the area of political representation simply adds to a misconception of democracy, imagining that...