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  • Republicanism:Democratic or Popular?
  • Nadia Urbinati (bio)

What can contemporary representative democracies learn from Roman and Florentine models of popular government? Is a representative and constitutional democracy able to amend its chronic elitism by devising institutions that give ordinary citizens as "groups" the power to judge and punish "suspect elites" by taking away from them the privilege of being exclusively under the judgment of "their official peers and adversaries in government"?1 These are the questions that drive John McCormick's Machiavellian Democracy, which reinterprets Niccolò Machiavelli's republicanism and proposes institutional innovations that would recover contemporary democracy from its oligarchic decline. The link between these two tasks consists in a radical critique of the neo-Roman model of republicanism as it was put forth by the Cambridge School. McCormick questions the identity of republicanism for the sake of realigning it with what, according to him, has been its central question since antiquity: how the common people can counter, limit, and punish domination or arbitrary interference by power holders, not simply how to counter it. McCormick does not think that the existing constitutional provisions and institutional checks and balances are effective because they were created precisely in order to contain the democratic element. In short, if we want to recover our republics from their oligarchic decline we should first look back to ancient and early modern republics and properly understand their character, both their senatorial and oligarchic component and their democratic and popular one. [End Page 157]

In this essay I will focus on one issue in particular, in relation to which McCormick advances his proposal of reinstituting the Tribune of the Plebs for contemporary democracy: his idea that pre-modern republics, with their anti-individualist and anti-egalitarian foundations, can provide us with solutions and strategies that can make our political liberty more secure and effective. What I intend to discuss is his idea that the endogenous elitism of representative democracy can be contained by institutions that, like the Tribunate, have a "group-specific character," or are tailored to the idea that a good political order should be modeled on the premise that citizens are not all equal in social power nor that they can be. Since citizens are grouped in socio-economic clusters by virtue of their wealth, social status and political power, institutions are needed to defend the weak class from the abuses of the elite. This argument, which mixes normative and descriptive levels, relies upon Bernard Manin's theory of representative government as a mix of oligarchy and democracy, according to which electoral selection creates a break in political equality so that some will only rule and the large majority will only be ruled. We should, McCormick explains, start from this bare fact and recognize that our elected oligarchies resemble somewhat those of ancient Rome and pre-modern Florence. Thus, we need to resort to the kinds of counter-power strategies that those old cities were able to devise and more or less proficiently implement. We should in fact treat our constitutional democracies as what they actually are: mixed-governments in which two parts of the population conflict and mediate one another without ever mingling. If we want to protect liberty, we have to first know who the greatest beneficiary of it is and whether we all enjoy the same liberty indiscriminately.

McCormick questions the egalitarian conception of modern democracy as it was formulated in the eighteenth century, not because he does not believe in equality but because he thinks that the doctrine of popular sovereignty upon which representative democracy was edified is responsible for inducing in us the illusion that we all enjoy equal power as citizens. Hence, since the equality of the citizens is an ideological refurbishment for the sake of concealing the inegalitarian structure of society, it is imperative we take off the veil of formal equality and recognize the class structure of politics. Society is made of two parts, and republicans who love liberty ought to recognize that the Bill of Rights and the US system of checks and balances do a poor job because they presume something that does not actually exist: a polity made of equal individual citizens. It is...


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pp. 157-169
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