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  • Learning How Not to Be Good:A Plebeian Perspective
  • Jeffrey Edward Green (bio)

"In the world there is no one but the vulgar."1

The major political reforms proposed in John McCormick's Machiavellian Democracy comprise what might be termed a "plebeian" model of democracy—one inspired by the plebeian democracy of late republican Rome, which at once formally differentiated first-class citizens (Senators and Equestrians) from second-class citizens (plebeians), but, unlike other polities with hierarchical social structures based on differentiated socioeconomic classes, relied on such differentiation to combat, and not just cement, elite power. In Rome, aristocratic citizens had disproportionate voting rights and were solely able to run for high office, but at the same time they were subject to various special economic burdens2 and also had to face, among other things, the Tribunes of the Plebs (elected by and for the plebeians) who had the power to survey, veto, and bring criminal accusations against Roman elites.3 McCormick's main proposals for contemporary democracy—a tribunical body composed of non-elite citizens with the authority to veto laws and bring charges against elite citizens, the use of sortition (in conjunction with election) for the nomination and selection of leaders in order to break economic elites' hold on electoral power, and an expanded capacity for ordinary citizens to deliberate and make public judgments, especially judgments in political trials of political elites—follow this underlying logic of introducing differentiated citizenship to contest, rather than to elevate, those with the most economic and political power within a democracy. [End Page 184] Their primary purpose is to generate increased elite accountability, above and beyond what is secured through the conventional institutions of electoral democracy. Taking seriously the division between the few and many in a way that most leading democratic theorists do not, these proposals embody what McCormick calls a "plebeian republicanism" that can help the "plebeians of modern republics" combat the ever-present threat of manipulation and domination from the most powerful members of society.4

I shall assume for the sake of this essay that McCormick's proposals are good ones: that he is right about the threat economic inequality poses to democracy, that differentiated institutions like a revived tribunate are an appropriate response for confronting this threat, and that democrats ought to cultivate a will-to-regulate the most advantaged members of society. The question I want to ask is in what sense these commitments are Machiavellian—and whether Machiavelli suggests anything about the ethical disposition ordinary citizens need to muster in order to implement and maintain the institutions of plebeian democracy.

McCormick classifies his model of plebeian democracy as "Machiavellian" primarily for two reasons. Sociologically, Machiavelli's famous diagnosis of all politics in terms of a contestation between two classes of people—the few whose insatiable ambition will lead them to try to oppress as many people as they can and the many who want merely not to be oppressed5—provides the rationale for maintaining hyper-vigilance vis-à-vis economic and political elites, even within contemporary democratic states lacking formalized aristocratic orders. And institutionally, Machiavelli's sympathetic analysis of the Roman tribunate, his proposals for magistracies reserved for non-elite citizens in his own Florence, his support of sortition, his advocacy of a citizenry with an expanded power to accuse and adjudicate political crimes, and his repeated observation of the overlap of economic and political power all inspire McCormick's own proposed constitutional reforms. In emphasizing these two aspects, Machiavellian Democracy paves fresh ground not only in trying to resolve the perennial question of whether Machiavelli favored principalities or popular governments, but, in its advocacy of the latter interpretation, also takes aim at recent so-called Cambridge School theorists. They (Skinner, Pocock, and Pettit, among others)—both as interpreters of Machiavelli as a republican and as advocates of republicanism—remain for McCormick insufficiently attentive to socioeconomic inequality as a threat to liberty and unduly satisfied with electoral and deliberative institutions that do not, like the tribunate, place explicit public pressure on political and economic elites. As a contribution to the scholarship on [End Page 185] Machiavelli, Machiavellian Democracy will prove an important work that, in...


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