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  • The Ferocity of Hope:Accountability and the People's Tribunate in Machiavellian Democracy
  • Melissa Schwartzberg (bio)

In Machiavellian Democracy, John McCormick elegantly highlights the "ferocious populism" inherent in Machiavelli's writings. McCormick distinguishes his reading from that of the Cambridge School, emphasizing that interpreting Machiavelli within the republican tradition fails to do justice to Machiavelli's anti-elitism. Whereas republicanism both in its historical and contemporary forms is in many respects compatible with aristocratic rule and hostile to popular agency, McCormick's reading of Machiavelli affirms the importance of institutions designed to give the people—the economic lower classes in particular—a means of keeping elites accountable and an active role in political life.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is largely interpretive, focusing on arguments for popular participation in the Prince and the Discourses; the second discusses Machiavelli's analysis of the way in which institutions structure the motivational logic of citizens and elites in Rome and Florence in particular; and the third provides a normative critique of the aristocratic impulses of even contemporary republicanism, accompanied by institutional prescriptions for challenging elite domination along Machiavellian lines. Throughout the book, McCormick's reading of Machiavelli is both careful and bracing, a rare combination. For instance, within the first third, the discussion of Machiavelli's relationship with the two dedicatees of the Discourses, Cosimo Rucellai and Zanobi Buondelmonti, is especially interesting. There McCormick demonstrates persuasively that Machiavelli encourages the grandi to believe that the stability of the [End Page 216] republic, and thus their capacity to satisfy their oppressive desires, depends upon their willingness to permit themselves to be restrained through popular institutions (and encourages them to express their tyrannical impulses externally through empire). The second part of the book, in particular, ought to be assigned in graduate seminars as a model for how to study institutional design within the history of political thought, and what benefits such scholarship might hold for contemporary political science. In an examination of Machiavelli's discussions of political trials, popular assemblies, and selection mechanisms for magistrates using both lot and election, McCormick affirms Machiavelli's sophistication as an institutional strategist, as he considers how to persuade elites to accept constraints on their rule and encourages us to reflect on the alternatives democrats might have at their disposal to improve elite accountability.

My focus in this essay is not McCormick's historical contribution, neither in terms of the interpretation of Machiavelli nor in his examinations of Florentine institutions, both of which I find overwhelmingly compelling. Instead, my aim is to examine the institutional prescriptions that McCormick provides in the last third of the book. In particular, I seek to ask: what are the problems of accountability generated by elections and by elite domination, and how normatively attractive are McCormick's proposed remedies? I first turn to electoral accountability and the use of political trials as a means of controlling elites, and then to the institution of the People's Tribunate and its exercise of veto power. The Tribunate would be comprised of fifty-one private citizens chosen by lottery for a year, excludes those who have held major elective office for two consecutive terms, and, most importantly, those whose net household worth equals or exceeds $345,000.1

First, let us examine the problem of electoral accountability. Failures of accountability are both real and vexing, and McCormick should be praised for his thoughtful and creative attention to these issues. Nonetheless we should distinguish between problems associated with the capacity of elections to ensure accountability from those associated with the elite monopoly on access to political office. Efforts at inclusion—of ensuring that members of lower economic classes stand as candidates for office—will not remedy many of the problems associated with the former. That is, the problems of accountability are structural within elections and representation more [End Page 217] generally, and are not merely a function of the venality or indifference of elites. The reasons for this are familiar within democratic theory.2 Voters' capacity to monitor representatives is limited, and the criteria for judging them retrospectively ambiguous. Some of these problems are associated with informational problems and asymmetries. It is difficult to...


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pp. 216-225
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