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  • Incentivize the Powerful or Empower the Poor?Thoughts on John McCormick's Machiavellian Democracy
  • Andrew Rehfeld (bio)

On September 16, 2008, US Treasury Secretary Stanley Paulson and Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke held a "closed door meeting" with members of congress at which they shared information about the pending financial crisis. The next day one of those attendees, Congressman Jim Moran, sold off his financial shares in companies that stood to be affected. Because legislators are apparently not forbidden to trade on information gleaned as a result of their insider access, the trade was legal.1 While the political benefits of wealth is well documented through the influence of money on politics, the economic benefits of political power should now be abundantly clear as well. In neither case does the public good seem to be much enhanced. A rising tide may raise all boats, but increasingly it appears that the political and economic elite are simply siphoning off water to play in their own reservoir. As the global economic crises of the past 3 years continue to spread misery to those outside of the top 90% of whatever measure one uses of wealth and political influence, one has to wonder whether our current institutions are really up to the task.

In Machiavellian Democracy, John McCormick believes he has found an answer by drawing on Machiavelli's analysis of Rome, Florence, and Venice.2 By McCormick's reading, Machiavelli recognized the usefulness of holding the elite accountable to the non-elite by distributing to them some political offices with the power to sanction elites for their political service. These institutions also served as public reminders that economic and political inequalities mattered even if they were not always readily apparent. [End Page 226] A cogent and provocative analysis, Machiavellian Democracy is a trifecta of political theory, for it uses the history of political thought to discover something about the past with an eye to solving contemporary political problems.

To say that McCormick's analysis is well timed is an understatement. Not only has wealth and political power become more concentrated than ever, according to the Brookings Institution, concentrated poverty has also spiked in America, with over 10% of poor Americans living in neighborhoods of extreme poverty, areas in which "40 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line." While that level is still down from 14% in 1990, it is up from last year and in any case is troubling.3 The economic collapse of 2008 through the more recent "Occupy" movements around the globe has put the oppressive power of economic and political elites back on the mainstream political map.4 The recent US Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that permits the virtually unlimited flow of money for political advertisements could not make these concerns more pressing in the United States.5 As we watch members of the ruling class devise solutions to these global economic woes, one need not be Machiavelli or McCormick to wonder whether foxes are the right ones to guard the hen house.

How then to constrain the foxes and put their wiles to the good use of all? McCormick is certainly right that beyond the infrequent election cycles, western democracies have no institutional mechanisms to hold the rich and powerful to account for their work. Votes matter, but can be neutralized and manipulated whether through money for advertisements, redistricting to ensure future electoral success or other rhetorical measures.6 Further, a patina of democratic myths hides the pernicious reality of increasing political and economic inequality. The most familiar of these myths is the inspirational but difficult to realize "American dream;" as pernicious are the stupefying dictums of "one-person-one-vote" and "every vote counts." It is not that people shouldn't have equal votes or that their votes don't count. It is just that, as McCormick emphasizes, equal voting is hardly enough to ensure a "mechanism of elite accountability and responsiveness."7

To remedy the situation, McCormick updates Machiavelli's insights leading, in my view, to the most provocative and imaginative aspect of his work: a call for a People's Tribunate, a small body of 51 citizens randomly...


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pp. 226-239
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