- "Machiavellian Democracy," Differentiated Citizenship, and Civic Unity
If it had appeared at any time, John McCormick's Machiavellian Democracy would merit recognition as a major contribution to democratic theory. Its publication in 2011, as leaders of reeling and sharply inegalitarian economies in the U.S. and Europe seemed to find it impossible to contemplate any remedies that did not reinforce the advantages of the wealthy, has proven particularly apt. McCormick's core argument—that the modern democratic emphasis on treating the members of a political community as an "absolute, indivisible, and unitary . . . 'sovereign people'" often operates to permit the wealthy few to shape policies in their interests, against those of most of the populace—is being abundantly illustrated at every turn.1 As he acknowledges, it may be debatable whether all or some of McCormick's proposed institutional remedies, including lotteries, class-specific institutions such as reserved seats in legislative assemblies and popular tribunes, and popular political trials, are desirable in modern constitutional democracies like the United States. But his work pushes those questions squarely onto the agenda of modern democratic theory.
Rather than attempting a definitive evaluation of these proposals here, I wish to contribute to reflection on them by highlighting two pertinent features of the politics of citizenship that I see as central for modern democratic theory. These are first, the challenge of achieving forms of differentiated citizenship that help realize meaningful civic equality instead of systemic subordination, oppression, and exclusion; and second, the challenge of fostering senses of civic unity sufficiently strong to facilitate [End Page 240] many forms of human fulfillment, without either spurring vicious political chauvinism or unduly privileging the interests, preferences, and identities of some members over others. I argue first, that the class-based proposals of McCormick's "Machiavellian democracy" represent calls for forms of explicitly differentiated citizenship that are clearly valuable for some purposes, but not so clearly more desirable than all other forms of differentiated citizenship, as he sometimes appears to suggest; and second, that their advocacy requires more of an answer to the unavoidable task of promoting senses of shared civic identity and civic unity than McCormick has elaborated. These arguments do not suggest that the path McCormick lays out should not be pursued. Instead they specify two rather treacherous bridges that would have to be crossed along the way.
The question of differentiated citizenship was first raised most forcefully in the works of McCormick's late colleague, Iris Young, as part of normative arguments for granting institutional recognition to a wide range of categories of people she saw as oppressed, including, "women, Blacks, Hispanics, gay men and lesbians, old people, and other marked groups."2 Differentiated, or "semi-citizenship," has also recently received valuable analytical elaboration from Elizabeth Cohen, who sets normative considerations aside and instead stresses the political "inevitability" of the structuring of citizenship in different ways for different sets of persons, including children, the disabled, and the naturalized, as well as other, "recognizable identity groups."3 I have contended similarly that, "most American governing officials and most American citizens still believe that people (and corporations) have many different characteristics that the law, including laws defining access to citizenship and the rights and duties of citizenship, must somehow recognize—even if Americans disagree about the forms such legal recognition should take."4 American law does not really define citizenship uniformly and is never likely to do so. As a result, America today, along with other 21st century democracies, faces what might be termed "the problem of the [End Page 241] difference lines"—the continuing challenge of deciding when extending to some groups particular legal rights and obligations that are not assigned to all represents a way of promoting rough civic equality in the face of actually differing resources, opportunities, and aspirations, and when doing so instead imposes on some groups inappropriately subordinated or marginalized civic statuses.5
McCormick's proposals represent explicit forms of class-based "differentiated citizenship." He suggests, among other ideas, the creation of "people's tribunes," who might have limited but meaningful powers to veto congressional legislation, executive orders, and Supreme Court decisions, to call national referenda, and to impeach federal...