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  • Machiavellian Democracy in the Good Society
  • John P. McCormick (bio)

I thank the editors of The Good Society, and Jeremy Janow, particularly, for organizing last issue's symposium1 on Machiavellian Democracy.2 The participants exceeded my highest aspirations for what the most intelligent and informed reviewers might take away from the book. An author could not wish for commentators to apprehend with greater perspicacity, and reproduced with comparable fidelity, their book's arguments and aims. I am especially flattered by the genuine enthusiasm and excitement that they expressed for the project throughout their remarks—even in the most critical passages.

In particular, Arlene Saxonhouse 'got' what I was up to. She understands precisely the stakes raised by my enlistment of Machiavelli in a frontal assault on the unreflective and deleterious equation of elections with democracy today. Moreover, despite her self-professed Socratic affinities,3 she faithfully captures the Machiavellian spirit that I'd hoped my book would exude. Saxonhouse admirably and deftly combines the mischievous playfulness and deathly seriousness of the Florentine's political writings.

As for the other commentators, I'll respond first to those who are primarily interested in contemporary institutional reform and then to those focused more generally on the principles and practices of popular government. [End Page 90]

Institutional Innovation: Too Much or Too Little?

I'm delighted by the care and precision with which Kevin O'Leary, Graham Smith (and his collaborator, David Owen), Melissa Schwartzberg and Andrew Rehfeld engaged my institutional proposal for a plebeian tribunate. They take it in the spirit that I offered it—not as a straightforward reform proposal but as a thought experiment; not as something to be instituted as-is, but as a provocation to further conversation.4 Most of the contributors to the symposium intimate in one way or another that the proposal is too bold to be adopted, but that, even if instituted, it is too meek to accomplish what I'd want it to do. In any case, those who concentrated on the proposal offered perceptive, illuminating and indispensable criticisms for any contemporary effort aimed at improving democracy through institutional reforms.

O'Leary helpfully compares the pros and cons of his own exciting proposal for a People's House with my proposal for a People's Tribunate.5 The aspect of O'Leary's model that I most admire is the large number of citizens, previously excluded from direct governing, that it would immediately empower: it brings into the governing process thousands (43,500) of citizens rather than just the 51 that I do in any given year. In O'Leary's model, large numbers and random selection directly and actively empower newly mobilized citizens. My model, by contrast, only indirectly and hypothetically creates mass democratizing effects: I intend the class-specificity of the Tribunate to provoke and maintain a class-consciousness that would in turn, hopefully, result in further citizen participation and empowerment.6

I do worry that O'Leary's reliance on randomization alone poses the risk of allowing white, wealthy, educated professionals to dominate proceedings within his House. However, he correctly points out that because the number of my plebeian tribunes is so small—despite the fact that they are chosen through a combination of randomization and class-specificity—tribunes would still be susceptible to corruption and cooptation. Rehfeld adds the concern that, whether or not they are tempted or intimidated by wealthy or powerful elites, tribunes will, on their own initiative, exploit their new-found privilege and status by seeking rents or pursuing celebrity. These are serious [End Page 91] concerns, especially since the punishment that Machiavelli recommended to deter political corruption (whether externally or internally generated), capital punishment, is unlikely to be revived to threaten corruptible public officials in liberal democracies any time soon.

While formulating the proposal, I was aware of the fact that the Tribunate might be too small to serve as an assembly and too large to function as a magistracy. Examples of the Roman and Florentine assemblies discussed in the book range in size from 1,000 to 25,000 citizens, and collegial magistracies in such republics ranged in size from 2 to 10 officers. I...


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