Machiavellian Democracy

John P. McCormick’s new book (Machiavellian Democracy, CUP, 2011) is a fascinating attempt to appropriate insights from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1513-17) in order to moderate some of the worst excesses of modern ‘democracy’ – in particular the Florentine’s advocacy of class-based magistracies to constrain the oppressive ‘humor’ of the grandi (political elite). Machiavelli’s template for this is the institutions of the Roman republic, especially the People’s Tribunes. Roman Tribunes were elected exclusively from plebeian ranks and were charged with popular advocacy; McCormick’s suggestion is that a modern equivalent (for the US) might involve fifty-one tribunes selected by an annual sortition from the whole population (apart from the wealthiest 10% of family households). The powers of the tribunes would be three-fold (p.184):

1.     To veto, by majority vote, one piece of congressional legislation, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision p.a.

2.     To call one annual referendum p.a. which, if ratified, would take on the force of federal statute.

3.     To initiate impeachment proceedings against one federal official from each of three branches of government. McCormick is particularly attracted to the Roman practice of political trials – any citizen could publicly accuse magistrates of malfeasance and this would prompt a hearing in a voting assembly, which could comprise the entire citizenry.

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