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.

According to McCormick, Machiavelli’s Discourses should be read as a work of radical democracy. He is scornful of attempts by Philip Pettit, Quentin Skinner and other ‘Cambridge-inspired’ neo-republicans to appropriate Machiavelli to their cause: ‘Democrats should worry when philosophers employ the language of “republicanism” ’ (p.141). This is because ‘Western philosophy emerged in hostile response to democratic politics and society’ (p.143).  Pettit, in particular, freely expresses his ‘suspicion of both popular judgment and majoritarian politics’ (p.146). Although Pettit does from time to time (e.g. 2010) mention sortition and the need for ‘indicative’ (descriptive) representation, the sort of extra-electoral contestatory institutions he advocates ‘function much more like the countermajoritarian ones typifying liberal constitutionalism – namely, upper legislative chambers and supreme courts’ (p.155). To Pettit, and other Cambridge-leaning neo-republicans, the problem with democracy is the tyranny of the majority, whereas to McCormick [and Machiavelli] the problem is the tyranny of the ruling elite.

McCormick’s analysis will prove appealing to many members of this forum and I strongly recommend reading the book. But I have a number of problems with it:

The underlying sociology of the book strikes me as strangely archaic, in particular the sharp distinction between the grandi (elite) and the populo (masses), each of which has its own characteristic ‘humor’. The former are characterised by ‘the unquenchable appetite to oppress that [Machiavelli] ascribes to them – correctly, I [McCormick] think’ (p.181). This demonic humor is contrasted with a romanticised notion of the populo: ‘the end of the people is more decent (onestà) than that of the great’ (p.24). But is this really fair? No doubt Bill Gates, just like his robber-baron predecessors, is anxious to be viewed by posterity as more than a successful designer of windows, but is his decision to donate most of his wealth to charitable causes compatible with the view that he and all his class are characterised by a ‘humor’ to oppress?

McCormick questions why neo-republicans (from the late eighteenth century onwards) dropped Machiavelli’s class-based analysis and acknowledges that it might have been because they were ‘heartened by what seemed to be a dawning “pluralist” commercial age when a wide spectrum of social groups, relatively equal in power and influence, might supplant the rich/poor cleavage that prevailed in the republics of previous ages’ (p.179). But even if they were wrong, and continuing economic inequalities are the deciding issue, how is it decided which group (elite or masses) empirical individuals belong to? I’ve been a small capitalist all my working life, and I don’t feel many urges to oppress my employees or any other fellow citizens.

This sort of analysis made more sense at a time when society was delineated along class lines (for example when Marx wrote Capital), but even at the time of the Roman republic it wasn’t quite so simple (as McCormick acknowledges): the patrician/plebian divide was a formal and hereditary distinction and did not map exactly onto economic statistics – so if the notion of a coherent political-economic elite was suspect even at that time, then how much more in a period of universal education, progressive taxation and (relative) social mobility?

But these are contentious issues and are not the main thrust of my criticism. McCormick is clear as to what sortive bodies do well:

Strong evidence suggests that common citizens, when provided with pertinent, even conflicting, information, and when given the chance to deliberate among themselves in such settings, come to well-informed and consensus-oriented judgments over policy (p.182).

The body of evidence that he refers to is primarily drawn from the experiments of the Stanford Center for Deliberative Democracy and the preceding sentence could well have been written by its director, James Fishkin, but then McCormick goes on to propose a ‘thought experiment’  (a Tribunate) that breaks pretty well every one of the principles that Fishkin has found necessary to ensure the effectiveness of sortive bodies:

1.     A sortive group comprising fifty-one members (especially when disproportionately weighted to favour African Americans and Native Americans) is not large enough to ensure accurate descriptive representation.

2.     Notwithstanding the sanctions proposed (ex-post indictment for corruption and misbehaviour), it will be comparatively easy for lobbyists to target such a small group and to conceal inducements in offshore bank accounts.

3.     Experiments in sortive democracy indicate that ‘pertinent, even conflicting, information’ is best ensured when it is ‘provided’, rather than invited. Given that members of the group are, ex hypothesi, amateurs, how are they to know which experts to invite? The reliance by the British Columbia Citizens Assembly on staffers’ advice would indicate that the adversarial model used by Fishkin’s DPs is a better way of ensuring balanced advocacy from expert witnesses.

4.     The proposal for the Tribunate to propose a referendum contravenes the descriptive-representative mandate of a sortive assembly.

5.     Given the gridlock built in to the US Constitution, is there really a need for yet another veto? Kevin O’Leary’s proposal for a ‘gate-opening’ function would make more practical sense (p.218, n.53).

McCormick dismisses the competing Guicciardini/Harrington model in which ‘senatorial bodies initiate or amend laws that the people, formally assembled, either acclaim or reject’ (p.182). But this is unfairly anachronistic – Machiavelli’s proposal has been duly updated for a large modern democracy but the competing model has been frozen in its original context. However, if we apply a similar treatment (as I have done to Harrington) the result is rather different. The defining principle of a senatorial body is aristocracy, and McCormick endorses throughout the book Manin’s ‘brilliant’ (p.173) account of election as the (democratic) method of selecting an aristocracy. If this is the case, then the modern filter for initiating legislative proposals is election – the ‘aristocrats’ who receive most votes in the election should be empowered to initiate and amend laws. Regarding the second element – the assembly of the people that acclaims or rejects laws – democratic norms would suggest that the assembly should be constituted by sortition. When Guicciardini and Harrington proposed their models, the educational gulf between the senate and the ‘prerogative tribe’ would have been so huge that there would be no way of the latter participating in active deliberation, hence the call for mere acclamation or rejection. In modern democracies this is no longer the case, so the ‘people, formally assembled’ would certainly be able to deliberate in the Fishkinian sense, thereby arriving at ‘well-informed and consensus-oriented judgments over policy’.

In sum, Machiavellian democracy is suited to societies divided along strict class lines, whereas Harringtonian democracy is better suited to reasonably well-educated societies with relatively high levels of social mobility. This is not to deny that such societies are also characterised by high levels of economic inequality, but does imply that such inequalities are not linked with political inequality (or aptitude) in the simple linear way that McCormick (or Machiavelli or Marx) would have us believe. Whereas the principle of Machiavellian democracy could provide a useful corrective to elite domination, the particular thought experiment offered by McCormick fails on account of the five reasons delineated above.

12 Responses

  1. Hmmm…I really cannot understand why you seem so resistant to admitting that there might be such a thing as a political and economic elite. Sure, there are borderline cases, and it can sometimes be hard to say who might properly be regarded as a member of the elite. But that’s like saying that because it can be hard to distinguish between shades of bluish green, therefore color does not exist. I would take it to be simply obvious that 1) Rupert Murdoch has different interests and opinions than I do, 2) those different interests and opinions reflect his extreme wealth and the benefits (including political power) that go with it, 3) Murdoch is much more likely to talk to other people with similar wealth and power than he is to talk to me, 4) he and people with similar wealth and power are likely to try and organize to advance the interests they share. Is any of that really controversial? You yourself admit on Harrington’s model that there might be an “educational gulf” between the senate and the “prerogative tribe.” Is it so difficult to recognize that this gulf might be accompanied by similar gulfs in terms of wealth, privilege, etc.? And those gulfs would make it a bit naive simply to trust those of the senatorial class simply to act for the common good without any bias? I don’t know Harrington’s work that well, but to the extent that he assumes that class makes no difference he seems to be missing something obvious, something that Machiavelli (whom he inspired) didn’t miss.

    BTW, if you think a Tribunate would be easy to corrupt, why don’t you think the same of an AC? And why would allowing a Tribunate to call for a referendum violate descriptive representation? I understand that it collectively cannot make the proposal for such a referendum, but you’ve already said that there’s no way collectively to make proposals in this manner, so however it gets proposed the call for a referendum would have the endorsement of a descriptively representative collective body.


  2. I certainly don’t deny the existence of elites (plural); what I find puzzling in John’s book is his implicit endorsement of Machiavelli’s view that the grandi and the popolo are internally homogeneous and characterised by distinct “humors”. This might have made sense in sixteenth-century Florence and nineteenth-century Germany but what does it mean for example in the twenty-first century? Presumably university students and junior faculty are members of the popolo, whereas capitalists are, ex hypothesi, members of the grandi. But I’m both, so what humor am I possessed by? And whereas Marcuse saw students as the vanguard of the working class (and the way of enabling the latter to fulfil its historic role) most modern students see a degree as a stepping stone to an MBA and a quick route to joining Mr Murdoch. So it strikes me that this sort of language is little more than a quaint anachronism. What we have now is a continuum of overlapping elites, in which different markers (wealth, education, political power etc), don’t necessarily coincide.

    The educational gulf between the senate and the prerogative tribe that pertained when Harrington wrote Oceana is no longer evident; this is why I acknowledge that deliberation in the prerogative tribe (which Harrington proscribed) is OK — especially if conducted according to Fishkinian rules. Harrington was absolutely clear — and in this respect he was at one with Machiavelli — that there was a clear distinction between elite and popular interests, and this is why he reserved the judgment function for the popular chamber. That way elites would be obliged to propose legislation that will meet with popular approval (John makes a similar point in his book). The key paragraph in Oceana is the one about the two girls sharing out a cake — one divides and the other chooses, so the divider is constrained into cutting the cake into equal slices. (BTW, it was Machiavelli who inspired Harrington — Oceana was published in 1656.)

    An allotted chamber (AC) would be harder to corrupt than a Tribunate for two reasons: 1) the numbers would be greater (several hundred at minimum); 2) the only valid role for the AC is to vote and this would be by secret ballot, so lobbyists would have no way of checking if their inducements work. This would be another reason to prefer Fishkin’s etymology for deliberation (“weighing” rather than the Habermasian alternative).

    I’m sorry that the penny still hasn’t dropped regarding the nature of the descriptively-representative democratic mandate. This is what precludes allotted reps from doing anything other than voting (Pitkin, p.145): when an individual Tribune proposes something, she is only speaking for herself and has no mandate whatsoever. All an AC can do is to judge a proposal that was initiated elsewhere; Pitkin’s argument would preclude an allotted Tribunate from taking an active role (unlike Roman Tribunes, who were elected by the plebs). I’m puzzled as to why this argument hasn’t either been refuted or accepted by now as it really is a very simple one and Pitkin wrote her book a long time ago!


  3. OK, so I take it that your point is not that some people radically differ from others along 1 dimension (like wealth). That would be hard to deny; the top 20% of the U.S. population has as much net wealth as the bottom 80%, and the top 1% has a third of the nation’s wealth all to itself. Rather, your point is that there are various dimensions along which a person might be ranked as an elite, and these dimensions don’t always line up together. I think most sophisticated efforts to define political elites recognize this. C. Wright Mills’ THE POWER ELITE, for example, assumed that the power elite included the top echelons of business (which of course includes top law firms as well as the owners of the mass media), government, and the military. It assumed that these top echelons worked closely together, and moved freely among themselves, sharing a common perspective. It’s hard to doubt just how easily elites do this own; generals retire and sit on the boards of corporations, CEOs become cabinet members, senior bureaucrats join prestigious law firms, etc. Again, it’s not a seamless system, but that a gap exists seems hard to deny. As you say, Harrington and Machiavelli both seem prepared to try and deal with it.


  4. Yes that’s right; it’s the manichean notion of two distinct ‘humors’ that I find so archaic, along with the difficulty of positioning empirical individuals in either camp. Even if you take a single dimension like wealth, it’s arbitrary whether you go for the top 10% or 20% (John does both in the book), whereas in earlier ages it was quite clear which class you belonged to by the sort of headgear that you wore (even if some top hats were more threadbare than others).

    But my main problem with the book is the Tribunate thought experiment, which I think fails for the five reasons that I give in the post.


  5. Thanks for the new slant on Machiavelli! His analysis sounds almost Marxist. Meanwhile Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article ‘Of the top1%, by the top 1% for the top 1%’ is causing quite a stir:

    and he goes on to predict the inevitable revolution caused by the inherent contradictions of so-called free-market Capitalism.

    The need for Sortition, and the opportunity to promote seems obvious.

    BTW there is follow-up discussion in this week’s Economist.

    [sorry I’m not joining in the debate, but I don’t quite understand the mechanism – just how would Sortition achieve a better spread of wealth and income?]


  6. Conall: “Just how would sortition achieve a better spread of wealth and income?”

    It’s not sortition so much as the establishment of class-specific institutions. Although the Tribunate is constituted by lot, the sortition excludes the wealthiest 10% of households. The Tribunes could be elected but John accepts Manin’s thesis that elections always privilege “aristocratic” elements (however defined).

    In the book he does point out the attraction of Machiavelli to Marxist theorists such as Althusser and Gramsci, and his constitutional experiment presupposes a conflict between elected representatives and allotted Peoples’ Tribunes. But there is no resolution to this dialectic — if anything the continuing conflict is a necessary part of good governance (this would also be true of the Harringtonian equivalent). Both Machiavelli and Harrington were spared the delusion of an end to history.

    I agree with you that sortition actually plays a small (but essential) part in the book. The author knows this debate is taking place and hopefully will comment in due course.


  7. I just finished reading McCormick’s book. There wasn’t a “capitalist” class in 15th century Florence, was there? So the comments above about Bill Gates or Rupert Murdoch as “elites” is not what McCormick is talking about. What I understand him to be talking about is elites in government or who use government for their own ends. What I disagree with McCormick about is his tendency to define the “people” as the Plebian class. His Tribune class should have both a cap on income and a floor on income so as not to be in poverty. Although most academics would cringe at the thought, McCormick might be writing more about the Tea Party than ACORN.


  8. “What I understand him to be talking about is elites in government or who use government for their own ends.”

    The problem (at least in the UK) is that the elite tends to be created once they’re in government. For example Tony Blair’s background was as a (failed) rock group promoter and mediocre law student; our local MP (who rose to prominence under Blair) was an unknown and impoverished BBC reporter. The typical path to government in the UK is PPE followed by political intern/research position, special advisor, MP, minister etc. The other typical route starts out via university (social science), and fairly lowly public sector or union work, followed by a similar strategy.

    The point I’m making is that these people are not so dissimilar from the ordinary folks outlined in Wayne’s post, although mostly from the highest quartile in terms of background and ability. But not a separate elite in any sense that Machiavelli or Marx would have understood. So I’m not sure that this binary mode of thinking works for modern societies, certainly not in the UK. Is it different in the US?

    I’m not denying that the elite develops once these folk are running the government (witness Blair’s recent earnings). So there is a definite need for government to be checked by opposing interests, and John’s suggestion of the Tribunes is an interesting one. Iff the Tea Party represents the silent majority then, like it or not, I agree this is the sort of representation that we are talking about, that’s why I’m unsympathetic to Terry’s proposals to enfrachise activists rather than Joe Public.


  9. Keith
    My understanding of Great Britain is that it is much more stratified that the U.S. as to social class.

    Nonetheless, McCormick’s typology of social classes seems to fit the local power structure of many U.S. cities rather than representation in national Congress. At the local level the elites and the underclass have formed a coalition against the middle class. So there are institutions such as ACORN, poverty law organizations, and countless nonprofit agencies for the poor, but almost no institutions at the local level for the Creditor Class who have assets, own homes, and have savings. In California there is the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association to protect homes from being over taxed but nothing equivalent nationally.

    The U.S. Tea Party is mainly composed of the Creditor Class as opposed to the Debtor or Subsidy Class. What the Housing Bubble did was suck money out of savings accounts and pensions of the Creditor Class and transfer it to the Subsidy Class. What the Tea Party here in the U.S. is – is a reaction against that.

    McCormick’s underlying thesis that the Plebian Class is not interested in plundering the assets of the elites is not born out in the U.S. financial collapse. Moreover, McCormick’s thesis is at its base Marxist – that elites oppress solely for economic gain. McCormick leaves the power and status dimensions out. Moreover, history has proven that religion and ideologies are interwoven with economics.

    The Republican Party here used to be run by entrepreneurs. Now it is shifting to creditors and pensioners. The Democratic Party has captured New Class entrepreneurs in high tech industries. But most of these industries are not producing jobs or enlarging the economy such as green power, affordable housing, online social networks, or even Apple computer and I-Phones which are mainly toys.


  10. Wayne

    I agree with the general thrust of your message, except to note that the notion that the UK is more socially stratified than the US is both anachronistic and was only ever a caricature (the idea that we all wear top hats or cloth caps). The US is in many ways a far more deferential culture than the UK.

    I’m inclined to view sortition as a way of enfranchising the silent majority rather than empowering those seeking to build a New Jerusalem,using someone else’s money. This used to be taxpayers’ money but now it’s the money or our children and grandchildren.

    As to whether the majority is debtor or creditor, I think in the UK the majority has sadly moved to the former, hence the need to balance sortition with other constitutional safeguards that ensure fiscal responsibility. For example if the Chancellor (Treasury Secretary) was appointed (on merit), his (legally-bindable) job contract would be to ensure a balanced budget over the economic cycle. This would involve putting fiscal policy on the same standing as monetary policy — low inflation is supposedly no longer a political issue, so I see no reason why fiscal policy need be different. If the allotted assembly was voting in a new piece of legislation the Chancellor would be required to outline its fiscal implications and the assembly would then need to adjust other areas of spending to ensure overall fiscal equilibrium.

    Many on this forum view sortition as some sort of universal panacea, but I argue that it’s only one element in a mixed constitution involving election and appointment alongside a hereditary head of state (you need a “freehold” interest in order to protect the interests of future generations). Elected presidents cannot see beyond a 5- or 10-year time frame, and I can’t imagine any other way of protecting the interests of unborn generations.


  11. Keith
    Well said and thank you for your observations about the caricaturing of social class in Britain.

    The point I’m making is that to support an economy for future generations it has to have a revolving cycle of credit from one generation to another, as pointed out by American economist Milton Friedman. The old, or Creditor Class, accumulate wealth and assets and put it to work in banks, the stock market, and in bonds. The younger generation borrows these assets and buy homes, start small businesses and buy cars. Problem is this cycle depends on intact two parent families to produce children who are economically productive (as the Chinese and Japanese do). In the U.S. the proportion of single parent families has grown. And single parent families invariably need subsidies and fail to produce more productive children. So at the base the debt and fiscal crises are demographic. Too many baby boom retirees and too few two parent families and too much social policy emphasis on shoring up dependent families.

    The U.S. Housing Bubble could be viewed as a desperate attempt to put dependent families in renter housing into ownership housing in order to prop up Social Security and MediCare in the future. But this policy failed miserably because you can’t create functioning families with material goods alone (“Man doesn’t live by bread alone” – Leviticus). The old fashioned way to make an economy was the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But with growing secularization that has eroded the culture which produced such families. So without trying to sound preachy, the base of the financial systems problems may be cultural and religious as alluded to by historian Max Weber long ago.

    So it is not just future generations but the transferring of wealth from the elderly to younger generations that has caused the crisis. To get the cycle moving again, interest rates have to go higher to allow the elderly to have a retirement. But government policy here in the U.S. has been to hold interest rates artificially low. With inflation now rising fast, government now only has one lever left — raise interest rates. We will see what happens. Inflation is another way to confiscate wealth. And who will want to lend diluted currency and be paid back say 75 cents on the dollar or pound?


  12. Thanks Wayne, I don’t think I’ll respond as I’m concerned that, seeing that this is a blog on structural issues (sortition), we don’t get diverted into public policy, but what you say sounds quite plausible, at least to someone like me who knows little about US political economy.


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