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Power to the People

AFTER SO MUCH has been said about Machiavelli, and so much that should be unsaid, one might be surprised to hear that there is anything new to say at all. Yet John McCormick offers a plausible and ambitious new interpretation of Machiavelli’s democratic theory, and then outlines some institutional proposals intended to translate Machiavelli’s commitments into current political conditions. These mechanisms of Machiavellian democracy need fine-tuning, and like other democratic theorists McCormick overlooks that the administrative state already contains a variety of institutions that serve the very goals he sets out. But one can only admire his willingness to step outside the usual comfort zone of political theorists by attempting to pin down the cash value of the best that has been thought and said.

On McCormick’s reading, Machiavelli should be understood as a theorist of populist democracy, who is concerned above all with identifying institutional mechanisms by which the people at large can constrain socio-economic elites and hold them accountable. Elites, on this picture, are a standing threat to a representative democracy, not primarily in the sense that they will seek to overthrow the democratic regime, but in the sense that they will bias the outputs of lawmaking in their own class interest. McCormick argues that modern “democratic” republics based on universal suffrage and representative elections (usually between candidates chosen by nomination) amount, in operation, to quasi-aristocratic republics, because the main effect of large-scale elections is to skew office-holding towards the wealthy, the privileged, and the highly educated. For Madison and other theorists of republicanism, this feature of elections was laudable. For this reason, Madison—at least the Madison of the founding, as opposed to his later more egalitarian persona—is one of McCormick’s foils and targets, along with Guicciardini, Schumpeter, and other elitist theorists.

Within the set of academic political theorists and intellectual historians who have discussed Machiavelli extensively, McCormick’s main target is the Cambridge School—J.G.A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, and Philip Pettit. In McCormick’s view, these republican theorists have attempted to conscript Machiavelli, and in the process have downplayed the populist strands in his thought. By contrast, McCormick shows that Machiavelli believed that the people at large were both more likely to be motivated by the common good and epistemically superior at identifying where the common good lies, at least when popular participation is channeled through suitable institutions. The main point of disagreement between McCormick’s Machiavelli and the various elite theorists is that the former believed elections insufficient to constrain elites and hold them accountable ex post for their behavior in office, even when elections are supplemented by courts with the power of constitutional review and other checking mechanisms, themselves usually dominated by elites.

If representation and elections will not suffice, what will? McCormick thinks that Machiavelli’s main contribution was to have identified a set of populist institutional mechanisms that have been largely forgotten or ignored by the designers of modern constitutions. The most important is the Roman tribunate, a group of officials selected by and from the plebians, whose avowed purpose was to check elite self-dealing and enforce the rights of the populace. McCormick sees the tribunate as a sort of class-based affirmative action for the democratic masses, and his most striking and ambitious proposal attempts to update and adapt it to the American constitutional order. He proposes an amendment to the Constitution that would establish a People’s Tribunate—a randomly selected group of common citizens whose income or wealth may not be too high and who have not made a career of holding public office, and who assemble for a one-year non-renewable term. Omitting the intricate details of the scheme, the main powers of the Tribunate during its annual term would be to veto one congressional enactment, one executive order, and one Supreme Court decision, to initiate one national referendum whose product if approved by the voters would have the force of a federal statute, and to initiate impeachment proceedings against one federal official from each branch of government.

One might begin by asking what exactly is the problem, or set of problems, to which this is a solution. McCormick argues briefly, along lines explored by Larry Bartels and other political scientists, that in the United States circa 2011 socio-economic elites exert a harmful domination over the processes of politics and thereby skew political outcomes, resulting in widening economic inequality. McCormick does not purport to add anything new to the debate over whether such a diagnosis is correct, or whether it would be objectionable if correct; he merely takes those claims as premises for cashing out his Machiavellian approach.

Taking McCormick’s diagnosis as a given, his solutions are by no means airtight. At various points the Roman tribunes were successfully co-opted by the patricians and the senatorial class. So too here: socio-economic elites might at least partially capture the Tribunate, not necessarily by directly corrupting its members but in a more insidious epistemic form, by co-opting the experts who will inevitably be called upon to present the assembled citizens with information about the economic and administrative effects of complex proposals. McCormick mentions this problem, but his brief response—basically, that the experts should be as non-partisan as possible—is not particularly convincing. The problem is not partisanship as such, but elite bias, which may be quite bipartisan. Moreover, McCormick sometimes overlooks that the elites, too, will be able to observe the details of the institutional scheme and engage in strategic behavior accordingly. It cannot be right, for example, to authorize the Tribunate to exercise each of its powers only once. In the legislative sphere, elites might then cause two bad statutes to be enacted, secure in the knowledge that one of the two must survive the tribunician veto.

But all that said, McCormick’s proposals are as plausible as the genre will allow. Any institutional novelty looks questionable on paper—any clever graduate student can quickly throw out a thousand objections—and this one is no exception. Yet our status quo institutions are hardly perfect either, and in any event McCormick is only starting a conversation and hoping for an experiment. The details can be improved as his proposals swim up the salmon-run of politics. (But if his diagnosis is correct, the proposed remedy will probably be blocked by the elites who create the problem in the first place.)

A more serious problem is one of omission. Like other democratic theorists, McCormick invokes as precedents for his scheme a small set of quirky institutional experiments such as the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly, which was selected in part by lottery and empowered to place reform proposals on the ballot for referendum (although its proposals were ultimately rejected). Like other democratic theorists, McCormick overlooks a range of more or less populist institutions already in place within the gigantic and highly heterogeneous American administrative state, institutions expressly designed by presidents, legislators, or administrative agencies to serve many of the goals that the theorists themselves pursue.

Many agencies choose to take advice, or are statutorily required to take advice, from groups of ordinary citizens—not scientists or other experts—on the policy questions within their jurisdiction. The Advisory Commission on Childhood Vaccines within the Department of Health and Human Services must include members of the general public, to pick one example from a myriad. Such micro-institutions do at retail and in real life what the democratic theorists talk about at wholesale and for the most part hypothetically. The administrative state provides a vast terra incognita of democratic mechanisms that the theorists might explore, evaluate, and improve.

Still, McCormick’s book is something of a model for political theory that is engaged directly with problems in the world and only indirectly with texts. The aim is not so much to figure out Machiavelli, but to figure out what to think and do about a problem by drawing upon the intellectual resources to be found in Machiavelli. The result is a freshness and sensitivity to questions of institutional design that is notably lacking in, say, much of the interminable Rawlsian literature. One hopes that McCormick’s approach will become the professional norm.

Adrian Vermeule is John H. Watson Professor of Law, Harvard Law School.