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When politicians are described today as ‘Machiavellian’ the implication is that they are no more than cynical graspers at power for its own sake. Most historians of political thought have long argued that Machiavelli’s own views and politics were more complex than this. In his 2011 book, Machiavellian Democracy (previously reviewed for OurKingdom by Guy Aitchison), the political theorist John P. McCormick offers an innovative reading of Machiavelli. According to McCormick, Machiavelli was not only a republican thinker, but by the standards of his day, and our own, a radically democratic one. Moreover, some of Machiavelli’s ideas, such as his advocacy of plebeian, tribunate institutions, arguably remain relevant to today’s discussions of democratic renewal. Robert Jubb and Stuart White interview John here for the ‘Democratic Wealth’ series.

Politics in Spires: Machiavelli’s key works are The Prince and the Discourses. One is a manual on how to get and use princely power, the other a discussion of republics. Do we need to reconcile these two works? If so, how?

John P. McCormick: I think that the two works actually reconcile themselves.  Machiavelli declares in the Discourses that republics must be founded or fundamentally reformed by a single individual.  Romulus is his quintessential example of republic’s founder, and Cleomenes is one of his chief examples of a republic’s reformer.  Thus, Machiavelli’s advice to princes within The Prince(and, indeed, within the Discourses itself), in so far as it aids individual founders and reformers, is perfectly compatible with his republicanism.  Moreover, Machiavelli offers the same, often brutally immoral advice to political actors—princes and magistrates, peoples and elites—in both books.

Politics in Spires: You argue in Machiavellian Democracy that previous scholarship has not attended enough to differences in republican thinking in Florence at the time of Machiavelli, leading to a misrepresentation of Machiavelli. Can you explain? Why might this have happened?

John P. McCormick: I think that many scholars have overcompensated in their efforts to underplay or contextualize Machiavelli’s immorality or amorality by disproportionately emphasizing the continuity of his political thought with that of traditional Roman republicans like Cicero and Florentine civic humanists likeLeonardo Bruni.  In so doing, they tend to overlook the unprecedented extent to which Machiavelli departs from the political thinking of republicans from the past or from his own intellectual milieu: in particular, they often miss the full extent to which Machiavelli was an advocate of popular participation within republics; indeed, a champion of popular ascendance over the elites of republics.  There are, of course, exceptions to this charge:  Felix Gilbert andJohn Pocock quite convincingly demonstrate how Machiavelli’s more democratic republicanism differs from the aristocratic republicanism of his younger contemporary Francesco Guicciardini – although, I’d say that they did not go far enough in this regard.

Politics in Spires: Let’s explore the theme of popular participation further. You emphasise the way that Machiavelli thought that the wealthy of his time, primarily the nobility, were the greatest threat to a free society. What kinds of institutions did Machiavelli think would help to empower the people relative to the nobles? How did Machiavelli use Roman history to illustrate both the importance of empowering the people against the nobles and the means necessary to do so?

John P. McCormick: First and foremost, Machiavelli recommended that republics revive the institution of the plebeian tribunate from ancient Rome, an institution that he claimed made Rome “more perfect” by enabling common Roman citizens to “beat back the insolence of the nobles.”  Rome’s wealthiest and most prominent citizens were ineligible to hold the office of plebeian tribune, an office with extensive power within the Roman constitution: tribunes wielded veto authority over most policy measures; initiated and led discussions over legislation in Rome’s popular assemblies; and they publicly tried wealthy and prominent citizens before the people for political crimes.  When the Medici asked Machiavelli to draft a constitutional model for the reformation of the Florentine Republic, Machiavelli included a tribunesque office in the constitution, which he called “provosts.”

Politics in Spires: You suggest that contemporary representative democracies can learn from Machiavelli by creating a modern Tribunate. Can you explain how this would work?

John P. McCormick: Well, I merely offered a sketch for how a modern institution that excluded wealthy citizens might wield some of the powers held by the Roman tribunes within modern electoral democracies.  My goal was primarily to make the Roman institution look less foreign, archaic or just plain weird to us today.

Politics in Spires:What would this modern Tribunate look like?

John P. McCormick: I proposed that a college of 51 randomly selected, non-wealthy citizens, empowered to exercise authority associated with Rome’s plebeian tribunate for a one-year term, be appended to the U.S Constitution.  Specifically, these modern tribunes would be entitled to veto one piece of congressional legislation, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision; to call one national referendum, over any issue they wish (only two-thirds votes of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives may render the statute unconstitutional); and to initiate impeachment proceedings against one Federal official from each of the three branches of government during their term of office.

Politics in Spires: Graham Smith and David Owen argue in a response to your book, published in The Good Society, that the Tribunate function might also be carried out by trade unions and labour parties. What’s wrong with this approach? Are there other possible approaches to thinking about the kind of institutions that could perform the Tribunate function?

John P. McCormick: I think its an excellent point, and I would include a free press within the ensemble of agents who have performed tribunician functions within modern democracies—it is no accident that many newspapers established during the Progressive Era in the United States invoked the Roman tribunate in their names, for instance, “The Chicago Tribune.”  However, both organized labor and a free media have, over the last generation or so, declined as potent agents of democratization in contemporary representative regimes. And, in any case, there’s something to be said, I think, for giving common people their own institutional branch through which they might assert their interests against other institutions more readily at the disposal of wealthy elites.  I justified the establishment of such “plebeian” institutions on the grounds of “affirmative action for common citizens.”

Politics in Spires: The recent revival of republican political theory has sometimes presented the republican tradition as united around a conception of liberty – liberty as non-domination – and a set of institutional prescriptions. Your work on Machiavelli argues that this misrepresents the Florentine, and so implies that republicanism is a more fractured body of political thought than some would suggest. How do you think we should understand the republican tradition? Is there any one such tradition?

John P. McCormick: No, of course, there is no single republican political tradition–although one tradition has been dominant in the writings of so-called republicans from Cicero through Guicciardini to the 18th century founders of the modern republics in which many of us live.  This aristocratic tradition of republicanism understands the greatest threat to liberty to be posed by the ignorant, jealous and capricious common citizens of republics rather than the wise, prudent and virtuous (read, rich) “best men” of such republics.  Republics ought to be “mixed,” on their view to favour the latter over the former types of citizens.  Machiavelli is, for all intents and purposes, the only exception to this literary tradition.  The Florentine is the most full-throated dissenter to this conservative intellectual tradition, the only writer before the 19th century to give voice in his writings to the aspirations of plebeians, lower guildsmen, and popolo minuto within republics, and to assert that they should hold preeminent authority over the elites of their polities.

Politics in Spires: What barriers, if any, do you think we encounter when trying to draw on the history of political thought to make contemporary political arguments? Are there important differences, for example, between Machiavelli’s Florence and contemporary democracies, and if there are, how should they shape our use of Machiavellian arguments?

John P. McCormick: I think that a lack of the kind of class consciousness that was characteristic of the ancient Roman and medieval Florentine republics–in particular, the lack of a thorough-going distrust and resentment of the political influence of economic elites within modern republics–is the single greatest barrier to a revival of Machiavellian democratic republicanism today.

Politics in Spires: What are you working on now?

John P. McCormick: I’m still writing on Machiavelli, in particular, a study of the Florentine’s thoughts on the compatibility between leadership and popular government.  Throughout his writings, Machiavelli analyses a love triangle, as it were, that inevitably develops among individual leaders, the wealthy and the common people.  Machiavelli’s advice to such leaders, whether princes in principalities or magistrates in republics, is always to favour the people at the expense of elites, but different circumstances dictate various ways of pursuing that end.  According to Machiavelli, everything pertaining to the founding of new republics and, especially, to the reforming of corrupt republics depends on leaders “getting it right” in such circumstances.  Favouring the people always entails punitive policies directed at elites who too readily convert their socio-economic advantages into political oppressions; policies ranging from publically conducted, popularly judged criminal trials to the violent, wholesale elimination of the nobility.  The severity of such punishments depends, Machiavelli suggests, on the extent of corruption in a particular republic.

This piece is part of the Democratic Wealth series, hosted by Politics in Spires in partnership with OurKingdom

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