Defending the People from the Professors
John P. McCormick (2010)


For some years now, while presenting parts of a book on Machiavelli and democratic theory across North America, I’ve been consistently surprised by the level of hostility it provokes among academics—even, or especially, among self-avowedly progressive or “radical” scholars. Machiavellian Democracy (Cambridge UP, 2011), traces previously neglected democratic strains in Machiavelli’s political writings: I elaborate his argument that the few, not the many, pose the principal threat to liberty in republics, and articulate his institutional prescriptions for empowering common citizens to constrain the behavior of elites and rule directly over public policy.

Averse to neither heated exchange nor polemical confrontation, I’m nevertheless seldom prepared for the anxiety and indignation that the idea of direct popular judgment provokes in friends and colleagues. The mobophobic reaction to Machiavelli’s ideas on popular government compelled me to reconsider more critically disparate contemporary literatures on democracy. Here, I want to reexamine some of the criticisms implicitly and explicitly leveled against the people as a political agent and democracy generally by writers before and after Machiavelli, as well as the Florentine’s own diagnosis of this scholarly antipathy to popular rule. I’ll also offer a concise recapitulation of Machiavelli’s case for the kind of popular government he thought most conducive to “the free way of life.”

Machiavelli, “the writers” and the people 

Machiavelli excoriates previous writers for denigrating popular judgment and participation, and for extolling the supposedly superior governing capacities of princes and patricians.¹ Departing from the opinion of these writers, Machiavelli argues that well-ordered republics structure themselves such that common people contain, contest and control the behavior of political and economic elites, and they place ultimate judgment over legislation and political punishment in the hands of the many and not the few.  More specifically, like Rome, they establish magistracies for which wealthy and prominent citizens are ineligible, like the tribunes of the plebs, and they empower the people to veto public policies and indict individuals that threaten the common good—a common good unabashedly determined from the perspective of the people and not the elite (D I.2-8).

If this class-contestatory or tribunician element of Machiavelli’s politics is too often neglected, the directly democratic element is virtually ignored.  Yet Machiavelli endorses widely participatory, substantively deliberative procedures through which the people refine their judgments over political prosecutions and lawmaking.  In an historically unprecedented fashion, Machiavelli insists that republics permit common citizens to initiate proceedings pertaining to political trials, propose new legislation, formally discuss among themselves all the matters pertaining to political punishment and lawmaking, and render ultimate judgment over each sphere (D I.18).  Because small committees of magistrates prove too susceptible to corruption by or collusion with those accused of political crimes, Machiavelli recommends bodies of “very many judges,” preferably the whole citizenry formally assembled (as in Rome) to decide on law and public trials (D I.7-8).

In a chapter of the Discourses devoted to the “wisdom of the multitude” (D I.58), Machiavelli notes how historians and philosophers often fault the people for inconstancy: for favoring an individual one day, and then condemning him another; for pledging alliance to a prince one minute and then cheering for liberty the next. But Machiavelli insists that the standards by which the writers judge the people are unfairly skewed: they consistently compare examples of multitudes “unshackled” by laws with those especially rare examples of law-abiding, and hence “good and wise” princes. The proper comparison, Machiavelli avers, is “a multitude regulated by laws,” like the Roman people, with likewise “bridled” princes, like those who ruled ancient Egypt, Sparta and the France of his day. From this more apposite analysis peoples emerge not merely the equals but the superiors of princes: “A well-organized people that commands is just as stable, prudent and grateful as a prince, in fact, more so than a prince, even one considered wise; conversely, a prince unshackled by laws will be more ungrateful, inconstant and imprudent than a people…. [Thus] I declare that a people is more prudent, more stable and is capable of better judgment than a prince” (D I.58, emphases added).

Machiavelli attributes the people’s ability to discern better policies in no small part to their natural desire not to be dominated and to the direct correlation between this desire and the common good.  Members of the elite, on the other hand, naturally desire to oppress others and so act in ways that threaten what’s best for all citizens (D I.4-5). An elite citizen who proposes a law may have an ulterior, self-serving agenda.  However, when given the opportunity to evaluate it—that is, openly discuss it—the people will decide whether such a proposal conforms to the common good and should be codified as law.  Indeed, by enabling every citizen to initiate legislation, Machiavelli facilitates the possibility that voices besides those of the wealthy and prominent will be reflected in the laws of the republic. Of course, as Machiavelli concedes, an imaginary aristocracy of philosopher kings is capable, in theory, of exercising perfect political judgment.  But there is no such agent in empirical reality. Machiavelli insists that the people will decide in a way that produces outcomes conducive to the common good, and they will do so far more often than will similarly empowered princely or oligarchic elites.

Machiavelli suggests that writers who criticize the people hopelessly confuse popular opinion with popular judgment. The people may often claim that they want one thing or another in taverns, in their homes or on the street, but they often choose something quite different when they are formally empowered to deliberate and decide within the bounds of an assembly. Machiavelli suggests that formal procedures of judgment compel the people to descend from the generalities of their opinions to the particulars of their true preferences (D I.47-48).  Again, much more often than any prince or elites similarly situated, the people will decide correctly.  In fact, throughout all of his writings, Machiavelli perhaps criticizes no figures more harshly than leaders who deny the people the opportunity to decide the most important questions facing republics.  Notably he chastises Virginius the centurian, Francesco Valori and Girolamo Savonarola for usurping popular judgment either for their own selfish purposes or because they thought they knew what was better for the people (D I.7, I.44, D I.45). 

Machiavelli demonstrates how arrangements that formally empower the people to make decisions themselves actually allow the people to clarify their preferences when the latter are unclear and moderate their impulses when the latter tend toward excess. It is precisely when the people are completely disempowered that they succumb to political confusion and fancy—oftentimes demanding that representatives behave more rashly and harshly than they would themselves if formally empowered to judge. Machiavelli implores us to theorize ways to approximate the direct judgment that the citizens of many ancient, medieval and Renaissance democratic republics exercised in assemblies.

Popular Distrust in Contemporary Democratic Theory

Today most “writers” (in Machiavelli’s sense) understand themselves to be advancing the cause of democracy and advocating what’s best for the people on explicitly egalitarian grounds.  Nevertheless, resonances of the traditional antidemocratic tropes that Machiavelli criticized persist in contemporary scholarship. For instance, Philip Pettit understands his republican theory of freedom to serve what he calls “democracy, electoral and contestatory.”² Yet his project explicitly denigrates the place of popular participation within democratic politics, betrays deep suspicions over the motivations of supposedly volatile average citizens, and expresses unwarranted confidence in prudently responsible elites.   Students and devotees of Leo Strauss much more explicitly condemn the people’s participation in political rule. Most surprising perhaps are the anti-popular and anti-democratic tropes underlying the work of poststructurally influenced “radical democrats.”  Ironically, each approach enlists Machiavelli in its analysis of popular government, despite the fact that each exhibits very much the same distrust of the people for which the Florentine so severely criticized traditional writers.

Pettit’s Republicanism 

There are clear continuities between Pettit’s neo-republicanism and the aristocratic republicanism espoused by Marcus Tullius Cicero or Francesco Guicciardini, and criticized by Machiavelli: neither republicanism prioritizes popular participation; each isolates election as the principle means of appointing and authorizing elites; and each adheres to the belief that the common good is best served by senatorial bodies where experts and spokespersons for the people deliberate and decide policy, several steps removed from the citizenry itself.  Machiavelli, of course, thought that this model of republican politics—which marginalizes popular participation, focuses narrowly on general elections, and insulates senatorial authority—could never be, as Pettit hopes, thoroughly “depoliticized.”

At times, Pettit’s project appears to give philosophical expression to the desire for non-domination that Machiavelli imputes to the Roman plebs, and, moreover, to endorse the “contestatory” practices that Machiavelli’s plebeians thought necessary to secure for themselves liberty as non-domination.  Pettit invokes judicial, tribunal, ombudsmen-like, multicameral, and localized institutions through which citizens might review or amend decisions made by elected elites.³ Thus, notwithstanding certain affinities, Machiavellian Democracy and Pettitian Republicanism differ in crucial respects: while rejecting broad popular participation, Pettit relies primarily on electoral outcomes to gauge whether government policies track the interests of the citizens whom such policies effect.  Pettit then empowers his electorally authorized political elites and, often, his electorally unaccountable, depoliticized experts to deliberate over and decide in specific terms what serves the common interest.  From a Machiavellian perspective this model clearly leaves too much room for domination of citizens by political elites and the socio-economic elites who wield excessive influence over the latter. Pettit’s institutional prescriptions seriously disable the prospect that his neo-republican model can accomplish his primary normative objective: the minimizing of domination within the domestic life of republics.

Straussian Conservatism

Students of Leo Strauss are not, of course, known for promoting a more widely inclusive and popularly empowering kind of politics. Indeed, they perhaps more than any other scholarly school today express great affection for the very ancient philosophers and historians whom Machiavelli criticized for their anti-democratic biases. Nevertheless, they manage, with remarkable confidence, to make extensive use of the Florentine in their conservative critique of democracy. Machiavelli, they claim, didn’t really mean everything he said when he championed the people against traditional writers. Straussians insist that while Machiavelli broke decisively with the aristocratic classical tradition of moral philosophy, he did not in fact break with the elitist classical tradition of political and constitutional theory. As Strauss asserts, Machiavelli did not depart from the “aristocratic or oligarchic republicanism of the classical tradition” because he actually favored extensive, albeit secretly wielded, rule by elites–even in regimes considered to be democracies or democratic republics.⁴

Similarly, Harvey C. Mansfield presents Machiavelli as a progenitor of the “iron law of oligarchy,” a more exciting and ingenious forerunner of the elite theorists of democracy (e.g., Mosca, Pareto and Schumpeter), for whom politics is only and always elite competition.  According to Mansfield, when Machiavelli overtly endorses class conflict in the Discourses he is actually, at a more subterranean level of the text, providing instructions for elite manipulation of the people: “the people do not wish to rule and when they seem to rule, they are being managed by their leaders.”⁵ All politics of any consequence was, for Machiavelli, ultimately reducible to the “real” conflict waged by competing elites, between elites who are “in” and those who are “out” of power.⁶ This view is ubiquitous in the vast Straussian literature on Machiavelli where the following is repeated like catechism: “It is always the few who rule.”⁷

Unfortunately, Straussian scholars seldom compare in any detail Machiavelli’s political prescriptions with those of, say, Cicero or Guicciardini, in the same careful way that they contrast his moral prescriptions (or lack thereof) with those of Plato, Aristotle and Xenophon.  If they did so, the radically democratic implications of Machiavelli’s thought would become simply unavoidable. Because of their doctrinal aversion to contextual analysis Straussian scholars imagine, in a highly anachronistic manner, Machiavelli to be esoterically communicating criticisms of democracy to an audience living in an age of democratic ascendance and not decline. Machiavelli, after all, was not a Tocqueville or a Mill (or a Strauss!) warning contemporary readers about the purported excesses of popular government; on the contrary, he attempts to induce an aristocratic audience into accepting and reinvigorating democratic republics as political models.

This myopia reveals something profound about the Straussian insistence that Machiavelli destroyed classical moral-philosophical standards but nevertheless continued to adhere, fundamentally, to classical political standards.  Put simply, it reveals how desperately Straussians cling to the notion that Machiavelli shares their own sweet-tooth for oligarchy. This textually unsupported and unsupportable position betrays the fact that, much more than they admit, politics–a deeply antidemocratic form of politics–rather than philosophy drives the supposedly antiquarian, nonpartisan and bookish amalgam that the Straussians call “political philosophy.”

“Radical” Democratic Theory

The scholars who today champion democracy most boldly may, in fact, undermine it most seriously.  Self-styled “radical” theorists of democracy, influenced by poststructuralist strands of contemporary European thought,⁸ and especially by charismatic authors such as Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, have recently gained widespread prominence within American political science.⁹ Contributors to this literature express hostility to both the notion of “rule” by the people and to legal/institutional approaches to democracy.  The people, such scholars aver, should act as agents of contestation against the forces of “rule” (i.e., corporate and state actors) but should not themselves rule; doing so would render their actions somehow ethically impure and practically self-defeating. It would, in fact, signal a cooptation of the people into the matrices of power, a neutralization of their primordially good, spontaneously expressed political vitality.  Moreover, institutional or constitutional analyses—even reform proposals that empower direct popular judgment and rule—are woefully insufficient or downright counterproductive: institutions and laws, on this view, inevitably serve oligarchic and almost never democratic ends. Democratic moments are simply too rare and uncontainable to be formally regularized in law.  

For instance, Miguel Vatter insists that Machiavelli, by emphasizing the veto exercised by the Roman tribunes, articulates a model for the popular exercise of negative rule; that is, the Florentine recommends only that the people behave in a reactively contestatory rather than positively creative manner.¹⁰ But this interpretation ignores the fact that Machiavelli’s Rome empowered the people to both freely discuss and directly enact legislation (D I.18; III.34), and to initiate, hear and decide political trials (D I.7-8).

The appropriation of Athenian political lotteries by “radical” democrats such as Wolin and Ranciere (like Vatter, inspired to some extent by Arendt) is a more bizarre and potentially more pernicious case in point.  Such scholars and those influenced by them portray the Athenian apportionment of most public offices through lot as a practical indication of the fundamental democratic aspiration for “no-rule.” However, on the basis of all available evidence, Aristotle most likely had it right when he depicted political lottery or sortition, on the contrary, as the instantiation of the democratic principle of “ruling and being ruled in turn.”  Lottery was not, as “radical” scholars would have it, a quasi-institutionalization of anarchy, but rather the closest possible institutional realization of the demos’ desire to rule themselves; more specifically, its desire to be ruled intermittently by random citizens who wished to serve politically but were not sufficiently rich or renowned to gain office through elections.  Athenian democrats did not, in this context, oppose lottery to rule as such, but rather to election as an aristocratically biased procedure favoring the wealthy and well-born and thus inappropriate for the government of formally equal citizens.

The philosophic critics of Athens refused to acknowledge democratic politics as a proper form of rule, equating it with anarchy, a state of unruliness. “Radical” democrats accept this original negative diagnosis of democracy (that was intended to justify oligarchy) and simply celebrate it as precisely what’s good about democracy, believing, apparently, that they are elevating democracy as a political force.  Rather than elevating it, however, one could argue that they actually denude democracy of its substantively egalitarian potential.  Specifically, they foreclose the possibility that democracy can directly serve as a vehicle that effectively–that is, through laws and institutions–dismantles hierarchies and ameliorates domination. Whenever such “radical” democrats espouse this philosophically sophisticated, ethically pure and politically ecstatic reconstructed vision of democracy, somewhere Plato smiles.  

Surely, radical democrats and poststructuralists are right to remind us that no human agent exercises complete control, “sovereignty” in the strictest sense, over any particular circumstance. However, some social and political actors indisputably exercise a grossly disproportionate amount of control over others, and the principle-praxis vacuum created by the “radical” democratic disparagement of rule and control and of law and institutions allows those with more control to secure and further expand such control at everyone else’s expense. A political vision that denies the people any participation in rule, except in “extraordinary moments,” and for all intents and purposes grants elites free rein to do so in everyday politics is simply not worthy of the name “democracy.”


The persistence of the traditional aversion to popular rule within the scholarly approaches discussed above poses two especially detrimental consequences for contemporary democracy: these approaches promote neither efficacious popular participation, nor effective means for the popular contestation and punishment of elites. They propose for contemporary circumstances no functional approximations for the ancient assemblies within which the people exercised political judgment, and provide democratic citizens today little concrete recourse against elites who abuse the prerogative inherent to holding office.  Each of these schools, in fact, perpetuate the people’s disempowered status in electoral democracies and ultimately guarantee the people’s subjection to, in Machiavelli words, the avaricious and ambitious; i.e., those who pose the most dire threat to fellow citizens and their regimes.  Any political model that denies the people meaningfully consequential participation in rule and grants elites an exclusive claim to rule cannot be called a democracy, but must be considered, on the contrary, its exact opposite.  Therefore, rather than turning to neo-Republicans, self-avowed radicals or Straussians—all of whom sustain profound intellectual continuities with the traditional aristocratic critiques of the people and of popular government–democrats today could do worse than turn to Machiavelli himself for theoretical insight, institutional inspiration and spiritual fortification.

As for progressive colleagues and friends, who at conferences, receptions, departmental meetings, etc., so freely disparage the people’s ability to judge prudently and act moderately: I would remind them of the following.  The citizens of a former slave republic that retains much more than mere vestiges of racial segregation elected an African-American to the polity’s chief magistracy.  More than that, in the midst of a “war on terror” that has problematically intensified the nation’s relationship with Islam, the black man whom those citizens elevated to the highest office in the land was named Barack Hussein Obama.  My colleagues might admit with greater candor that they could never have imagined such a possibility as recently as five years ago.

To be sure, this event does little to enhance the democratic credentials of elections: yet again, the candidate with the largest war chest prevailed.  Nevertheless, no advantage in campaign funding could have been expected to overcome the level of stupidity and racism that most academics still so casually attribute to the people on a daily basis. In addition to the examples that Machiavelli provides us, the 2008 election should serve as further evidence that dispels the writers’ charges that the people are unfit to participate fully in politics. Indeed, Machiavelli challenges progressive scholars to imagine more efficacious means by which the people might actually rule themselves–and us.

  1. Niccolò Machiavelli, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio (c. 1513-19), in Corrado Vivanti, ed., Opere I: I Primi Scritti Politici (Torino: Einaudi-Gallimard, 1997) 193-525; hereafter cited in the text as D with book and chapter numbers in parentheses.
  2. Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); “Democracy: Electoral and Contestatory,” in Nomos XLII: Designing Democratic Institutions, ed. Ian Shapiro and Stephen Macedo (New York: New York University Press, 2000) 105-46; and “Depoliticizing Democracy,” Ratio Juris 17, no. 1 (2004) 52-65.
  3. Pettit 1999, 292-97; 2000
    1. Leo Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli (Glencoe, Il: The Free Press, 1958), 127
  4. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996) 237
  5. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue, 96, 235-37
  6. See, e.g., virtually all of the contributions to Paul A. Rahe, ed., Machiavelli’s Liberal Republican Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005).
  7. e.g., Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe,Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso. 1984) and Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, trans. Steve Corcoran (London: Verso 2007).
  8. Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (New York: Penguin 2006); Sheldon S. Wolin, “Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy,” in Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy, Eds. J. Peter Euben, John Wallach, and Josiah Ober (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) 29-58; and Wolin, “Fugitive Democracy,” in Democracy and Difference: Contesting Boundaries of the Political, Ed. Seyla Benhabib. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) 31-45
  9. See Miguel E. Vatter, Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom (Amsterdam: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000).