In 1513, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was arrested and tortured by the Medici. This was for his alleged role in a plot against the autocratic family, which, with papal and Spanish help, had overthrown the Republic of Florence. Though he organized Florence’s militia in defense of the republic, Machiavelli seems to have played no role in the plot against the Medici after their takeover.
Soon after his release, Machiavelli finished his most famous work, The Prince. Originally titled Of Principalities, the book wasn’t actually published until after his death, in 1527. It’s from this work that we have the adjective “Machiavellian,” for scheming and unscrupulous politicians and the ruthless politics of autocrats.
But the less-well-known Machiavelli may come as a surprise. He was also an active defender of republican democracy. His Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livius, often shortened to Discourses on Livy, was written around 1517 and published posthumously, in 1531. Building on his “free interpretation” of the history of the Roman republic, as well as his own experiences of the fate of the Florentine republic, Discourses became Machiavelli’s great contribution to modern republicanism. “Where no equality exists,” wrote Machiavelli, sounding more Occupy Wall Street than Renaissance, “a republic cannot be created.”
Scholar John P. McCormick has been instrumental in bringing Machiavelli’s ideas of democracy to the center of political science with his book Machiavellian Democracy (2011). In a journal article of 2001, he explains how Machiavelli argued for the necessity of a strong popular, even populist stance against elites.
McCormick characterizes Machiavellian democracy “as an institutional mix of popular representation and direct popular participation, as well as a political culture driven by an active rather than passive sociopolitical orientation.” He was pessimistic about the power of elections on their own, but, in McCormick’s words, he held that “auxiliary government institutions that facilitate direct political action and an antagonistic political culture are required as well.”
The problem of democracy since the Greeks invented it, as Machiavelli argued, is that elites are perpetually “motivated by a will to dominate.” The appetite for power and control by the wealthy is perpetual, and can only be tempered by the many.
Having experienced the Medici strappado—in which he was hoisted into the air by his wrists and repeatedly dropped—and the condescension of the Florentine grandi during the republic, Machiavelli really didn’t like elites. But in a republic, there was probably no way to get around them. The point was to keep them honest. To preserve liberty, Machiavelli postulated the vital necessity of class rivalry.
So which “Machiavellian mechanisms of participation, responsiveness, and accountability” might be applicable in this century? McCormick cites others on “independent campaign, information, and auditing bodies;” “veto or better appellate institutions, through which electorates might review or amend decisions of elected elites;” and “extraelectoral democratic procedures to deal with social issues.”
These all go against the small- and even anti-government tenor of our times. Ironically, the long heritage of democracy as popular self-government may need Machiavellians to reinvigorate it.