ESSAY- Machiavellian: How to fight corruption of money

What is to be done about the influence of big money on the American political system? Judging from a recent Supreme Court decision that ruled Vermont's highly restrictive campaign-finance laws unconstitutional, the justices are as confused as any of us. The vote was 6-3, but the opinions were all over the place on the question of how closely connected the First Amendment right to support a candidate is to the "right," if there is one, to support that candidate with cash.

Just maybe we're attacking the problem of money and politics from the wrong direction. And maybe the man with the answer is Machiavelli. Not Machiavelli the student of political intrigue and amoral expediency, but Machiavelli the constitutional theorist– the one who, more so than our Founding Fathers, worried about how to check the influence of wealthy elites.

Or so suggests John McCormick, a political theorist at the University of Chicago. In an article in a recent issue of The American Political Science Review, McCormick argues that the Founders were far more concerned about curbing the power of "the masses, the mob, the multitude" than the wealthy. As a result, they ignored a longstanding tradition in constitutional theory– embraced and expounded upon by Machiavelli in his famous ``Discourses on Livy"– arguing that governments require special institutional features to guarantee the common man a voice.

"The campaign-financing issue exacerbates the problem of money in a democracy," McCormick says in an interview, "but the deeper foundational issue is that in electoral republics you already have a built-in bias for the wealthy."

The Founders tried to avoid such a bias by decreeing, for example, that there would be no property requirements for congressional candidates. But Machiavelli recognized that such formally open systems still prefer candidates with good educations, honed speaking skills, and the time and money to campaign. Elections, to him, basically amounted to the common people deciding who among the elite would govern them.

After that, there was little to check the ``insolence" of the grandi. Machiavelli therefore held in high esteem institutions like Rome's tribune of the plebeians, common people elected by their peers out of the larger council of the plebeians, from which aristocrats were excluded. The tribunes could veto resolutions passed by Rome's aristocratic Senate, and did– nixing, for example, proposals to distribute grain in ways that disadvantaged the poor. 

In his ``Discourses," in which Machiavelli proposed a constitution for Florence, he included a feature based on the Roman model.

There were several students of constitutional theory among the American Founders, men like James Madison, who was familiar with Machiavelli. So why didn't the Founders build more skepticism of elites into the government they designed? Why did no one, for example, propose an income ceiling on candidates for the House of Representatives?

Some founders, including John Adams, did speak of a "mixed government" featuring an aristocratic Senate and a plebeian House, but that kind of talk was viewed by most Americans as too Old World. Since the Constitution was ratified, however, various efforts have been made to build in checks on the power of monied elites: public referenda, for example, and the direct election of senators.

But McCormick has a more radically Machiavellian idea. He proposes amending the Constitution to create America's own Tribunate Assembly. (Yes, he realizes this is not going to happen anytime soon.)

McCormick's Tribunate would consist of 51 private citizens (more or less a random number), selected by lottery (no campaign expenses!) from among those whose household net worth falls below $345,000, thereby excluding the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. In his thought experiment, the plebeians, during one-year terms, would discuss the business of government five days a week and would be empowered to veto one Supreme Court decision, one act of congressional legislation, and one executive order each year. They could also call one nationwide referendum on any issue they chose, and initiate impeachment proceedings.

McCormick notes that modern republics ``are no less vulnerable than their historical antecedents to corruption, subversion, and usurpation by the wealthy," yet needless to say, his idea, and his criticism of the Founders, raise some eyebrows among his peers. Sean Wilentz, a professor of history at Princeton and author of the recent book The Rise of American Democracy, writes in an e-mail that McCormick's argument "in a sense, misses the point." The Founders, he says, explicitly wanted to do away with any connection between branches of government and ``particular social estates or classes," creating a wholly new idea of popular sovereignty.

And given how egalitarian the Constitution was for its time, some scholars find it a bit odd to complain that it wasn't egalitarian enough. As evidence of the document's democratic radicalism, Yale Law School's Akhil Reed Amar, author of America's Constitution: A Biography, points to the fact that federal representatives receive salaries (so the nonwealthy might serve), and even the requirement that senators must be at least 30 years old (so the name recognition of the well-born would not skew elections).

Still, most agree with McCormick that checking the provincial views of uneducated citizens was also a goal of the Constitution's representative system of government. The representatives, they expected, would be a "natural aristocracy" of the talented. But McCormick argues that with the Founders' eyes on the problems of direct democracy, they neglected to properly consider the corrupting influences of wealth. Had they remembered their Machiavelli, they might have been more suspicious of those natural aristocrats, McCormick writes– and of the people who would one day finance their campaigns.