The spirit of democracy

We had dinner in D.C. with a friend and her new boyfriend not long after the 2016 election. He’s a civil servant, high up in a federal bureaucracy, so I took the opportunity to ask him what many of us were worried about: Would the new administration destroy American democracy?

He was no fan of the president-elect, but he reassured me that American republicanism was up to the challenge. Our norms and institutions, including our federal bureaucracy, would easily withstand this threat.

Just over five hundred years ago, a similar threat presented itself to republican Florence when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici took over the city with a papal army. The Florentine historian and political theorist Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary and an acquaintance of his countryman Nicollo Machiavelli, wondered if Florence’s republic would survive the invasion.

Guicciardini’s Florence were a liberty-loving people. This was significant to Guicciardini because it limited what a would-be tyrant could do. A ruler, Guicciardini thought, was limited by the nature of the people he ruled. In a way, this approach to how a city could be governed anticipates Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. Both Guicciardini and Montesquieu argued not for government based on universal standards but based on what a particular people needed. Guicciardini believed that “it is useless to speak of government abstractly and in general,” summarizes J. G. A. Pocock in his 1975 book The Machiavellian Moment. “One must take into account the individual character (natura) of both the people and the area (luogo, sito) to be governed.”1  And for the Florentines who were used to governing themselves, “good government is no substitute for self-government.”2

Guicciardini examined his country’s past. The Florentines were “anciently free.” (Pocock here characterizes Guicciardini’s thoughts.) Maybe the Florentines had taken a hiatus from this freedom in the years before the Medici family first came to power in 1434 to resolve Florence’s extreme factionalism, Guicciardini acknowledged, but Florence was free when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici and his army invaded Florence in 1512.3 In 1495, in fact, a year after the Medici family was first overthrown, Florence had adopted a constitution that included the Consiglio Grande, a legislative body that institutionalized a democratic element in the Florentine republic. Thanks to the Consiglio Grande, according to historian Kenneth Bartlett, “never before had so many [Florentine] citizens been able to serve the state.”4 Even before the new constitution, Guicciardini argued, Florence was (again, in Pocock’s words) “addicted to concerning themselves with public business.”5

Detail from Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Leo X and His Cousins, Cardinals Giulio de’ Medici and Luigi de’ Rossi (1518 – 1519).

Such an addiction can change a people, Guicciardini argued:

The natures of the men, or at least their social and political dispositions, can be changed; but the only two forces recognized as capable of working such a change are custom and use on the one hand, which work slowly, and political participation on the other, which quickly works effects that it takes time to undo.6

Based on the quick work of Florence’s democratic innovations, Guicciardini concluded, the reign of the restored Medici was insecure.3 If de’ Medici was to be successful in converting Florence to an autocracy, he had better act slowly.

One wonders if the 2016 election found the United States with the “custom and use” of democracy or with the “political participation” to withstand the president’s depredations. Before the election, had we been fundamentally transformed in Guicciardini’s sense by our custom and use or by our experience of political participation? Would a ruler’s actions taken to delegitimize our elections, our intelligence community, our free press, and truth itself come across as acting “suddenly and brutally,” to use how Pocock describes Guicciardini’s characterization of the Medici’s actions, so that there would be little opportunity for the people “to forget the experience of citizenship”?8

I don’t think so. Our public realm, for the most part, is but a sleep and a forgetting. We have little democratic “custom and usage” or “political participation.” Voting is important, but it isn’t democracy. (Until the recent past, in fact, voting was considered an aristocratic practice; sortition was the more democratic way of filling offices.9) We have forgotten what Tocqueville discovered about us a generation after the Founding, which can be described in the same way that Sheldon S. Wolin defined democracy: “originating or initiating cooperative action with others . . . throughout the society in response to felt needs.” Through this action, “political experience is being made accessible, experience that compels individuals to deal with the complexity of interests and the conflicting claims that have hitherto been reserved for politicians and bureaucrats.”10 This is the transformative experience that would slow down or stop Guicciardini’s would-be tyrant. Instead of this, however, we have what Wolin in 1989 called “a politics without memory” and a “democracy without the citizen.”11

Florence’s democracy, limited though it was, exceeded ours in direct participation. Despite this, just before Medici’s army entered Florence in 1512, most of the functions of the Consiglio Grande had been taken over by an aristocratic senate.12 Likewise, we began to self-identify more as consumers than as citizens long before 2016. Wolin, in fact, wrote Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism eleven years before our last presidential election. We’re used to being managed.

Medici, who later became Pope Leo X, and his successors in Florence ultimately destroyed the country’s republic. From the time of the 1512 invasion, the Medici family ruled Florence continuously until 1737.

  1. J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment, at 141.
  2. Id. at 141.
  3.  Id.
  4. Kenneth Bartlett, The Italian Renaissance Course Guidebook, The Teaching Company 2005, at 162.
  5. Pocock, supra.
  6. Id. at 144. This is, again, Pocock’s summary of Guicciardini’s writing.
  7.  Id.
  8. Id. at 143.
  9.  Id. at 134; see also Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws 2.2 (13): “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy.”
  10. Sheldon S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past, at 150.
  11. Id. at 184.
  12. Pocock, supra, at 122.