Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Resolving The Democratic Dilemma: Contestation, Anti-Power and Democracy

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Version 2 2023-09-22, 02:15
Version 1 2021-12-08, 14:53
posted on 2023-09-22, 02:15 authored by Samuele Tonello

This thesis in divided in two main parts. First, I develop the claim that current democracies are unable to properly defend what I deem the pivotal feature to evaluate the quality of a political system - namely the people’s liberty - due to what I call a twofold democratic dilemma. On the one hand, common citizens are affected by biases that compromise their ability to successfully maintain forms of self-government. On the other hand, even representative forms of democracy that limit to a certain degree the people’s power are threatened by an oligarchic power. That is, oligarchs are using their wealth power to sway governments towards pursuing oligarchic interests rather than common ones, thus hindering the people’s liberty. For this reason, I argue that we ought to rely on Pettit’s view of liberty as non-domination to resolve the democratic dilemma. The thesis conceives these two threats as two forms of domination that must be avoided and focuses on adding a supplementary editorial and contestatory dimension of democracy to the classical participatory one. Republicanism could offer a solution to both sides of the dilemma. On the one hand, citizens’ political task would be more compatible with the people’s biases, since citizens would limit their participation to control that government’s policies do not entail oligarchic domination. On the other hand, framing liberty as a battle between dominating masters and dominated slaves, republicanism could offer the many the institutional means to counteract elites’ political domination. In this way, I conclude the first part of the thesis, but this opens the gates to the main question of the thesis, namely to how we should structure this contestatory democracy. The problem is that whereas republican scholars agree on the importance of setting freedom as non-domination at the basis of our political systems, there is no such agreement on the best way to institutionally enhance the republican ideal. I analyse this debate, maintaining that while Pettitt’s ideal is the view to pursue, we should reject his editorial solution because small committees of experts are likely to increase oligarchic domination rather than to protect the people’s liberty. Rejecting Pettit’s model does not yet imply refusing any editorial model, since I argue that critical scholars mistakenly identify the editorial component of democracy with Pettit’s answer only. In this way, they neglect alternative solutions to Pettit’s, such as Bellamy’s and McCormick’s. Having explained that Bellamy’s solution does not resolve the democratic dilemma, since this scholar rejects editorial bodies, I argue that McCormick’s “Machiavellian Democracy” framed on a divided conception of the populace offers instead the solution I am looking for. Institutionally recognizing the social differences among the populace, we could create modern bodies similar to the Roman “Tribune of the Plebs” to offer the weaker part of the population a class-specific institution to use as defence from oligarchic domination. The problem is how to implement a modern “Tribune of the plebs” making sure that these bodies are effective but popular in character at the same time. I thus explain how modern editorial tribunates could work in practice, drawing from McCormick’s “thought experiment”. I agree with most of McCormick’s ideas – lottery selection, wealth threshold exclusion, large size tribunates, etc. - but I suggest that we must review some of his suggestions with features more concerned with improving the people’s knowledge – specialization, education selection, etc. Hence, I conclude the thesis describing my thought experiment of a system of Specialized Ministerial Tribunates. In this way, I argue that we could better resolve the democratic dilemma. On the one hand, tribunates’ editorship would be more specific and would not require members of the tribunate to analyse the operation of governments on a too broad spectrum, thus reducing the problems of the people’s biases. On the other hand, tribunates’ operation could be primarily connected to detecting oligarchic features in the policies enacted by single ministries, thus challenging more precisely any oligarchic influence over governments. In sum, I argue that an editorial dimension could produce significant improvements to the people’s liberty. Thanks to a modern “Tribune of the plebs”, citizens could participate more meaningfully in politics, while taming more efficiently the influence oligarchs have on how modern societies are politically directed.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

CC BY-ND 4.0

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Marquez, Xavier; Timperley, Claire