An American in Rome reflects on how his home country is coming to mirror the broken politics of his adopted country.
By Eric J. Lyman
A man in central Naples on November 16th, 2011. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
More than any United States election to date, the campaign between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been characterized by vicious character attacks, television coverage consisting of surrogates shouting over each other, and voters from both camps demonizing the other side.
By most measures, this election represents a new low in American public discourse. But it’s not new to me. Why? Because I live in Italy.
Italy has been the butt of political jokes around the world as far back as anyone can remember — and not without good reason. Since the country’s post-World War II constitution came into effect 70 years ago, Italy has had 64 different governments. In that span, only two prime ministers managed to serve out a full five-year term — and both did it despite at least one governmental collapse on their watch.
When I moved to Italy 17 years ago, the country’s political process seemed like an elaborate, horrifying joke: Fistfights sometimes broke out in parliament, and lawmakers were so unwilling to compromise that outdated laws often remained on the books for decades. With frail governments focused on avoiding collapse and punishing the opposition more than on governing, the country steadily slipped from near the top of the list of the world’s most competitive economies to among the lowest in the industrialized world. Corruption was rampant. Italian friends told me they learned to expect less and less from those in power, yet governments nearly always failed to live up to even diminished expectations.
The American political process I so admired was beginning to mirror the Italian system I thought was so broken.
I admit I felt a little smug when I compared the two political systems in conversation with Italians. I often wrote about politics and had even worked on one gubernatorial-level political campaign in Florida. I was aware the U.S. system had its own set of problems. But from my vantage point in Rome, it looked pretty good in comparison.
I travel back to the U.S. once or twice a year, which gives me a broader perspective than someone who lives in America year-round. Over time, an equally horrifying realization began to take shape: The American political process I so admired was beginning to mirror the Italian system I thought was so broken.
Fear and intolerance of anyone “different” started to bubble up in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks, leading to the Patriot Act that curtailed civil liberties. Soon after, misinformation was instrumental in convincing the country to support a war in Iraq. The election of Barack Obama in 2008 brought the admission from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that his top priority was not to govern but to ensure that “President Obama [would become] a one-term president.” During the 2009 State of the Union speech, South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson broke with all legislative protocol to shout, “You lie!” as Obama spoke. Threats of government shutdowns seemed to loom at the end of every budget cycle, and, in 2013, the government actually stopped operating for 16 days. Since then, the Senate has refused to consider presidential appointments, even for a position as essential as a vacancy on the Supreme Court, something that has crippled that august body.
Now, the 2016 presidential election and its shouting, finger-pointing, leaked information, and alternate reality seem to have completed the transformation.
This development has not been lost on Italians.
“For those of us familiar with the Italian political scene, following what is happening in the U.S. is a little like re-watching a horror movie,” says Gian Franco Gallo, a senior political affairs analyst with ABS Securities in Milan.
It remains to be seen whether what is happening in the U.S. is simply the extreme end of the political pendulum’s swing, or the most recent point on a long continuum. But, worried, I asked a few Italian political experts what that might mean for my native country if discourse continues in the same direction beyond November 8th.
“Italy has paid a very high price for its political divisions,” says Giovanni Orsina, director of the School of Government and the European Studies Program at LUISS University in Rome. “When one side sees the other side’s victory as a catastrophe, it undermines the democratic process.”
That is true on several fronts, Orsina explains, from undermining the authority of elected officials to the rush to undo reforms passed by the previous government each time a new party takes power.
Furio Colombo, a former Italian senator and the author of several books on American politics, agrees.
“I always thought there was something quite beautiful about the U.S. spirit of compromise and pragmatism,” says Colombo, who also worked in Washington as a correspondent for Italian newspapers. “But that’s being replaced now by excessive violence and vulgarity. I think that whatever the result of this election, a lot of damage has been done.”
“For those of us familiar with the Italian political scene, following what is happening in the U.S. is a little like re-watching a horror movie.”
Colombo continues: “This kind of change is like a stain on light-colored clothing: it’s very visible and it’s not easy to get rid of.”
After a time, Gallo says, voters become desensitized by all the distortions and the accusations— something that probably makes it more difficult to go back to the quieter pragmatism of the past.
“If, the next time around, one candidate tries to take the high road and not engage in character attacks and finger-pointing, that candidate could seem weak and unengaged by many voters,” Gallo says. “Unless there’s some kind of significant voter backlash, you almost have to expect the volume to be raised a little each time.”
If that indeed happens, Orsina says, it could eventually paralyze the country’s political machinery.
“Words like ‘traitor’ or ‘crooked’ or ‘deplorable’ are not political pronouncements, they are moral judgments that pollute the discourse and erode the legitimacy of the other side,” Orsina says. “When that happens, whoever wins takes power as a delegitimized figure, a leader without a concrete mandate. It’s a recipe for big problems.”
According to Colombo, the price could be high if the U.S. ends up following the path taken earlier by Italy and some other European states.
“The European problems are limited somewhat by the smaller sphere of influence for each country and the fact that they play off each other,” he says. “But what happens in the U.S. has an impact on every corner of the world. Everyone would suffer.”