While American political junkies are consumed with the wonderfully volatile reality show called "The Republican Presidential Primaries," a somewhat more serious, and perhaps more consequential, political drama is underway in Italy.
After a decade of corrupt misrule by the rich and randy Silvio Berlusconi, Italy teeters on the brink of bankruptcy. Italian government debt stands at 120% of the country’s GDP. The country is close to default, but not even Germany has enough money to bail out Europe’s third-largest economy. A collapse in the land of la dolce vita would very likely bring an end to the Eurozone. It would wreak so much havoc on the global financial system that we would end up wishing for a return to the good old days of 2008 when all we had to worry about was Wall Street shysters plundering our 401(k)s.
The potential for disaster is so frightening that even the clownishly dysfunctional multiparty Italian political system has responded by coming up with an unusually sober remedy. In November, Italy’s president asked an unelected, Yale-educated economist and university president named Mario Monti to take over as prime minister.
According to a profile of Monti in the current Time magazine, "he reigns over Rome like a new Caesar." Most of the leading political parties have called a truce in their usual ideological battles and are backing Monti as he tries to radically reform and reinvigorate the nation’s rigid, unproductive economic system.
Creditors, bankers and European officials are reassured by Monti’s professionalism and lack of ties to any political faction. As a result, the financial crisis has eased, for now. The only worry is that, as the situation improves, there will be less motivation for the political parties to give him room to force change. A return to politics as usual would be a return to the brink.
There are lessons in the Italian experience for Americans.
The first one is obvious: Stop borrowing and spending before a point is reached where the bills cannot be paid.
A second lesson is even more important because it is a key factor in seeing that the first lesson is acted on: Do not let political parties become so divided by ideology that they cannot work together for the common good.
For much of the country’s history, the U.S. political system has functioned well in times of crisis because there has always been men and women in both parties who could work across the aisle to hammer out solutions. Both the Democratic and Republican parties were broad coalitions and, though one leaned right and one leaned left, they thrived only when they catered to the political center.
That has changed.
Both parties have evolved in the direction of European parliamentary parties with a narrower philosophical range and a constant eye on the next election. The Republicans, in particular, have become more militant, uncompromising and ideologically purist.
At last week’s annual gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference, South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint gave a full-throated expression of the new attitude. He compared politics to the Super Bowl, where competing teams do not try to work together because they are heading in opposite directions on the field. Compromise only works when you have shared goals, DeMint said. "We don’t have shared goals with the Democrats."
Obviously Republicans and Democrats are competitors and have competing ideas about how best to run the country, but DeMint is wrong to say the parties have no shared goals. In effect, he is saying only one side cares about America, so the other side must be forcefully opposed on every play. Over the last three years, this approach has turned Congress into something worse than an endless football game; it has become an ineffectual, stymied parliament. Effective action to deal with the U.S. economic crisis has been put off over and over again.
Keep it up and we might just see the United States turn into Italy.