Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Italian Cutting Edge Politics

In my last post I spoke of options for Americans thinking of moving away from the United States. Several of my correspondents asked what country or countries I held in high regard for their political systems. They all acknowledge Italy’s prestigious standing in the worlds of art, style and food but tend to regard Italy’s political traditions as something of a bad joke. The record needs to be corrected.

Throughout human history Italy, or what is now known as Italy, has often been at the vanguard of political innovation. Some examples from the distant past to the present:

1. The Roman Republic- While Plato had written “The Republic” in Greece, the Roman Republic still gets some points for durability and growth, expanding from the city of Rome to most of Italy and parts of France and Egypt in its 482 years. Legal structures developed there evolved into the Justinian and Napoleonic Codes. The Republic turned into an empire when some successful generals made their triumphal returns, a model that has served countless other places. Both George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower rejected that scenario but it may have taken hold in the US in spite of Ike’s protestations.

2. The Roman Empire- It has never really been matched in terms of its control of the world, as the world was known at its time. Much later, Great Britain created an empire extending to the far corners of the earth but it still divided up the world with competing colonial powers. Other attempts at world domination by Germany and the Soviet Union failed much more abruptly than did the Roman Empire. The American Empire may still be expanding (it now has military bases in ¾ of the world’s nations) but clear signs of the decadence that led to the fall of Rome have appeared, suggesting that it will not approach the more than four centuries of the Roman Empire.
3. Emperor Constantine ( The Big Switcher)- After centuries of the Romans persecuting Christians, Constantine accepted Christianity, thereby leading Rome to become the geographical home to (most of) the Christian Church. In recent times we’ve seen other big switchers, even if none had the historical impact of Constantine.
  1. Theodore Roosevelt, the US President and a member of the Republican Party, which has traditionally been the party of Big Business, led the charge to break up huge monopolistic corporations such as US Steel, and Standard Oil , which were getting to have more power than the US Government itself.
  2. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon- From the Civil War on, the solid south had been the exclusive domain of the Democratic Party, controlled by unrepentant white former Confederates. In passing the Civil Rights Act, LBJ knowingly surrendered political control of the South for a generation or two because some things just had to be done. Nixon collaborated with the big turnaround through his southern strategy, converting the party of Lincoln to the party of white racist southerners, and so it has remained for half a century. Nixon qualifies twice as a big switcher since the former red baiter opened up dialog and relations with communist China, something no Democrat of those days could have gotten away with.
  3. Bill Clinton- His changes may have seemed subtle but as a popular Democratic president, he embraced and passed more Republican policies, albeit in a seemingly softer, more humane form, from welfare reform and free trade treaties to draconian drug sentencing guidelines and balanced budgets, than any Republican president in the post-WWII era.
4. The Papal States- For many centuries the Pope ruled much of what we think of as Italy. While Italian unification in 1861 ended Papal rule and the RC Church headquarters has withered away to the tiny Vatican State established in 1929 in the heart of Rome, the Papal State has served as the model for theocracies around the world, ranging from Iran to two of America’s most important allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Il Duce
5. Benito Mussolini- The fascia was an old Roman symbol, also adopted by the USA and still appearing, the last time I looked, on the US 10 cent coin, but it was Mussolini who named a political movement after it, defining fascism as “the militarist state merged with corporate power”. His was a model for the regimes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Franco’s Spain, followed by an endless stream of South American military regimes. More recently, although his name and symbol are never invoked, his precedent is the unacknowledged model for the emerging American unitary superpower regime, although the preferred labels of adherents are now Neocon and Neolib, depending on whether the reference is to foreign or economic policy advisers. While “Italian style” is usually seen in a different light, there is no denying that Mussolini’s posturing has set the style for Donald Trump’s campaign for the presidency. Mussolini’s vanity invasions of Greece and parts of Africa to burnish his international reputation as a forceful leader, could be seen as the inspiration for those of George W. Bush, and the results were similar.
6. Bettino Craxi- Over a remarkably long stretch in political terms, Craxi developed the art of maintaining personal power and wealth by using fear of the left and disgust with the right to position himself as the inevitable alternative. Posing as a traditional man of the left (head of the Socialist Party) he espoused policies of the right. While his reign crashed to an ignominious exile, his disciples are legion, with such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barrack Obama replicating his electoral success. In Clinton’s case, it’s been called triangulation. More recent practitioners are called moderate democrats.
7. Silvio Berlusconi- Starting as a cruise ship entertainer, he went into real estate development, then moved into media, creating a near monopoly of private TV networks and controlling a majority of print media, as well as owning one of Italy’s best known football (soccer) clubs. He then started his own political party, Forza Italia, formerly the rallying cry of the Italian national team, with which he ascended to the premiership of the country. That in turn made him the titular head of the national public radio and TV networks, along with his ownership of very nearly all private stations and the agencies that sell something like 90% of all TV advertising. While Silvio Berlusconi was able to become both Italy’s wealthiest man and the head of its government, the USA may be too large an economy for any one person to put together that sort of influence, but it won’t be because nobody tries. Rupert Murdoch has come closest to seizing control of the media in the manner of Berlusconi, taking over publications worldwide, ranging from the London Times and the Wall Street Journal to the NY Post and other tabloids, while simultaneously starting the Fox Networks. Fox TV has grown rapidly using the Berlusconi model of featuring sports, game shows, good looking, under-dressed women and right-wing slanted, sensationalist news. While Murdoch never entered the politically fray personally (he was after all, an Australian by birth) his political influence has been enormous. The more obvious disciple of Berlusconi at this moment would be Donald Trump. He got his start as a real estate developer and then moved into the entertainment business, much like the original, except for Silvio’s early start in show business. Both men are widely regarded as rude and obnoxious but admired, by some, for their business acumen, as well as for their outspoken manner. They both tend to objectify women and inspire the wrath of feminists everywhere, although both have appointed women, usually young and attractive, to positions of influence. Berlusconi rose to power despite objections over his conflicts of interest. While conflict of interest has never been a concept much contemplated in Italy, it was a subject of serious concern in the US a few decades back. In steamrolling the concept, he seems to have made conflict of interest into an absolute non-issue for all candidates everywhere, including those running in current US elections.
Beppe Grillo
8. Beppe Grillo- While Mark Twain and W.C. Fields are still remembered, the politicians they verbally skewered have mostly disappeared into the trash heap of history. Comics such as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor all were funny but with a political edge. Recently, Americans have taken to getting their news and politically commentary from comedians like Jon Stewart, Steven Colbert and John Oliver, who they trust more than the main stream media. Trusted or not, none of them have started a political movement or a party. Beppe Grillo is just one of many talented Italian comedians with a sharp eye for politics. His profane anger resembles that of George Carlin, and unsatisfied with merely conducting a perpetual rant, he has created his own political movement from scratch, much as did Berlusconi. For legal reasons, he is ineligible to run for office himself. He has a very different constituency, not unlike that of Bernie Sanders. Coming out of nowhere, his Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle or M5S) has taken off like a rocket, upsetting all the political pundits, parties and leaders. His movement calls for the reduction of political salaries and perks, and is based on a list of five stellar issues: public water; sustainable transport; sustainable development; the right to internet access, and environmentalism. The mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, is from the M5S.
PM Renzi
9. Matteo Renzi- Head of the Partito Democratico and Prime Minister for 2-1/2 years, Renzi probably should not be on this list of Italian political innovators since he closely follows the pattern established by Bettino Craxi, described above. However, he seems to be taking that model to a whole new level. His party started life as the Partito Comunista Italiana (PCI) and some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall decided that it might be more diplomatic to change its name, so it became the PDS, the Democratic Party of the Left. As the winds of change blew from the right, the PDS shed its skin again and became the PD, Partito Democratico. Renzi is currently pushing a referendum to revise the Constitution, eliminating one chamber of Parliament and replacing the constitution with one devised by JP Morgan, with the assistance of Tony Blair and the full backing of Barrack Obama. Renzi has pledged support for their pet democracy-ending scheme, the TTIP (the European version of the TTP). It only remains to be seen when the party will drop the D from the PD. What’s next, the P? Or perhaps the Partito Unificato (PU)?


De Mita


10. At the risk of offending feminists out there, I’d like to end this piece on a much needed cheerful note. Thirty or forty years ago, Italian politicians were almost all old, male and remarkably unpleasant to behold, sometimes even more painful to hear, regardless of their political orientation or their effectiveness. Perhaps it is part of the Berlusconi legacy but in the past decade, there has been a trend, across the political spectrum, to see attractive and often intelligent young women holding political office. Whether or not this will improve the performance of government is yet to be known but what is certain is that the political shows on TV will be less painful to watch. Will the US once again follow Italian trends and make Tulsi Gabbard president in 2020?
Minister Maria Elena Boschi
Mayor Virginia Raggi

Gabbard for President 2020

No comments: