While there is nothing better than watching Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni explain marriage Italian style, watching government styles is a bit more challenging. A recent editorial in The Washington Post compared the current gridlock up and down Pennsylvania to the recent Italian elections:

“Politics in Washington has become far worse than the traditional partisan to-and-fro inherent in any democracy. It now presents a danger to orderly day-to-day governance of the country. Politics is no longer the art of the possible; it is bad theater. We are lurching perilously close to becoming Italy, where citizens appear to have given up on being self-governing citizens and instead have cynically chosen reality TV. Criminally implicated tycoons and comedians vie for the presidency; these candidates appeal to many Italians because they provide a diversion from a government in perpetual crisis. We laugh at the Italians, but give us another four years of fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns and debt limits, and the famously optimistic and forward-looking American people may surprise us with their cynical response to Washington’s refusal to govern rationally.”

While the author is lamenting the current gridlock in Washington, the reference to Italy suggests that the loss of confidence in politics leads to a general cynicism undermining trust in leaders and institutions. And there is lots of evidence that this trend is growing—not only in Italy but  also throughout Europe and the U.S.

Beating up on Washington, DC is a political hobby as old as the country. Ever since the District of Colombia was created, it has been the target of critique from all sides of the political spectrum. Despite the early warnings of George Washington about the perils of political parties, the clashes between them have been part of the fabric of Washington culture for over two centuries. They have evolved on various forms and with changing champions and platforms. But with all their faults, political parties have also been able to sustain and serve the American political system.

Yet the feeling today is that, to borrow a title from a current analysis of the problem, the situation “is even worse than it looks” (taken from It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, by Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein).The stalemate over sequestration now appears to be the symbol of a deeper malaise in which the efforts to find common ground across the political debating fields are fruitless. Hence the reference to the Italian elections as a benchmark of political alienation among voters heralds a dangerous trend toward a declining denominator in political culture. Governability itself becomes a casualty when political leaders and their parties become caricatures of themselves.

In the U.S., both the structure and the process of decision-making in Washington have been weakened by the very components on which both were built. The incentives and rewards among a large and diverse group of elected representatives have been so altered that the forces of confrontation can outweigh those of compromise. The American system of government has morphed into a more parliamentary style of organization without the basis for it to successfully create coalitions across party lines. The result is the stalemate we now have over the sequester policy.

The process of electing members of Congress, both to the House and the Senate, have significantly decreased the incentives of the members of either chamber to seek common ground across party lines—a trend enhanced by the power of television and radio encouraging such behavior and an obscene amount of money flowing into the election campaigns. The vast majority of the 535 members of Congress enjoy comfortable majorities in their respective elections. Instead of generating a stronger basis of confidence to engage in national leadership, the incentive is to sustain the majority at home at all costs and therefore ward off any challengers in future elections.

In Europe, where parliamentary systems dominate the political landscape, one majority—either one party or a coalition—selects the government leaving the minority to wait for the next election cycle. Yet the challenges facing political parties in Europe are similar to those in the U.S. There is a declining level of trust and confidence in the parties to govern. The measure of that can be found in both diminishing party memberships as well as the emergence of opposition style movements which register voter anger or alienation. The Germans have a word for it—Verdrossenheit—which can describe alienation directed at parties or politicians. Across Europe, such movements have emerged from Finland to Greece, in which the voters choose to vent their frustration with those governing them, while not always doing so with a clear sense of how to improve the situation. Though Italy has produced its version in the form of the Five Star movement, Germany has seen a more recent version in the Pirate Party. The question is whether these movements represent apathy or antipathy directed at their respective political systems, at their European neighbors, or even at the European Union as embodied in Brussels.

Some would ring alarm bells about this trend by reminding us of the conditions in the 1930’s which laid the groundwork for political extremism. While such scenarios seem farfetched now, the challenge governments are facing across Europe and in the U.S. is to restore a sufficient channel of communication with the voters to deal with rising levels of distrust, suspicion and polarization that have emerged on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

Voters challenged to make sacrifices become impatient with governments when they are unclear or unconvinced about the need for the belt-tightening. They become incensed when they see incompetence or corruption in the ranks of those who govern. Blaming the government can be self serving for those pushing back against the need for real reform which can demand sacrifice. Yet the loss of confidence in institutions is not limited to political parties or the government. It has infected perceptions of religious affiliations, corporate entities, and the media.

Amidst all these problems, there remains a hunger for leadership, and indeed for a path of purpose, including the need for change. Yet what is often the hardest dimension for this leadership to achieve is authenticity.

Right now in Washington, the battle over the budgetary trenches leaves most Americans without a sense of authenticity about the debate. There is a perception that politicians have a preference for more posturing than effective policy-making. In Europe, there is the battle over the euro, which is illustrative of the lack of authentic purpose for the European Union—a purpose with which voters can identify.

On both sides of the Atlantic there is a premium placed on trust just at a time when it seems hard to feel and find. Political leaders are hard pressed to respond. But unless they do, the basis of citizen participation in their future and the future of their democracy is in jeopardy.

Italy’s current trifecta – a government crisis, an uncertain presidency and no Pope in the Vatican – is just one more reminder.


Further analysis on the topic of political parties and their electorates:

“Elections – American Style, By Jack Janes. Originally published for Zetischrift fuer Politik in June, 2012