Times Chronicle & Public Spirit
From Rome: Populism and partisanship in another land
ROME » I write this sitting at a cafe in front of the Italian Parliament, waiting for the president to resign. After two years of watching my own countrymen try and get rid of our leader in two partisan and meritless impeachment shams, the last thing I wanted was to spend my vacation in Rome watching another country give the premature pink slip to its head of state. But here I am. And it triggers a few thoughts.
Unlike Donald Trump, who was the object of a sustained campaign by his political enemies to eliminate him before his term ended, Mario Draghi, leader of the Italian Republic, is resigning. The reasons are too complicated to explain in a column like this, written by a columnist with only a basic understanding of Italian law, but suffice it to say that he’s lost the support and confidence of enough legislators to essentially paralyze the government. Bills aren’t getting through. Trash is (literally) piling up in the streets. Salaries aren’t being paid. And coalitions that once existed have fractured. It’s sad, and it was avoidable. But something has happened in the last few years that have made the avoidable inevitable. Actually, two things: populism and partisanship. When they’re combined, they upend the democratic process.
Let’s start with populism. On its face, it’s a good thing. Government works for the people. The corollary is that people should have the final say in the laws and policies that impact them, not elected bureaucrats who become increasingly separated from those they represent. But the “people” don’t always agree on priorities. They can work against each other. And when that happens, like the Tower of Babel, you have stasis, dysfunction and paralysis.
Populism is often the enemy of compromise, which is the hallmark of democracy. A recent FB discussion with my friend Dawn bears this out. We were discussing how Republicans should deal with abortion post Roe. Personally, I want a ban on the procedure with only one exception: life of the mother. Dawn is very pro life but pointed out that most of the country supports at least some abortion availability up to the 12th week. That’s infanticide to me. But my position will not win elections in the short term and will lead to the elimination of any loyal opposition to the abortion industry in our government. So, as Dawn points out, we need to compromise. That is what the overturning of Roe means. Now, the people can speak. The difficult task that awaits is to figure out which voices should sway policy, not which voices get to paralyze the process.
But where populism is, in theory, a very good thing, partisanship is not. It never was. Putting political affiliation before country or state or city is unpatriotic. It’s also immoral. If you’ve spent any time in Philadelphia over the last six decades, you know that if you’re not a Democrat, you won’t win an election. Philly Democrats are zombies when it comes to voting: if it’s “R,” they’ll stay far, if it’s “D,” they’ll vote with glee.
When people work against each other, either out of personal hostility, fear of the other or general apathy, governments fall to the default level of mediocrity.
It’s interesting to watch your own country go through the same crazy and narcissistic acts that have just sunk another government abroad. The ocean provides interesting perspective. I love America just as much as anyone on the January 6 commission, just as much as AOC, just as much as Larry Krasner, just as much as the readers who call me an advocate for treason. Being abroad when another government falls to its worst actors makes me love America even more. It also makes me worry about her continued ability to function in a world of confused, partisan narcissists for whom compromise is like a crucifix to a vampire.