This week Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister, convicted tax cheat and survivor of serial scandals, ordered ministers from his People of Liberty party to quit the ruling coalition and thus bring down Italy’s beleaguered five-month-old government.
It remains to be seen whether Berlusconi’s gambit will restore his political fortunes -- but, then again, you might think, Who cares? Everybody knows that Italy is ungovernable, that its system of government is a joke at home and abroad, and that the country’s own citizens hold their leaders in contempt. Italy’s political class condemns a potentially vibrant world-class economy to chronic underperformance as the country lurches from crisis to crisis. What else is new?
Only this: Italy appears to be getting some company. I commend it as a case study for the faction of the U.S. Republican Party that seems to see government by crisis as a mark of integrity and a kind of public service. Demanding first the repeal and then a delay in the introduction of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Republicans shut down the federal government on Tuesday. Next, they threatened to force the U.S. government to default on its debts. The first, if it doesn’t go on too long, is a costly nuisance; the second, should it happen, threatens financial and economic catastrophe.
The Republicans say they are standing on principle. They apparently see health-care reform as an existential threat, a peril that justifies any political countermeasure, however damaging. Berlusconi says much the same about the 1 percentage-point increase in the value-added tax, to which he and his party object. To avoid the damage that he says this tax increase would do, he is willing to wreck his country’s prospects of recovery. How could that possibly make sense? Because it’s a matter of principle.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution designed a system capable of excellent results -- and the success of their model over the years has indeed surpassed all plausible expectations. But their design, however ingenious, isn’t fated to succeed. It can be corrupted by a sufficient number of people of bad faith or -- as in this case -- by an organized departure from the norms of good political conduct. Make no mistake: Something akin to Italian politics is a possible future for the United States. The U.S. can blight its own prospects and make itself a laughingstock, too. It’s happening right now.
One of the many ironies in this situation is that the Republican faction that is willing to plunge the country into crisis after manufactured crisis also sees itself as the guardian of the American constitutional exception. Tea Party Republicans rightly point out that they’re only doing what the Constitution empowers them to do. Its design is avowedly nonmajoritarian. It provides for divided, and hence deliberately indecisive, government. The checks and balances that protect minority viewpoints and restrain the power of the majority aren’t an unintended side effect; they’re the whole point. It’s not good enough to say, as the Democrats did after 2008, that “elections have consequences” -- as though that validates anything the winner might choose to do.
But a system of structurally indecisive government also puts heavy obligations on the elected representatives who find themselves in the minority. To work at its best, it requires a willingness to strike compromises and strive for consensus -- a sentiment that once prevailed in Washington, and which goes far to explain the country’s astonishing success but lately has all but vanished.
If consensus is no longer possible, that’s worrying enough. Far worse, though, is a partisanship so bitter -- and a standing on principle so implacable -- that the country itself is held to ransom to make a point. Let the economy crash: better that than a health-care law not to our liking. This is the mode that the no-compromise wing of the Republican Party has adopted. Look to Italy to see where it might lead.
There’s no quick, easy answer to the two parties’ mutual loathing and the damage it is capable of doing in the U.S. constitutional setting. With luck, however, two partial remedies could emerge from the latest standoff.
First, although I’m no card-carrying Democrat, I hope that independent and moderate Republican voters will turn on the government-by-crisis Republican faction at the next election and make plain that its kind of politics isn’t wanted. All the incentives in the U.S. electoral system are stacked against this outcome, I understand, but one can hope. President Barack Obama and his party can advance this prospect by avoiding equal and offsetting partisan rancor and sparing no effort to present themselves as reasonable, rational and consensus-seeking. Extremist Republicans have given them a remarkable opportunity to seize and hold the center of the country.
Second, I also hope that the country’s broken budget mechanism can be mended. Failing to pass a measure to authorize spending should never have the consequence of shutting down the government; failing to pass a measure that raises the debt ceiling should never lead to default. It’s one thing to give a minority veto power over discretionary legislation -- something the framers intended -- but quite another to give a minority the power to wreck the economy merely by doing nothing if it doesn’t get its way.
The necessary dispensation is simple: Spending and taxes (hence borrowing, too) continue at previously authorized levels unless Congress votes to change them. Perhaps a deal along those lines can be done. If no-compromise Republicans aren’t convinced by the Italian future awaiting the U.S. on present trends, they might at least calculate that their positions will one day be reversed, and Democrats will one day be a minority trying to block them.
The U.S. is so confident of its greatness that it can’t imagine ever being reduced to the status of an ordinary country. Despite all its strengths and still-limitless potential, its current trajectory points in a far more ominous direction. The constitution that delivered the country to its present eminence is capable, in the wrong hands, of leading it to ruin. Voters must reflect on that, and then impress it on the people they elect.
(Clive Crook is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at firstname.lastname@example.org.