The Cost of Irrationality

The voters’ feckless decision

Italy’s people and their way of life are universally cherished. Firmly established during the Renaissance, the country’s tradition of reasoned inquiry is also synonymous with the Bella Italia so many tourists clamber to visit each year. Yet while the natural scientist Galileo Galilei, a man wedded to the search for truth, still commands respect worldwide, the same cannot be said for Italian politics. Italy has had over 60 governments since 1945. As a result of this, the country’s politics have never been able to focus on long-term goals and there is an endemic lack of respect for the political class. Both the politicians themselves and a sizeable chunk of the citizenry are responsible for this. In previous elections, many cast their votes for characters such as the corrupt former Prime Minister Benito Craxi and the scandal-plagued media-mogul Silvio Berlusconi.

Yet Italy has had honorable statesmen in the past, as it still does today. Consider the great European Alcide De Gasperi (1881-1954) and the Christian Socialist Aldo Moro (1916-1978), who paid for his political engagement with his life. More recently, there has been the EU Commissioner Mario Monti. These men pursued rational politics. Reason, however, is a tricky business.

In the February election, and despite the fact that he managed to quickly win back international trust in his country’s economy with his economic reform program, Monti was roundly punished by the Italian electorate on polling day. His coalition received just one-tenth of the vote. The center-left PD party, led by the well-respected left-wing politician Pier Luigi Bersani, took one of the biggest shares with just under 29 percent of the vote. The PdL coalition, led by Berlusconi, finished just a hair’s breadth behind Bersani.

Tycoon and muddlehead

Without doubt, the big surprise packet of the elections was the success of the Five Star Movement. Led by the charlatan Beppe Grillo, the movement became the largest single party in the state. This has made the chances for a stable balance of power unlikely and in the case of the senate, impossible.

Peer Steinbrück, the SPD-candidate for the upcoming German elections, publicly called Grillo and Berlusconi political clowns. This elicited the usual noises from the politically-correct lobby. “It is undiplomatic to insult foreign statesmen” the critics howled. That may be, but surely it applies only if the characters in question are actually statesmen.

Pedantry aside, I agree with Steinbrück’s critics on his choice of words. Berlusconi and Grillo are no clowns. Quite the contrary, they are deadly serious men who care nothing for the welfare of their country and value their own wealth and egos above all else. What’s more, do not expect them to change their ways any time soon. Berlusconi is unabashedly campaigning for tax breaks and he could not care less if they ruin Italy’s finances. His voters are equally unconcerned. Grillo for his part seems to spend most of his time on the internet noisily trumpeting his own desire to destroy his country’s entire political system.

Berlusconi’s mess

Nearly half of all Italian voters must have been aware that they were giving their votes to a sleazy tycoon and an internet muddlehead. They did it because they were shying away from the sacrifices that cleaning up Berlusconi’s mess would have required. Instead they choose to listen to the racket coming from the carnivalesque Grillo and Berlusconi camps. But this is no circus, no opera buffa, this is a self-inflicted tragedy.

All of this is taking place in a country whose not too distant past begs comparison. Ninety years ago, Italians could not agree on a responsible government, the result was anarchy. Amid the chaos, and accompanied by a thousand of his black-shirted followers, Benito Mussolini was able to ride the train to Rome in 1922. The trip was later glorified as a march. Once in Rome, power fell onto his lap like a rotten apple. Mussolini and his followers set about building the fascist state that endured for over 20 years. He functioned as the role model for Hitler who, needless to say, swiftly overshadowed his idol in 1933.

Populist policies

Mussolini was not much of a military leader. But it did not stop him attacking defenseless Abyssinia and killing tens of thousands of people. The League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, did nothing to stop him. The path was clear for the Fascists and the Nazis and shortly thereafter they instigated the Second World War.

Berlusconi and Grillo are not Mussolini and Hitler. However, their populist policies threaten to sink Italy even deeper in the quicksand it finds itself in. These developments could very well bring about a much more profound and long-lasting crisis. In economic terms, one of Europe’s biggest players already finds itself in a precarious predicament. Every third Italian of working age under 25 is unemployed.

Italy is a sovereign state. Thankfully the era in which nation states strove for self-sufficiency is over. In a Europe that is moving towards unity and a world of ever-increasing globalization, supposedly independent-minded citizens should remember that the idea and the reality of European unity played no small part in providing them with the security and prosperity they enjoy. What will it cost the citizens to retain these benefits? Nothing, save for the price of acting rationally.

Photo Credit: dpa

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