Reflections from Abroad on Electoral Politics
by Nancy Mattina
Who says we can’t yet travel into the future? For the two weeks prior to the 2012 Presidential elections I woke up every morning in a proud republic that’s suffering from a bad case of stunned. A place where the national debt exceeds GDP and family savings have been drained by unemployed adult children, declining wages, and stone-faced lenders. Where abortion is illegal and ‘choice’ means having a family or a job. Where all media outlets, including public TV, are unapologetically affiliated with political parties. Where anti-immigration rhetoric demonizes the destitute. Where a prominent editorialist advises women to accept the fact that they are ‘sitting on their fortunes’, no metaphor intended.
Where special interests, including unions, hoard privilege, jealous to the point of paranoia of their fixed positions. Where corporate crime is unchecked yet police pull motorists over without cause, checking for store receipts, and shrug their elegant epaulets if your wallet is stolen, your garage looted. Where the average citizen has first-class tastes but gets mediocrity, be it in education, healthcare, financial services, or public transportation. And the justice system? In civil matters it is clogged with yellowing, automatic appeals and so starved by an executive branch that hates it that the expense of protracted proceedings far outweighs the benefits of prosecuting injustices, large or small. Where the mood of the electorate has gone well past ‘polarized’ — which implies that voters still believe in the polity enough to take sides — to trapped.
Here, if you are a decent, respectful, prepared person, says the amiable business partner of my 36-year-old nephew, things go badly for you. If you are an idiot, he assures me, you’ll do well in the elections. Being a self-serving, money-grabbing liar is your ticket to success. That’s why we don’t vote, adds his cherubic wife. “It’s a form of protest.” In this particular idiocracy, I mentally scribble in my imaginary ethnography of Italians, voting, like paying taxes, is for suckers.
But my worst realization in those countdown days is that Italians consented to their own victimization. For the last two decades, they repeatedly put their love of bespoke suits and cash-cow swagger ahead of liberal values. Liberal values that made them the economic envy of Europe from the 1950s through the ’80s and an international icon for right living, a glass of local wine perpetually raised above the feast. In their admittedly fitful support of now ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his cronies, everyday Italians have lied to themselves and the world that, on balance, they liked themselves best in the image of a well-heeled tycoon who had no greater political philosophy than that government is for fools, unless it can be made to enrich those who own it.
Would Americans take the same deal? Would they, on balance, identify with the aspirations of a meticulously coiffed mogul, too proud to side with the common man? Despite all the shortcomings of the Obama administration, detailed daily by sharp-eyed, compassionate activists in blogs like this one, I am hugely relieved they didn’t.
Electoral politics is a blunt object that doesn’t create great art. This time, enough of the American electorate saw through the fog of money and did the right thing, however clumsily. Conservatives are going to have to put their checkbooks away and go back to building a credible belief system to replace their magical thinking about wealth. Liberals need to keep pressing their arguments for a healthier, more peaceful union. We need to follow through with this perhaps fleeting affirmation that the Devil resides not in the details but in dishonesty.
Meanwhile I’ll keep studying Italy, where lovely people, especially the young, are paying with their self-respect for a generation of political self-indulgence. I haven’t wished America’s political discourse on anyone for many years. But Italy’s political, economic, and social quagmire teaches us what democracy allows for, and what the future holds if we pretend that personal wealth is our highest good. National elections in Italy are scheduled for next spring. I hope they too will argue, then lurch forward, not back.
Nancy Mattina, Ph.D., teaches writing and linguistics at Prescott College.