Italy’s four major parties have agreed on a stupid electoral law to harass small parties, which would introduce a rule that only parties receiving more than five percent of the vote would be represented in parliament.
As long as only a small number of people write, approve and modify laws, special interests can corrupt these people to extract value from the public. That corruption can take the form of donations to Super PACs, direct bribes, job offers after public office, internships for children, etc., etc. Trying to legislate the means of corruption is like fighting a Hydra — you cut off one head only to have two new heads grow in its place.
Representative democracy was a necessity in the 18th century. It was impossible to have every citizen vote on every law because the cost of voting was weeks of travel by horse. Today, the cost of voting is zero, seeing as smartphones can be voting devices. Now it is possible to have direct democracy — to have citizens voting on bills directly instead of choosing representatives to vote for them.
Eliminating corruption is not the only benefit of direct democracy. It also addresses the current political polarization. Having two parties in America led people to picking a side. That led to a lot of them hating the other side and blaming it for all the country’s problems. However, if you give people the ability to vote on every issue, they will discover that each of them has a unique set of views. They will talk and argue about specific issues, agreeing on some and disagreeing on others, but the notion of “you are either on my side or my enemy” will go away because there will simply be no sides to pick.
The establishment’s argument against direct democracy is invariably some form of this: leaders make better decisions than crowds; people are not educated enough to vote on laws; the masses are stupid; people can’t make hard decisions. Right now, people are encouraged to not think and leave the thinking to the politicians. They have the least amount of choice possible — once every few years between alternatives that are equally corrupt. Encourage people to think, make their decisions matter, give them control and their wisdom will amaze you. The argument that crowds are stupid was the aristocracy’s argument against democracy. In hindsight, we can see that it was wrong then; it is equally wrong now.
Assuming you are willing to entertain the possibility that direct democracy is desirable, here is a short description of what it might look like:
People vote on bills on their smartphone or any other Internet connected device. There are no elected representatives. Bills can be written on open collaborative platforms like Google Docs or Github or in private. When the bill is ready, the authors submit it to a signature gathering system where it needs a certain number of signatures to get it on the ballot. When a bill is on the ballot, a deadline for voting is set and people vote on the bill. Bills have to get both a majority of the vote and some meaningful number of votes to pass. There are “tiers” of bills — some small corrections require only a simple majority to pass, while constitutional reforms require a much higher percentage to be enacted.
All laws have an expiration date and need extension votes to be renewed. Thomas Jefferson argued for this, but that feature didn’t end up making it into the Constitution. It is unfair that people are governed by laws that they have not — nor will they ever have — the opportunity to vote on. The same goes for the executive branch. Agencies and departments have expiration dates and renewal votes to reduce the self-proliferation of bureaucracy. Heads of agencies and departments are voted on directly and not appointed. I am not at all certain that a chief executive is needed for the executive branch at all times.
The people are the legislative branch. Everybody’s voting record is public. This leads to better legislative outcomes. It is no secret that people behave better in public than they do in private. Domestic violence, for example, rarely occurs in public. With a public voting record, people are more likely to vote for the public benefit, rather than for their own private benefit.
The primary role of the judicial branch in direct democracy is identifying inconsistencies in different laws. Then, if judges find two laws to be in conflict, rather than judging one law to be superior to another, they will put the issue directly on the ballot for a public vote.
Note that this essay is very preliminary. It makes judgments on some contentious issues, like public voting records, but does not address others, like which election methods are used for heads of agencies and judges. It is likely that some of my ideas are suboptimal or just plain wrong. I do not claim to have all other answers — I just present hypotheses that will need to be tested.
US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country”. This can be extended even beyond states — cities and counties can experiment with new forms of government.
In the case of direct democracy, such experiments are necessary. We don’t know which election methods work best. We don’t know what pitfalls direct democracy will have and how to fix them. We need to test and refine the concept on smaller scales before we arrive at a system that will be desirable and effective for the whole country. Moreover, unseating a corrupt elite cannot be democratically accomplished from the top. It must be done from the ground up. Nearly every progressive cause in the US — from abolishing slavery to allowing women to vote — started at local and state levels. So must direct democracy. It is up to you, my reader, to push for direct democracy in your city and in your state. If you want to do it, but don’t know how to start — shoot me an email to s dot alexashenko at gmail dot com and I will be glad to help.
The stupid bill will be debated in Italy’s Lower House on Tuesday, and is expected to be passed by early July, paving the way for a possible autumn vote.
But there has been backlash from civil society. Small parties, from all sides of the political spectrum, are often referred to as shrubs or minnows and they now face two options if they want to be represented after the next elections.
Either they can join together among themselves in order to surpass the five percent threshold, or they can ally themselves to one of the country’s major parties, the Democratic Party on the centre-left, Forza Italia on the centre-right, the Northern League on the far right, or the populist Five Star Movement.
While focusing on building a shared purpose among a network of small groups is an effective way to build ideological continuity, it also presents a danger. Tight-knit groups of likeminded people often forget that many others do not hold the same views. Often, they come to regard dissent as illegitimate.
That’s a real problem, because for any movement to spread and effect change, it needs to overcome steadily increasing thresholds of resistance. If only the views held inside the movement are seen as legitimate, then outsiders come to be seen as targets for attack. That’s why so many movements never create change that lasts, they create enemies that undermine their cause.
Consider, on the other hand, Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. It spoke not just to the problems of African Americans, but to the founding principles of the nation. It was that approach that grew the movement beyond its core constituency of southern blacks and made inroads to the larger public.
The truth is that movements rarely, if ever create change themselves. Rather, they inspire change through influencing outsiders. Consider that in the end that it was President Lyndon Johnson, a southern white man from Texas, who signed the Civil Rights Act that Martin Luther King, Jr. had championed.
Obama created a powerful movement that swept him to a stunning electoral victory, but inspired such fierce resistance that he had trouble enacting his agenda. Trump now leads a nation that seems, if possible, even more divided. We seem doomed to stay stuck in a cycle of recrimination.
While it is easy to place the blame for this polarization on the politicians themselves, we must also realize that they reflect the movements that brought them to power. All too often, we are content to live in different worlds and shout at our screens. And as long as some feel victimized and others feel demonized, we will remain a country divided.
You can write all the scathing tweets and heartfelt posts you want, but the truth is that rhetoric rarely persuades. The way to change minds is through face-to-face engagement. This is what Obama was talking about when he said he won Iowa in 2008 because he spent 87 days going to every small town, fair, fish fry, and VFW hall. Similarly, progress on LGBT rights in America has not been made just because of eloquent arguments, but because of all the many personal interactions between straight Americans and their gay friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
We can only truly form a national consensus by internalizing the concerns of our fellow citizens and forming a common cause. If we can learn anything from successful movements throughout history, it’s this: lasting change does not come when one side delivers a knockout blow to the other, but when both sides are able to claim the victory as their own.
Here’s a look at some of the country’s small political parties which are now at risk.
Popular Alternative (AP)
Only founded in March this year, the AP is a descendant of the New Centre Right, which split off from the People of Freedom (PdL) just before that party became Forza Italia. It sounds confusing (and it is!) but gives some idea of how common breakaway parties and changes in name (and ideology) are on the Italian political scene.
The AP is led by Angelino Alfano, who was secretary of the Berlusconi-led PdL until 2013 and widely expected to eventually take over from Berlusconi. Alfano was Justice Minister under Berlusconi and has held the offices of Interior Minister and Foreign Minister since he struck out on his own. Currently, the AP has 25 deputies (of a total of 630) and 22 senators (of 315).
The AP’s ideology has its roots in Christian democracy, and Alfano has been a conservative voice in recent governments on issues such as gay rights, adoption, and surrogacy, which he controversially called for to be treated “like a sex crime”. Alfano criticized the PD for moving towards an autumn vote, but has said he is “not afraid” of the five percent threshold.
Brothers of Italy (FdI)
Led by Giorgia Meloni, the party’s full name is Brothers of Italy-National Alliance: its founding members belonged to the National Alliance, the successor of Italy’s Fascist party. However, they came from the more liberal faction of the party and it was originally created in 2012 in order to oppose Mario Monti, allying with Silvio Berlusconi in elections to increase his support among the right.
Its views are national-conservative, and ‘Brothers of Italy’ is a reference to the first line of Italy’s national anthem. The party has taken an anti-euro stance, siding with Marine Le Pen in the recent French elections.
The FdI’s closest political ally is the Northern League, and it is likely that the two parties may form an alliance in order to surpass the proposed five percent threshold. The party obtained two percent of the votes and nine seats in Italy’s Lower House of Parliament in the 2013 election, though it performed better in the local elections later that year.
Direction Italy (DI)
Formed in January this year, Direction Italy is a centre-right party combining conservative and liberal stances. It was preceded by the Conservatives and Reformists, which split off from Forza Italia. Both parties were led by Raffaele Fitto who opposed FI’s alliance with the Democratic Party under the Nazareno Pact.
Liberal Popular Alliance (ALA)
The centre-right ALA is another offshoot of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. It is led by Denis Verdini, a former banker who broke away from FI to support Matteo Renzi’s government.
Christian Revolution (RC)
Though the RC only has one deputy (its leader, Gianfranco Rotondi), it is closely affiliated with Forza Italia. As the name would suggest, the party is strongly influenced by Catholic teaching.
Civic Choice (SC)
Civic Choice is led by former economist Mario Monti, who led a technocrat government appointed in 2011 to help Italy in the wake of the financial crisis. Despite never having held an elected office, when he left government Monti set up Civic Choice in order to seek re-election as PM as part of a centrist coalition – however, the coalition ended up coming fourth.
Union of the Centre (UdC)
The party’s full name, Union of Christian and Centre Democrats, gives an insight into its ideology, which is centrist but leaning more to the right, and based on Christian democracy. On issues such as abortion, gay rights, and euthanasia the party is extremely conservative. It has taken part in different alliances, most often with Forza Italia but also with the Democratic Party and Alfano’s Popular Alternative. In the 2013 elections, it gained 1.8 percent of the vote – a significant drop from previous years when it received over five percent – but has performed more strongly in southern regions.
Centrists for Europe (CpE)
Formed by politicians breaking away from the UdC earlier this year, this is another centrist party based on Christian democracy. The breakaway happened after the UdC became increasingly critical of Renzi’s government and moved slightly to the political right.
Democratic and Progressive Movement (MDP)
Earlier this year, a group of rebels within the Democratic Party who were opposed to party leader Matteo Renzi broke away to form the MDP, and were joined by some politicians of the Italian Left. In their opening manifesto, they said they aimed to “begin a centre-left renewal”. The group is supporting Paolo Gentiloni’s government and prominent members spoke out against calling early elections.
Italian Left (SI)
Another newbie on the political scene, the Italian Left was only formed as a full party in February 2017, made up of the former Left Ecology Freedom party as well as politicians who broke away from the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, some local groups and youth organizations.
Italy of Values (IdV)
Founded by a former prosecutor in Italy’s biggest ever corruption case and now run by a magistrate, Italy of Values positions itself in the centre. It has a populist ideology, aimed at giving a voice back to the people and tackling corruption in politics, and its members and supporters also include figures from the far left. In 2013, it won 2.25 and 1.79 percent of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate respectively, but performs most strongly in the south.
When it comes to insults, no-one does it quite like the Italians. Whether it’s a simple hand gesture or an imaginative curse, they have a gift for expressing displeasure, even if their insults don’t quite translate into other languages. Here’s our pick of the most creative rude terms, but be warned: these are not to be used at dinner with your Italian in-laws.
Dagos: South Europeans
Tread carefully with this one: it can be used to refer to someone who is dorky, uncool, or simply unlucky but the literal meaning is very vulgar. It comes from the word ‘figa’, a northern Italian term to refer to female genitalia, and literally means someone with no sex life.
Li mortacci tua! Your bad dead ancestors!
Family is everything in Italy, so you know you’re in trouble is someone starts insulting yours – especially dead ones. This Roman expression implies the recipient is descended from ancestors of questionable morality. Not to be used lightly.
Palloso: Like a ball
The word ‘palloso’ literally means ‘like a ball’, but is used colloquially to mean ‘boring’ or ‘tiresome’ – or even as a translation for the English slang-term ‘square’. It can be used to describe books or films as well as people, and basically means they have no distinguishing or interesting features.
Secchione: Big bucket
‘Secchione’ means nerd – someone who knows a lot of things and likely doesn’t have much of a social life. It comes from the term for bucket, suggesting that the listener has a large brain capable of holding lots of things.
This is much stronger than the English equivalent and considered to be very vulgar – younger people often use it playfully among friends, but it’s best to avoid it unless you’re totally sure it would be well-received. The specific connotations vary, but it’s often used when someone is arrogant and doesn’t care about others. Bonus fact: it’s actor Colin Firth’s favourite Italian word.
Sounds harmless? This is one of the safer terms on this list: “Cavolo” is simply a less aggressive way of saying the far more offensive “cazzo”, which translates as “shit”. It’s similar to English-speakers who replace ruder terms with “sugar” or “fudge”.
For example: “Che cavolo vuoi?” (literally: what the cabbage do you want?) The English equivalent would probably be: “What the heck do you want?”
In English we would say a “pain in the neck” or “pain in the ass”. In Italy, however, the anatomy is slightly different and you would say “rompicoglioni”, or “ball-breaker” in English. It comes from the expression: “Rompere i coglioni” (to break someone’s balls), which you would use to let someone know that they are really getting on your nerves. For example: “Mi rompi i coglioni!”
Sei duro come il muro: You’re as hard as a wall
Here, ‘duro’ (hard) means stupid, similar to using the terms ‘thick’ or ‘dense’ in English. It’s all about the context here, because as in English, ‘duro’ can also mean tough or severe.
On the subject of balls, a single “coglione” is used to refer to an idiot. For example: “Tutti in ufficio pensano che sei un coglione!” (Everyone in the office thinks you’re an idiot).
If you think someone is unattractive in Italy you don’t have to stop at “brutto” (ugly). Literally translating as “toilet”, “cesso” is used to describe someone who is particularly unpleasant to look at. Use with caution.
Porca miseria: Pig poverty
This phrase might baffle non-natives. “Porca” does translate as pig – but in this context it is an adjective that is perhaps best translated as “bloody” or “damn”, used frequently by hassled Italians. The equivalent would probably be “bloody hell!” But we have to say, this porcine variant has a certain ring to it. For example: “Porca miseria, it’s freezing out here!”
Porca paletta: Pig spade
Noticing a piggy theme here? If you’re familiar with Italian you’ll know that “paletta” is a spade. Precede it with “porca”, however, and it becomes an exclamation of frustration, similar to “porca miseria”, but milder. Stronger variations include “porca puttana” (porky prostitute) and “porco dio” (porky God).
Fava: Broad bean
If you tell someone ‘non capisci una fava’ (you don’t understand a broad bean), you’re basically saying they don’t know anything. Particularly in Florence, you can also tell someone ‘sei una fava’ to let them know you think they’re extremely stupid.