Italy is considered the birthplace of modern political science for good reason. Its Florentine son, Niccolò Machiavelli, not only wrote “The Prince” but also his less famous “Discourses on Livy” in 1517, which reflected upon the rise and fall of the Roman Republic centuries earlier. The lessons he drew on the survival of republics are no less relevant today for Italy — and for all Western democracies.
Following the Greek historian Polybius, Machiavelli concluded in those reflections that the best form of governance is a balanced mix of monarchy, or executive power; aristocracy, the rule of the few; and democracy, the rule of the many. None of these forms in isolation, he argued, could produce long-lasting stability. Pure monarchy would inexorably degenerate into tyranny, aristocracy into oligarchy and democracy into mob rule. Only when each watched over the other with reciprocal accountability could an enduring equilibrium be established.
This model is reflected today in contemporary democracies with an executive power, a representative legislature (with a prime minister in parliamentary systems) and a voting public.
In recent weeks, Italy has once again proven the value of Machiavelli’s insights for the constitutional governance of republics. Two euroskeptic populist parties, The League and the Internet-based Five Star Movement, won a majority at the polls earlier this year. But the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, refused to approve a coalition government they proposed that included a finance minister known for his rejection of Europe’s single currency and Italy’s other European Union treaty obligations.
Fearing the financial calamity of a run on Italian banks and bonds, which are primarily held by Italians, the president reasoned that, since the parties did not campaign on leaving the euro, the public debate did not adequately inform voting citizens of the consequences of such an act that might be undertaken by the proposed minister.
In Italy, the president is indirectly elected by the Senate, deputies of the lower house and regional representatives. He stands above electoral politics and is charged with protecting the constitution and the public interest of all Italians. When the parties switched out the objectionable minister, Mattarella approved the new government, which was seated this week.
The Italian episode highlights the essential role constitutional authorities in a republic must play in checking the pure wash of electoral majorities that nonetheless do not represent the interests of the entire society. As Jean Pisani-Ferry has argued, the vital task confronting democracies today is “to reconcile citizens’ right to make radical choices” with the need to ensure that decisions which affect everyone by leading to upheaval “are subject to sufficient, and sufficiently informed, public deliberation that results in an unambiguous, time-consistent expression of the people’s will.”
In some form, this set of issues faces all open societies where the participatory power of social media — which helped drive the populist victories in Italy as well as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump — is mobilizing the masses as never before.
In The WorldPost this week, we examine a range of proposals that seek to address the present dysfunction of Western democracies and look at the case of Brazil, which may be next in line for a populist revolt in elections slated for October.
Writing from Oslo, political scientist Knut Heidar argues that the best way to fix democracy is not through strengthening republican institutions but through more democracy. Noting that one in five Americans is eligible to vote but not registered, resulting in far lower turnouts in elections than in Europe, he proposes bringing more people into the process through automatic voter registration.
“This democratic deficit deprives the less resourceful part of the population of its most central political right,” he argues. “It affects political campaigns as well as the election results. Candidates formulate policies and compete for office on the basis of policies targeting only registered voters. The unregistered are secondary citizens and excluded from the national ‘we.’”
Dambisa Moyo also argues that the body politic should be broadened — through mandatory voting. She further proposes longer terms for elected representatives that better coincide with economic cycles and controversially suggests weighting voters according to their knowledge of the issues.
Turning his attention from the court to the classroom, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar focuses on educational reform that produces citizens who can make sound choices at the ballot box. “America’s most dangerous enemy is not terrorism, war or immigration. The greatest threat to our country is ignorance,” he writes. “A healthy democracy depends on knowledgeable discourse for survival, but our national conversation is incessantly muddied. Information is twisted, contorted and butchered — so much so that Americans struggle to reach informed decisions about which policies or politicians to support. In order to arm Americans with the ability to distinguish truth from distortion, we must implement critical thinking into our K-12 education system.”
In a harsh assessment of the state of politics in his country roiled by revelations of systemic corruption, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso writes from Sao Paulo that “we are witnessing the revolutionary conditions in which avengers are gearing up to cut off the heads of the high and the mighty and are cheered by the populace. If history is any guide, the endgame tends to be the arrival of a providential leader, the charismatic savior or strongman who comes to put an end to anarchy in the land.”
Brazil shares many of the conditions provoking upheaval elsewhere. “Our society, like others,” says Cardoso, “has been splintered by the very advances of modernity: improved social mobility, the advent of the information age and the rise of race and gender identity politics. All have broken the cohesiveness of the old class divisions and of the parties and ideologies that represented them in an earlier era.” For Cardoso, “Brazilian society, driven by social and economic transformations and by new values, is on the move. This process of change is not as visible as the current political polarizations. In many fields, the pace of change in society is faster than in institutions. There is, thus, reason for hope — if we find the political will to transform our institutions in sync with public aspirations.”
He concludes: “Either there must be a convergence of democratic leaders capable of bridging the gap between society and politics, rebuilding trust from the bottom up, or Brazil will join other disintegrating democracies, such as Venezuela, which have embraced false prophets and demagogues who persuade the population that the only solution to the crisis lies in the direct relationship of a strongman with the masses.”
Cardoso has cause to worry. The leading candidate for president at the moment is a far-right former military officer, Jair Bolsonaro. He has been called the “Trump of the tropics” and was charged by Brazil’s attorney general with inciting hatred and discrimination against indigenous communities, black people, gay people and women.
This is the weekend roundup of The WorldPost, of which Nathan Gardels is the editor in chief.