Letter from Rome: Explaining American Politics to Italians


Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
 
Over the years, I’ve had more than a few occasions to express my opinions on Stateside politics to Italian friends and acquaintances. And with very rare exceptions, the Italians seem to understand very little of what I’m saying. The fault could well be mine, though I’m coming to the realization that there’s something peculiar to the American political scene that’s not easily translatable to Europeans and especially Romans. 
 
So I’m going to take this opportunity to explain four aspects of the Tea Party phenomenon that recently led to a 16-day government shutdown and nearly to the U.S. Congress not extending the government’s debt limit. (I made some of these points on Vatican Radio during and after the shutdown. You may have also heard that my esteemed Acton colleague Sam Gregg has a new book, timely entitled Tea Party Catholic, which addresses some of the bigger themes here discussed.)
 
1)  The Tea Party is a loosely-organized faction within the Republican Party unhappy with the expanding power of the federal government. Much of the Tea Party protested Republican President George W. Bush’s expansion of federal power in areas such as bank and corporate bailouts, education and health care, but it was really the 2008 election of President Obama and the March 2010 passage of his massive health-care act that put the Tea Party on the map during the November 2010 mid-term elections, during which Republican won back control of the U.S. House of Representatives, resulting in a divided federal legislature and stalemate for Obama’s agenda going forward.
 
2)  Most Tea Party politicians are found in the U.S. House of Representatives and at the state leveI. The reason for this is that 435 House members serve two-year terms and are much more responsive to populist shifts than the 100-member U.S. Senate, where only one-third of the chamber is up for election every two years. It’s therefore the institutional framework of the federal government that allows for more rambunctious House members, rather than a simple lack of leadership and unity among Republicans (though these have been factors). It should not be surprising that there are many Tea Party devotees at the state level, given their anti-federal-government/anti-Washington spirit.
 
3)  At the moment, the Tea Party is a party of opposition, lacking many of the policy specifics that will eventually be needed to govern. Due to its grassroots beginnings and animus towards Bush and Obama, the Tea Party could have taken the form of a third-party challenge to the Republican and Democratic Parties. To their credit, however, Republican leaders worked very hard to make sure the Tea Party stayed within their party and its vision of limited government. At the same time, President Obama and the Democrats have managed to portray the Tea Partiers as “nihilists” because the Tea Party has largely been the party of saying “no” to Obamacare and increased federal spending. Tea Party members were elected to do what they are now doing, but they are also just one faction within the larger Republican Party, which controls just one-half of the federal legislature, while the Democrats have the Presidency and the U.S. Senate. So it’s really not up to the Tea Party to govern, at least for now.
 
4)  The federal government “shutdown” was anything but. Some Italians I talked to were astounded that 800,000 federal employees did not report to work and assumed this would be disastrous to the country. In fact, it would have been an economic hardship to the Washington, D.C. area, IF those employees weren’t given back-pay for those days off and IF the Washington area wasn’t already home to 7 of the 10 richest counties in the country. The fact that we have so many federal employees deemed “non-essential” and that only 20 percent of discretionary spending (i.e., those outside of defense, entitlements, and net interest payments) was affected resulted in such hysteria shows just how out-of-control our dependence on federal spending has become.
 
So in the end, the Tea Party forced the shutdown in order to make an important point – that Obamacare is bad for the country, not only in terms of what it will do to healthcare in the US (which makes up one-sixth of the economy, roughly about $3 trillion and expected to rise to $4.8 trillion by 2021), but also in terms of expanding an already grotesquely bloated government in Washington. Most Americans are blaming Republicans for the shutdown, so that Tea Party tactic may have failed in the short-term, especially since that negative attention could have been directed at the flawed roll-out of Obamacare.
 
So was the shutdown worth it? Making a fuss over what seems inevitable is the American way. It’s why Americans voice their opinions in letters to the editor, website comments, and on talk radio; it shows their individualism and unwillingness to go with the flow. But if you want to be more than an isolated crank, you need to convince others. The next big contest will be the 2014 mid-term elections, when Republicans will be expected to maintain control over the House and possibly take over the Senate, effectively bringing a premature end to Obama’s presidency. It would also signal the desire of Americans to govern themselves without coercive governmental influence from Washington.
 
I often wonder why Italians seem to accept so much bad government with a shrug, at least until the appearance of the 5-star Movement and Beppe Grillo. Perhaps it’s because Italian professional political class designed a system that keeps them in power, whereas American system was meant to diffuse and separate political power. In a way, however, the Tea Party is something akin to a junior coalition partner in a parliamentary system making its voice heard, though without bringing down the coalition. I hope the Tea Party, especially with people as well-educated and rhetorically-gifted as Senator Ted Cruz, will come up with a way to dismantle Washington’s growing power base that doesn’t frighten the general public. This can be done, partly because our system encourages it and partly because the US is still a very large, diverse, and still generally free country. But it will require a reawakened sense of moral responsibility to happen. 
 
Europeans well know that populism can be very dangerous; even the most cultured and civilized people have been led astray by opportunistic demagogues looking for easy scapegoats. Bankers and politicians are the most likely targets of populist rage today, though I wonder if simply running them out of town would solve anything. I certainly prefer the inconvenience of a couple of weeks of closed park service to what may happen when the people are trapped in a corrupt system and given no way out. The Tea Party’s government shutdown was one way of showing this. Do my Italian friends have another?
 
 
Kishore Jayabalan
Director