The Good Fight

Destroying Democracy to Save It

The president of Italy’s move to block the populists will only make them stronger.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella standing behind a lectern.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland, on Sept. 27. Jussi Nukari/Lehtikuva/Reuters

The great promise of liberal democracy consists of satisfying two deep human desires at the same time: individual freedom and collective self-rule. Citizens of countries like Italy, Germany, or the United States get to decide both how to lead their own lives and, just as importantly, what their collective future should look like.

The great thing about these two constitutive aspects of our political system, we have long been told, is that they are mutually reinforcing. Liberal practices like minority rights and the separation of powers aren’t just meant to ensure that cops don’t punish citizens for speaking their mind or worshipping as they wish; by stopping the government from locking up dissenters, it also ensures that citizens retain their ability to throw a democratically elected president or prime minister out by democratic means. Similarly, democratic practices like free and fair elections aren’t just meant to ensure that citizens collectively get to determine their own fate; by giving them the power to throw the bums out, it also gives them a crucial tool to stop governments from growing oppressive.

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That’s the theory. In practice, the existence of one of the core elements of our political system does not always guarantee the persistence of the other. As the past years have shown, political institutions have, even in countries that do a reasonably good job of respecting individual rights and the rule of law, become increasingly unresponsive to the preferences of ordinary citizens. In the European Union, for example, bureaucrats and technocrats have increasingly started to take some of the most important economic decisions. (In my book, The People vs. Democracy, I call this a system or “rights without democracy,” or undemocratic liberalism.)

Conversely, the rights of minorities and the rule of law are, even in countries that are reasonably responsive to the popular will, increasingly coming under threat. Across North America and Western Europe, for example, authoritarian populists have both violated the rights of unpopular minorities, like Muslims, and hampered the functioning of independent institutions, like the courts. (I call this a system of “democracy without rights,” or illiberal democracy.)

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It is startling enough to realize that some of the most fundamental freedoms we took for granted may have been owed to fortuitous circumstances rather than to the lasting stability of our political system. But over the past years, another, even more worrying conclusion is becoming more and more difficult to avoid: An unresponsive political system can actually breed the rise of illiberal populists—and their political success, in turn, tempts political elites to insulate the system from popular input in even more blatant ways.

This vicious cycle is now on full, shocking display in Italy: For years, the country’s political system has simultaneously suffered from corruption and immobility. Even as Italian politicians diverted vast sums of money into their own pockets, they proved congenitally incapable of passing much-needed reforms. Decades of economic stagnation and an unbearably high rate of youth unemployment have fuelled the rise of ever more extreme populist parties. After a disastrous election in March, the country looked to be on the path toward its most worrying government yet: a red-brown coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right, anti-immigrant League was likely to pose a very real threat to the country’s minorities, its financial stability, and perhaps even its democratic institutions.

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Only one obstacle remained for the new coalition: Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, was right to be alarmed by the prospect of this government. But he was wrong to act on these concerns by vetoing the appointment of the coalition’s preferred finance minister, a deeply euroskeptic octogenarian by the name of Paolo Savona. When Five Star and the League refused to pick someone else for this key role, Mattarella appointed a caretaker government of technocrats and floated the prospect of new elections.

This step was a mistake for two important reasons, the first principled and the second prudential. As in many other European countries, it is the prime minister who is traditionally the most powerful man in Italy. The president, by contrast, plays a mostly ceremonial role. Like the queen in the United Kingdom, he does have the formal power to appoint or dissolve the government, but is supposed to remain scrupulously nonpartisan.

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On rare occasion, past presidents have refused the nomination of particular ministers without undermining their claim to political neutrality. When Silvio Berlusconi proposed turning his personal lawyer, Cesare Previti, into the minister of justice in 1994, for example, then-President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro rightly refused. With Berlusconi under criminal investigation in a plethora of cases, there was blatant potential for Previti to pervert the course of justice. Even in refusing a popularly elected prime minister the right to appoint his preferred pick for the role, Scalfaro was clearly safeguarding the constitution he was sworn to uphold.

But today’s situation is very different. The objection to Previti was about a blatant conflict of interest that made it impossible for him to fulfil the duties of his prospective office in an impartial manner. The objection to Savona, by contrast, is ideological: In explaining why he refused to appoint him as finance minister, Mattarella explicitly referenced his hostility toward the euro. As it happens I am just as appalled by the deeply euroskeptic stance of the new government as the president is, but the fact that we happen to agree on our preferred policies simply does not make it legitimate for the president to impose these views on democratically elected deputies.

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If the principled reasons against Mattarella’s technocratic coup weigh heavily enough, the prudential ones should be even more dispositive: Since the last election, there simply is no way of governing the country without the active cooperation of either the League or the Five Star Movement. And while a technocratic caretaker government can steady the ship of state until new elections are called, the extremists are likely to do even better when the day of the next election comes around, as it inevitably will. The next few months of illusory stability are, in other words, being purchased at a very heavy price.

As water finds its level, so populists are able to impose their will on just about any set of political institutions once they enjoy the support of a huge portion of the public. No magic bullet is going to keep them in check. Rather than trying to contain their influence through desperate forms of constitutional brinkmanship—which, in any case, only serve to purchase a brief radicalization of undemocratic liberalism at the price of the eventual triumph of an even fiercer form of illiberal democracy—the defenders of liberal democracy have to fight the populists at the voting booth.

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This is a lesson that Americans would do well to heed in the coming years. If Democrats should retake both chambers of Congress in November, there will be a lot of pressure to impeach Donald Trump. Since the investigation by Robert Mueller has not yet concluded, it is too early to judge whether this is the right course of action; if the special counsel should produce strong evidence that Trump has committed serious crimes, impeachment may be the only way to uphold the rule of law.

But tempting though it is to fantasize about political elites banding together to rid the republic of Trump, this course of action would—like Mattarella’s recent actions—be very perilous for both principled and prudential reasons. There is strong reason of principle to ensure that the power of impeachment does not become a political tool to be brandished whenever a majority of congressmen strongly dislikes the current occupant of the White House. Just as importantly, there is strong reason of prudence to avoid impeachment proceedings if they could alienate large segments of the American public—allowing Trump to portray himself as a martyr when he runs for re-election.

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It is perfectly understandable that political elites are tempted to run roughshod over expressions of the popular will when basic liberal practices like minority rights or the separation of powers are under acute threat. But tempting though a temporary descent into undemocratic liberalism might be, there is only one effective remedy against the populists: to defeat them at the polls. That is why Italy’s moderate parties should let the coalition between the League and Five Stars take office and focus on offering a better alternative at the next election. And it is also why, instead of dreaming of impeaching Trump, we should do what we can to ensure that he suffers a spectacular defeat in 2020.

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