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Is Viktor Orbán Right That Liberal Democracy Has Failed? Is Italy Exhibit #1?

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Translated from Italian. Originally published in Italian on "Il Foglio" -- ( Twitter @marcovaleriolp.

ROME -- The indolent Italian establishment has barely had time to breathe a sigh of relief now that the technocrat era of Mario Monti is behind them. Already they are beginning to doubt the efficacy of totus politicus Matteo Renzi and the new "primacy of politics."

Evidently, these doubts do not depend on political taste alone, or on preference for left or right. Even if we only look at Renzi's left support base, here is what we see: Some are gathering signatures against "the authoritarian turn" of the current President of the Council of Ministers from Renzi's own Democratic Party (PD). Faced with the economic failures of the 'Rottamatore' ("Dismantler") as Renzi is called, Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the progressive-minded La Repubblica newspaper, has delivered a "bitter truth" to his readers: "Maybe Italy should be put under the scrutiny of the international troika consisting of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF."

And that's not all. In recent weeks, it has become common sense among liberal commentators, or even independents that, despite appearances, not even Renzi possesses the necessary zest to reform Italy's economy and institutions. Dario Di Vico, senior columnist of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, wondered whether, after "a cycle clearly in favor of technocracy," "this new mix of primacy of politics and empathy is truly able to produce simple decisions in the face of complex issues, and to link it to a long lasting support."

Perhaps Renzi is right, as he said the other day, that our political system is to blame for its chronic obsession with discussing everything, for systematically fostering a "cult of discussionism" and for the inability to take a decisive approach.


A similar question was raised recently by Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister who belongs to the conservative party Fidesz. In power since 2010 thanks to a series of electoral victories, he is a controversial figure in Europe because of his reforms relating to, for example, the autonomy of the Central Bank of Budapest, the independence of the mass media and the penal code. During a rally, Orbán argued that "liberal democratic societies cannot remain globally competitive" because their decision-making mechanisms are anachronistic. As Orbán sees it, the alternative is to build what he calls an "illiberal" democratic state. And this, he posited, is not a personal whim:

"Today, the world tries to understand systems which are not Western, not liberal, maybe not even democracies, yet they are successful." And then he mentioned Singapore, China, Russia and Turkey as examples. But what if such dangerous and incorrect statements hide a kernel of truth?

Recently, Luca Ricolfi, sociologist at the University of Turin, wrote an editorial in the La Stampa newspaper that was critical of the current Renzi government, titled "Who will suffer the consequences of the primacy of politics": "The issue brought up by Orbán about the dysfunction of our democracies is not so politically incorrect," he said. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, has posed the problem of a European continent that has 7 percent of the world population and 25 percent of the GDP, but an unsustainable 50 percent of global welfare spending. The late philosopher Ralph Dahrendorf, he noted, cited the alternative case of Singapore, with its model of soft authoritarianism and economic success. Ricolfi also wondered about the capacity of our political systems to integrate economic development, social cohesion and democracy and still be able to make decisions.

Having said that, Ricolfi "doubts" those who bring up this issue from a "political standpoint" and argue that "an authoritarian approach may look like an attempt to limit personal freedoms."

He continued: "There is, however, another approach to this issue, that of liberal Kenneth Minogue, for example," which contains lessons that fit Italy's case to a greater extent. In this light, "modern states have become oppressive for the excessive quantities of tasks that they have taken upon themselves and for their overuse of legislation. This is the model of continental Europe, and in this field Italy has definitely done its homework, unfortunately even more than required."

For Ricolfi, the situation has reached the point where it is impossible to undertake reforms:

"Seeking consensus at any cost is paralyzing our democracies. That is also the case, at the EU level, of the common foreign policy or any choice regarding the single currency. In Italy, we experience merely a difference in degree, not a qualitative difference of this fundamental problem."


Even in this situation, he notes, Matteo Renzi has been accused by many of being arrogant and hasty towards the opposition:

"I find the accusations of "authoritarianism" to be without merit. Renzi has the right to criticize the "discussionism" and make decisions. The return of the primacy of politics bears a different problem." The problem lies not in the failure to find an agreement with trade unions and entrepreneurs, or to carry out a judicial reform without the approval of the National Association of Judges:

"The issue is the apparent contempt for qualities such as experience, competency and technical knowledge. Loyalty and party membership cannot be the only selection criteria for the ruling class. And so Italy's problem today is a lack of a viable political culture, and not democracy. But this limits the decision-making capability of politics."

Ricolfi mentions several examples: "Nowadays, the consultations on issues such as pensions no longer take place at the ministers' table in the government building, but rather within the factions of the Democratic Party at Parliamentary Commissions. At the same time, labor law experts with lifetimes of experience are deliberately sidelined. Another example: there are three proposals regarding the electoral law, all deemed equal -- so much for the decisive approach."

The sociologist likes a particular metaphor: it is as if, in order to build an airplane, each time you were to call in all the suppliers and try to have them reach an agreement instead of having an underlying engineering plan.

"Today, this assumption that politics are self-sufficient, intertwined with the conviction that reaching consensus among most of the parts involved is always necessary, is quite widespread. Not everywhere, of course, as shown by the better functioning Anglo-Saxon democracies. In Italy, this assumption borders on fatal, considering that we operate in a complex and globalized economic context. At times, swift decisions are necessary, as in the case of the eurocrisis. There are times instead when we are dealing with complex matters, and an in-depth knowledge of the issue is required. If, however, the aim of a labor reform is to find an agreement between the Democratic Party and the New Center Right... [consensus seems impossible]."


These considerations somewhat overlap with those of Nathan Gardels, political analyst and co-author with Nicolas Berggruen, Chairman of Berggruen Institute on Governance, of the 2013 book "Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century: A Middle Way Between West and East."

Gardels, in fact, finds a kernel of truth in Orbán's words:

"The Hungarian leader is obviously right when he says that Western democracies are ever more dysfunctional in the current context." Then he adds: "The solution lies not in a return to Mussolini, or worse, to an ethnic-based fascism à la Putin, as Orbán seems to imply. What is clearly appealing to the Hungarian leader is a one party rule, or at least dominance. And there is no doubt that, historically, that has enabled rapid and sustained development not only in a place like Singapore or China, but also in liberal democracies like Sweden and Japan. The Swedish social-democrats reigned uninterrupted after WWII for decades, building the model welfare state. The Liberal Democratic Party ruled for decades after the war building the Japanese economic miracle. "

Neither were "illiberal" in the sense Orbán was talking about," argues Gardels, who is also the Editor-in-Chief of The WorldPost and theorist of a more "depoliticized democracy." This concept from Gardels was quoted by former EU Commissioner and Italian prime minister Mario Monti several times in his own book "Democracy in Europe."

"The kind of nationalism espoused by Orbán always become totalitarian," Gardels argues, "because the individual is always subsumed in the group or ethnicity." But, he warned, illiberal, nationalist "democracy" of the kind proposed by Orbán will inevitably arise as an attractive alternative if Western democracies continue to pretend that nothing is changing, going on without any self-criticism and without evolving, as both Monti and I have theorized, in a way that combines more democratic participation with more meritocratic competence."

According to Gardels, a "paradox" exists in the West:

"Societies are becoming more pluralistic, and the demand for social and political participation is increasing, amplified by social media. The more players there are in political life, the greater the need to sort out the tradeoffs among them for the sake of the common good and the long term. That requires in turn more non-partisan, meritocratic, competent and depoliticized institutions that play a mediating role. This is far from the nationalistic statism suggested by the Hungarian Prime Minister. What is need instead is a new form of hybrid governance that responds to the challenges Orbán has raised about the dysfunction of liberal democracy."

Why turn more often to experts, technicians, judicial or other authorities? "In order to address the limits that special and short-term interests pose to making long-term political decisions when they dominate and distort the feedback mechanism of elections," says Gardels.

According to Gardels, China has something to teach us as well:

"Despite the well-known corruption, the principle of meritocracy is very much alive in the selection of the political class. No one reaches the top of the Communist Party without first governing a province or two the size of Italy." Nonetheless, Gardels readily adds, this becomes hidebound and inefficient if it is achieved at the expense of freedom of expression and the accountability of power." We need instead to invent new "mediating institutions without reducing civil liberties, and without trying to legitimate them through concepts such as 'nation' or 'ethnicity.' Better results can be achieved through restructuring our political and electoral systems."

This is why Gardels, who is a close observer of Italy, states that "Renzi's proposal to reform the Senate and end bicameralism has merit. "There is nothing sacred," he says, "about having two chambers elected directly by the people that duplicate each other, one even maybe canceling out the work of the other. Because of its experience with Mussolini, Italy has gone overboard with the check and balance mechanisms to limit the executive power."

Nowadays, however, throughout the democratic West, "the problem lies not with a too powerful executive branch, but rather with a body politic that is so highly diversified and full of conflicting interests that it can't function. In the current Italian system, like in the U.S., there are more checks than balances, and this ensures that short term and special interests prevail. A path back to an equilibrium could be to give the Senate functional representation, with the Municipalities and Regions represented as Renzi proposes, combined with eminent Senators For Life, to bolster the capacity for farsighted choices."


Beyond this, there is a need to create a "continuous flow democracy" where "robust, continuous feedback mechanisms -- not periodic elections for distant representatives -- are required for achieving the ongoing balance and tradeoffs within society."

According to Gardels, there are some examples.

"Estonia has an e-democracy system that enables citizens to engage in 'wikilegislation,' proposing and voting on amendments to legislation in the formulation process. In California, we have proposed a Citizens' Council that engages in robust solicitation of views from the public, processes them into policy proposals, then proposing them back to the public for a vote by initiative."

If we want our democracies to function effectively again, Gardels concludes, "we need to stem their current deterioration into 'vetocracies,' where the corporatist players, from trade unions to the finance sector, prefer to be able to buy votes and call the shots in a democracy than face a structural change in governance that guarantees all interests, including those of future generations, are fully represented."

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