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Italy's Democratic Triumph

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Italy's most recent election is further proof that democracy works.

The election in which Italian citizens ignored the 'sensible' center parties, gave a large mass of votes to a political coalition recently organized by a comedian. The election which created a divided government that has virtually no chance of forming a stable coalition. The election which has been roundly panned by pundits from The Atlantic to The Economist, from the Brookings Institution to The Daily Show. The election which caused a nose-dive in international markets.

Yes, that election. As bad as it sounds on the surface, it was, in fact, a great triumph of democracy.

You see, there is a reason that so many Italians voted for a protest party. They are in the midst of a terrible economic recession. For years, they have been told by European Union economic planners that the way out of this recession is to implement a series of austerity measures -- and as the recession gets worse each year, so must the austerity measures. These austerity measures, including tax increases and cuts to social services, are extremely unpopular. And just as importantly, the Italians feel that these measures are being imposed upon them from the outside; that the EU has successfully bullied the two major political parties in Italy to continue along the austerity path, despite the unpopularity of the austerity agenda.

The political equation in Italy at the time of the election was: high unemployment + widespread belief that government is ignoring the needs of the citizenry + public perception that things are only getting worse. In many countries that adds up to rioting, perhaps even a constitutional crisis or revolution, maybe some crackdowns by a government that gets nervous to hold onto its power and starts to fear that its citizenry will get too far out of hand. But instead, the Italians took their frustration, they went to the ballot box, and they voted. That's a triumph of democracy if there ever was one.

Many pundits are criticizing the Italians for voting for the 'wrong' people. The pundits seem to think that the Italians ought to have voted in a way that has the least impact on international markets. But that's absurd. The Italian people don't answer to Wall Street. Instead, the Italian government answers to the Italian people -- a people who are angry, increasingly unemployed, and feeling ignored by the powers that control their fate. In the real world, the alternative to this "chaotic" election isn't a business-friendly utopia; it's weeks of rioting shutting down Rome, or even worse, the Arab Spring.

So who cares if the Italian people voted for the 'wrong' parties? Yeah, maybe this election leaves the markets a little unstable, and maybe it means that Italy might need another election in six months. Those are pretty small complaints in the grand scheme of things. Or to put it another way, as poorly as the markets reacted to the Italian election, think about how poorly the markets would have reacted to rioters looting and pillaging their way through Rome. There is basically no other way that the Italian people could have vented their anger which would have led to a better market reaction -- and plenty of things they could have done to cause much more harm. Not only would most ways of expressing anger stall the economy and leave investors jittery, they would also cause damage to infrastructure and create costs for the already over-stressed Italian budget (e.g. cleaning up debris, rebuilding burned buildings, etc.).

How do we know that democracy works? Because when faced with a situation that leads many countries dissolve into chaos, Italy's citizens were able to let off steam in a way that let the powers that be know the displeasure of the people, but which didn't shut the country down. Compared to the alternative, voting in a protest party is a credit to both the Italian people and to their democratic institutions.

Danny Oppenheimer is an associate professor at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Mike Edwards is the founding contributor of Leftfielder.org, a blog on politics and media. Both are co-authors of Democracy Despite Itself: Why a System That Shouldn't Work at All Works So Well.