Thursday, November 16, 2006
U.S. Midterm Elections and Italian Opinion
On Thursday, two days after the November 9th midterm elections, curious about reaction within the Italian political community, I hopped on a train and went into Rome to listen to a panel discussion on the subject. Titled U.S. Midterm Elections: Results and Consequences, the event was sponsored by the Center for American Studies, a non-profit Italian institute founded post-WWII.
Five political scholars made up the panel, three of them Italian and two American. The room was packed, all chairs full and several people standing along the wall in the rear. As was pointed out by the panel's moderator and the Center's Executive Director Kazim Mezran, such a large turn-out, approximately 200, was unusual for a discussion about a midterm election.
First to speak were the Americans -- Thomas Bender of New York University and Lawrence Gray from John Cabot University in Rome. Each gave his assessment of the election results and some comments about the current political climate in the U.S. Sitting in a rear row, I swung my foot in annoyance, resisting the urge to kick something, as Professor Gray served up a shades-of-Henry Kissinger perspective. It was delivered as a sort of gospel of the American public's views. Decidedly they were not my views. I made a mental note to send Professor Gray the links to DailyKos.com, MoveOn.org and the Huffington Post.
I crossed my fingers and hoped that the other American there representing the country's collective mind would offer something with more of a nod toward diversity in public opinion. I literally sighed with relief when Professor Bender presented an analysis including a more progressive perspective.
It was then the turn of the Italians -- Sergio Fabbrini from the University of Trent, Tiziano Bonazzi from the University of Bologna, and Massimo Teodori from the University of Perugia. Each of these scholars has written extensively about American affairs. Fabbrini has been a visiting professor at UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Oxford. Teodori also has taught at UC Berkeley, Harvard, and Columbia University.
As was similarly concluded in some post-election coverage in the U.S., the Italian scholars said they also considered the results less of a win for the Democrats and more of a repudiation of the Republicans. Professor Bonazzi spoke particularly about voter turnout. The turnout percentage (in the low forties) was tiny -- pochissimi – by Italian standards, he said, here where average election turnout runs around 80 percent.
Professor Tiziano commented on the conclusion by some analysts that the results of the midterms indicate a move by the U.S. electorate toward the political center. “What is the U.S. center?” he asked. He raised the question, he said, to point out the importance of recognizing the difference of this term when applied to U.S. versus Italian political landscapes. As a first example, he mentioned surveys that reportedly have found a 70 percent approval rating of U.S. residents toward gays. “This is something that would be considered left in our country,” he said. The higher approval ratings in the U.S. for the pro-choice position are also in contrast to what is considered center in Italy, he added. This too is a position of the political left here. “The West is not one but is multiple,” Tiziano concluded, driving home his point, “and it has always been so.”
In the Q&A period at the end of the session, someone asked Professor Bender from NYU what his predictions were for changes in the official U.S. positions toward the Kyoto Treaty and toward the International Criminal Court. Bender, assessing attitudes of the American public, gave a thumbs up for the Kyoto Treaty but a definite thumbs down at present for the International Court. Americans now, and historically, consider themselves to be separate from the international community, he said, adding candidly that in this regard Americans consider themselves above the rest of the world.
Making the final comment before the panel adjourned, Professor Bonazzi mentioned Professor Bender's assessment of American attitudes toward the international community. Perhaps seeking to instill hope in this audience schooled in a European perspective favoring multi-lateral negotiation and building international alliances, he said he wanted to remind the audience of something.
“It was the Americans who built the United Nations,” he said. “It was the Americans who brought the idea of international order.”
I don't know if it cheered up the Italians but it certainly made me feel a little better.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato