[Alumni Reflection] Yuri Guaiana: “US Democracy Seen Through the Eyes of a European Traveler”
“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” This is how Alexis de Tocqueville began his renowned Democracy in America after traveling throughout the USA in 1831 when he was 27-years-old.
Would a European traveling in the United States today agree with the French nobleman? Well, without comparing myself to the great French intellectual, I had a chance to visit Washington, D.C. and Kentucky thanks to ACYPL, the US State Department and the US Consulate General in Milan who selected me for the 2014 US Elections Exchange Program. After almost two centuries since de Tocqueville’s visit to America, the US remains a land of great opportunities for all, but “the general equality of conditions” mentioned by the French author have made way for sharp contradictions.
Minority Rights in the US
The US is certainly the greatest democracy in the world, but it still struggles with ethnic minorities being consistently disenfranchised by certain policies. Despite this, the US gave birth civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, who both still inspire the actions of many activists all over the world. Dr. King’s ideals are still a source of inspiration for people like me who fight for human rights because, as Dr. King said in 1963, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Dr. King and Rosa Park’s nonviolent methods are in stark contrast to the Central Intelligence Agency’s extensive and systematic use of torture proven by the US Senate Intelligence Committee’s report.. But, I think, this proves that Dr. King was right when he said, in 1964: “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporary defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
And it is not by chance that these words of wisdom were set in stone at the Lincoln Memorial, “A new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Equal rights and freedom go hand in hand, they are inseparable and reinforce each other. Every great American revolutionary we learn about in some context founded their political ideology on constitutional freedom and liberty. Only in this legal and political context can the preamble of the Declaration of Independence flourish and each individual can exercise his/her unalienable right to the pursuit of Happiness.
Not only do these principles have a very concrete impact on the life of people, but they also have an impact on the political life of the country. Freedom, and especially freedom of expression, is at the core of a vibrant press which helps to tackle corruption. I gather that someone somewhere is uneasy by the extent to which freedom of speech is protected by the First amendment to the US Constitution. While watching electoral commercials on TV I can even agree that there should be greater regulation, but I still prefer a system in which anyone can say whatever they want, as long as it is not slanderous or libelous.
Political Party System
Many of the people I talked to while in the U.S. were anxious about the extreme polarization the current political system causes. To the European eye, these concerns are excessive because the US political system is still much less polarized than many European systems. Party discipline in Europe is much stricter and more easily enforced to the detriment of the independence of individual MPs, which is instead exalted by the U.S. system. In Italy for instance, we don’t have a whip; the party group leader is more than enough, given that generally MPs are loyal to the secretary of the party who controls the candidatures. Sure, the rigidity of the ”single-member” district system, together with many other electoral rules, suffocates the emergence of a third party. However, this is balanced by the necessity of the two main parties to seek broad-based support and to be more flexible with respect to policy position. But the most precious result of the “single-member” district system is that elections have real consequences in America, whereas in Italy we had the same party in government from 1948 until 1994!
As I said, I come from a country where the candidates are chosen by party leaders in a totally non-transparent way, so learning the role of congressional campaign committees was very interesting. The whole idea of training and assisting a candidate on how to run a campaign for 18 months with the focus on hiring people, fundraising and on how to spend money in the most useful way was new to me, let alone the practice of helping them hire staff, fundraising, and counseling them on voting issues.
The Perspective from the States
In Europe, we are pretentious enough to compare each and every single European country to the U.S. as a whole, ignoring most of what goes on at the State level. But in terms of GDP, many U.S. states equals European countries and the same is partially true even in terms of population. Now, if we look at how the States work, the huge difference in costs and procedures is striking: in Kentucky, for instance, Congress meets 30 days a year (in odd years) and 60 days a year (in even years) and congressmen are payed $200 a day only during session. In Italy, Parliament meets every month and MPs are payed €14,000 a month. The cost of top public managers is even higher. Sure, Kentucky has only 4.4 million people and 130 congressmen compared to the 945 Italian MPs out of nearly 60 million people, but Italy is also subdivided into 20 regions, 110 provinces and 8,100 municipalities, all of them with their representatives and administrative systems.
I strongly believe we should learn from the U.S. and shape both the European Union and the European countries in a more effective way. Europe urgently needs a leap forward in the integration of new markets to regain its competitiveness and in foreign affairs to reduce cost at the state level and be internationally more effective.
The Role of Religion
I’d like to add a personal note too. As a gay man, I have long been discriminated against in my own country by both the State and the Catholic Church. That’s why I was a little uneasy when I learned we were going to attend a mass in a Methodist Church. Well, it turned out that the powerful gospel mass was able to soften the hardship of years of church discrimination and the Church visit was one of the most interesting ones, especially because I had the chance to aaddress a small religious community of African-American Kentuckians. Speaking about democracy and Martin Luther King in a Methodist Church was very emotional. When I mentioned Dr. King, the whole community broke out in a round of applause in memory of the great civil rights leader. It is astonishing how passion for fairness, justice, equality, and freedom can bond people together from across the Atlantic at such a deep and intimate level.
I also learned a lot by listening and observing. Rev. Anthony Everett mentioned the month against harrassment preached against this evil, especially bullying in sport. He didn’t mention homophobic bullying, but at least he tackled the biggest problem young LGBTI people face. While in Italy we have crosses hanging on school and court walls, in the U.S. there are American flags displayed in churches. The Italian flag was seriously damaged by fascism and will never be as powerful a symbol as the U.S .flag, but the relationship between State and Church in the US is a very interesting one. At the beginning of the mass Rev. Anthony Everett pushed the congregation to go to the poll stations and vote: «I’m not concerned about what you are gonna vote for, I’m concerned about you going to vote at all». Something similar happened even in Italy when priests told believers not to go to vote for a referendum on IVF and managed to make the referendum fail because the quorum wasn’t met.
But in the U.S. things go even further than that: in some cases churches organize busses to take voters to the polling stations and sometimes polling stations are set in churches (or even in shopping malls), something that would be considered despicable in Italy. Voting still has some sacrality in Italy: we only vote in State schools over Sundays and Monday mornings. It’s some sort of secular ritual which cannot be hosted in commercial places, let alone churches which could well be considered territory of a foreign State, the Vatican State. This is something that probably the U.S. could learn from Europe, especially in regard to election day: having it when people don’t have to go to work would facilitate them to go to the polls and I think that it’s a duty of the State to facilitate people to participate in the voting process. I understand that electoral Tuesday is written in the Constitution and, for the time being, early voting can help, but this is something that Americans have to think about carefully. Having only 35-40% of voters showing up for mid-term elections is a little concerning, even if I don’t believe a mature democracy should worry to much about voter turn-out, and I strongly oppose compulsory voting – let’s leave that to totalitarian regimes.
Voter ID Laws
It’s not only about voting day though: the whole debate on photo ID is lunar for Europeans. We all have to carry with us a photo ID issued (almost) freely by the State. This would settle the argument among those who care about minorities being disenfranchised by photo IDs as a voting requirement and those who worry about electoral frauds. On the other hand, I do recognize that compulsory photo IDs can be seen as State filing of citizens, and as a very intrusive measure to the detriment of individual liberty. On the other hand, in the U.S. there are voters’ files that parties can legally use to obtain certain information on the voters: race, gender, age, address, email, telephone number, when they voted and when they didn’t, if they registered as a democrat, a republican, an independent, and when they registered – if they did so at all. This would be utterly illegal in Europe and, by the way, is very close to breaching the secrecy of vote to me. Funny enough, «privacy» is a U.S. concept which developed much further in Europe than in the U.S.
Global Issues are a Non-Issue
But the one thing I appreciate the least is the attitude of far too many Americans towards foreign countries and Europe in particular. International issues barely played a role during this mid-term elections, if not for ebola and ISIS. I think the country, which is still the most internationally influential power, should be a little more informed and concerned about what is going on outside its borders. Bragging about not having a passport, as the leader of the GOP did in 1994, is as distressing as attacking a candidate because he or she is popular in Europe.
I think the phenomenal Jewish Canadian musician, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen was right when in 1992 defined America as «The cradle of the best and of the worst» in his song titled, not by chance, «Democracy».
Yuri Guaiana is a member of the Milan City Council and is the national secretary of Certain Rights, an LGBT and human rights NGO. He is a recognized expert on same-sex families’ strategic litigation, a committed advocate for marriage equality, and a Huffington Post blogger.