John Boehner, the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, faces a make-or-break moment not just for himself, but also for the entire United States. In order for a semblance of sanity to return to Washington, will he choose to rely on Democratic votes in the House to end the government shutdown and deal with the debt ceiling?
If he does not choose that option, the country may be doomed. And if he does choose it, his party may doom him. His is thus a classic case of having to make a choice with momentous consequences on both sides of the equation.
What is especially fascinating about this particular moment in American politics is how, well, Italian it is.
Americans and Italians find themselves confronted with the same political phenomenon, with one key difference: The Italians are about to rid themselves of the monster that has long held them in its grip, while the Americans are only now, for the first time, experiencing their own monster in full force.
Unless things radically change in Washington, Italy may be the luckier country. In contrast to Washington, the Italian capital of Rome saw two big political events this past week, both with very positive outcomes.
Italy makes the right choices
First, the current Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, won a surprisingly clear confidence vote in parliament. Second, the country’s Senate voted to expel Silvio Berlusconi, the man who had held Italy in his spell and had exposed it to his every whim for two full decades.
A four-time prime minister of Italy between 1994 and 2011, he has regaled his fellow Italians with a steady mix of personal tax scandals, corruption cases and repeated sex scandals. To get on with all his shenanigans, he relied on a coterie of devoted members of his own party who worshipped him and whom he knew to manipulate in almost every fashion.
Their unquestioning loyalty to the Nero of modern-day Italian politics ended only this week when a large part of his own party members serving in parliament came to their collective senses. They finally discovered that continued loyalty to the man would doom their own political future, if not also that of the country.
As is the case with the Tea Party in the United States, Mr. Berlusconi’s longstanding political modus operandi was to claim the pursuit of the public good, while basically cynically playing the system to benefit his own narrow interests.
It is that principle that brings the Italian roots of American politics – specifically, ultra-conservative Republican Party politics – into full display. A small group of people has taken the United States hostage. Unless the ransom it demands is being paid, it is determined to block the entire body politic from moving forward.
“My way or let us all perish” seems to be the main operating principle of the Tea Party and its acolytes. While playing with fire, Nero-style, they claim to be the high priest of important principles, such as fiscal probity.
Of course, the pursuit of sound fiscal affairs is an important goal for any nation. But what the Tea Partiers mean with their embrace of that principle is radically to shrink the role of the federal government. They want to return government to the very basic functions it served during the founders’ period, that is, when it served only the needs of the white male population who held all the wealth and the power.
The ultimate issue with the Tea Party is whether the United States can tame that monster faster than Italy, where it took two full decades to end the spell that Berlusconi put over his country.
That is the essence of the choice that John Boehner faces. He will be the man to decide whether, in the knick of time, the United States turns the corner or gets even deeper into the creeping Italianization of American politics.