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Some of Italy celebrates F*ck- off Day. It was observed for two years in a row from 2007 to 2008. F*ck-off Day is not a religious holiday, nor a nationally-recognized one. It’s a political holiday cursing the government with its own Santa Claus of sorts: frizzy grey-haired founder, Beppe Grillo. Grillo, a comedi- an, is the caricature you may expect. The short, plump man even recently wore clown make-up to reference the chaotic political movement from the 2019 film, Joker. His round face, in true comedic fashion, lends itself equally to the goofiest of smiles, the fiercest of frowns and everything in between.
The year following the two F*ck-off Days, Grillo founded the political party known as the Five Star Movement (M5S). Today in 2021, M5S holds more seats in the Italian parliament (36%) than any other single political party. A version of M5S would never realistically spring up in the United States because of our disgusting two-party system. Here, regardless of how particular your political beliefs are, 99% of the time you have two viable choices: Democrat or Republican. The interesting thing about the M5S is that it’s a centrist “big tent” party, meaning that it includes both traditionally left- and right-wing members and viewpoints.
The two-party polarization in the United States has turned the word “centrist” into a term used to ridicule the center of each party separately. Joe Biden and Mitt Romney, while clearly liberal and conservative respectively, are both “centrists” because they are moderates in their respective parties. The actual centrists, then, end up being the farthest right Democrats and farthest left Republicans; they are seen as two-faced traitors who are disloyal to their parties instead of principled politicians.
M5S contains elements that are both left- and right-wing in nature from left environmental issues to right- wing criticism of the European Union. The glue sticking these traditionally incompatible viewpoints together is anti-establishment populism. Unlike the American centrist politician, who is fairly content to vote with their party (how else can they secure party support to win re-election?), anti-establishment sentiment and a rejection of polarizing political orthodoxy is what the Five Star Movement is built around.
The Italian parliamentary system is characterized by coalitions. Instead of having one big Democratic Party whose voting base contains everything from socialists to fiscally-conservative liberals and a Republican Party whose voting base contains everything from the alt-right to libertarians, every particular ideology can have its own party, but vaguely associate with a “left coalition” or “right coalition”. The M5S had ambiva- lently abstained from joining a coalition for many years until it became the largest single party in Italy, a party that either coalition would have to win over for a true majority.
The 2018 Italian government saw M5S ally with the right coalition. This government coalition ended up breaking up a year later due to struggles within the coalition, only for M5S to turn around and ally with the left coalition instead. This government coalition also ended up failing just a few months ago. Most of the time, the right or left coalition gain enough seats to hold a politically-stable ministry on their own, but with the unaffiliated M5S halting the possibility of a clear majority, Italy’s government ministry has become much more unclear and volatile.
Why does this all matter for us in the United States? I think that out of this, we can find a strategy to help the American left (which I advocate for) better win what I argue is today’s actual center: the anti-establishment vote. I want us all to imagine an imaginary Five Star Movement in America (maybe hypothetically started by America’s favorite anti-establishment comedian, Joe Rogan). Our goal is to win over this party, or at least dissuade them from voting Republican.
The Republican Party, since their loss of congress and the presidency, has completely left the realm of policy in favor of cultural issues. Cultural issues like cancel culture are great because there is no way to “lose” them. It can remain in public discourse for an eternity, but we can’t realistically legislate away cancel culture because of our beloved first amendment free speech rights. In the minority, the right can win points by sitting back and virtue signaling over cancel culture, election fraud, and denying the rights of Trans folks during this unprecedented global pandemic and economic crisis. With all eyes on the Democratic majority, so far we’ve seen the Democrats hugely water down economic policies around COVID relief and the minimum wage due to dissent from the most con- servative members of the party.
Democrats need to stop the “call for unity” with a Republican Party that has no desire to unify with them or help accomplish their goals (reaching across the aisle is not what centrism is anymore). Let’s remember that M5S was started by a brash comedian who was a centrist because he was anti-establishment, not because he was a bipartisan champion. The Democrats need to lambast the Republicans for not doing a single thing for the American people. We need to start thinking about the American center like the M5S: it is volatile and willing to go either way, but most importantly it would prefer to do neither.
The best strategy, with our invisible M5S of anti-establishment “centrist” voters, is reminding the American people why the Republicans suck and not why the Democrats are great. Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio did a wonderful job of this with a particularly fiery speech in congress where he yelled at Republicans: “Stop talking about Dr. Seuss and start working with us on behalf of American workers!” This is an important reminder that only the Democratic Party (even if it is doing a lackluster job) is seriously discussing how to help our working people amidst this global crisis.
The reality is that Republicans are halting real progress—so Democrats should tell the American people that these politicians need to f*ck off.