Marshall Memorial Fellowship Reflections: Nicoletta Pirozzi
‘Institutions matter’. That has always been my mantra, deeply embedded in my institutionalist academic research, in my work with and for national and European institutions as a think tanker, in my political activity in Italy. And with this approach in mind, I traveled the US for the Marshall Memorial Fellowship. My goal was to further analyze the determinants of the current crisis of liberal democratic institutions across the Atlantic and to identify possible ways out. I left Europe in the middle of a deadlock due to the stalemate in the Brexit negotiations. This deadlock is also due to the increasing attacks on the founding values of solidarity and rule of law by illiberal governments, and a country on the verge of bankruptcy due to a foul budget law.
I arrived in Washington, DC during the fierce battle and final confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh at the Supreme Court. From Miami, I was able to follow the hesitations of the U.S. President in condemning the Saudi regime for the Jamal Khashoggi case. I was in Texas when the Honduran migrant's crisis erupted and the US started to consider sending the army to close the border with Mexico. In Europe as in the United States, I observed a dramatic fragilization of political institutions, an increased politicization of the judiciary, a loss of power of the legislative power in favor of the executive, and a generalized distrust in the State. I was puzzled and started to consider the option of an irreversible decline of our societies linked to the downfall of our institutional architecture.
What I found under the surface of my institutionalist perspective – debating with inspiring European fellows, learning from the experience of previous American fellows and living the reality of many different cities in the United States – led me to a completely unexpected and alternative path. I appreciated the power of the people and of the many realizations descending from their active engagement in their communities. I gave names and faces to the bottom-up approach that I predicted in my analyses, and I realized that there is a world of opportunities to salvage what we have built in the past centuries as the distinguishing basis of our Western societies. The drive deriving from the people can be the game-changer in the current political juncture, in Europe, in the United States, and at the international level.
However, a series of conditions need to be fulfilled in order to achieve the desired impact. The first one has to do with the restoration of accountability of the institutions, starting with the closest level to the citizens by professionalizing and empowering people in local government. In the city of San Antonio, a progressive bastion in the largely conservative State of Texas, the City Manager Sheryl Scully represents a luminous example of how the professional management of the cities can help overcome policy volatility (the Mayor has to run for office every two years) through teamwork, integrity, and innovation. She has ensured engagement of the citizens through a survey of their priorities before presenting the city budget, developed leadership programs for executive and mid-level city staff, hired communication experts to tell the story of the city in a more effective way.
The second lies in the ability to invest in education as a means to empower people in the society and restore the missed link between economy and labor in our technological and globalized era. The best strategy to reach this goal is to incentivize the collaboration between public educational institutions and private actors with a view to combining accessibility and innovation. In Miami Beach, globally renowned for its sandy beaches and nightlife, a visionary project for education, collaboration, and experiential learning was launched by Florida International University and the Knight Foundation. Under the enlightening guidance of John Stuart, the CARTA Innovation Lab offers public programs and educational opportunities for students – from elementary to high school – and startup programs for recent graduates by using 3D technology. Community members active in a wide range of sectors – from medicine to architecture to music and arts – can also use the space to develop new product ideas and conduct research.
Finally, it is important to fuel partnerships at transnational and transatlantic levels among local institutions, educational institutions, political forces, and civil society organizations, with a view to exchanging best practices, create new initiatives, consolidating the linkages between our societies. This would have a greater impact if it is done in the fields that are most promising for sustainable innovative development, such as technology, climate, and energy, culture and arts, social entrepreneurship. In my experience, the Marshall Memorial Fellowship is one of those consolidated experiments that proved extremely successful in this perspective. As such, it should be nurtured and replicated in different forms and endeavors.
Institutions still matter, including transatlantic ones, but they need the energy and the engagement of the people to revive and shape the future at the global level.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.