As in America and many other parts of today’s world, politics in Italy has become a prominent part of everyday life. Graduate student Alessandro Del Ponte, Political Science ’19, witnessed that first-hand in his hometown of Genoa.
“When I was in high school, many students were quite politicized, engaging in student demonstrations and political propaganda,” said Del Ponte, who is in Stony Brook’s Political Science PhD program. “I wanted to learn the tools to engage in principled conversations that go beyond simple slogans.”
With that early goal as a starting point, Del Ponte chose to study economics at the University of Genoa. His experience further fueled interests in public economics, public administration and politics.
“I started thinking that European societies were not as prosperous as they could be because of poor relationships between citizens and governments,” said Del Ponte. “Two big problems I saw growing up in Italy were corruption and tax evasion. Those issues may endure because citizens do not trust the government or the state may lack moral legitimacy in the citizen’s eyes.”
While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Del Ponte became intrigued by the work of social researcher Peter DeScioli – who just happened to join the Stony Brook faculty around that time as a professor in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“I was fascinated by Peter’s research on morality and prosocial [socially positive] behavior,” explained Alessandro. “After I applied here, I visited Stony Brook and met Peter. Working with him is so stimulating.”
Alessandro was also drawn to Stony Brook by its Political Psychology program, a relatively young discipline that leverages psychology to study politics.
“I was convinced that by studying political psychology I could learn the tools to help European policymakers counter populists and work towards becoming a ‘United States of Europe,’” said Del Ponte. “Populist politicians around the world have been very skilled at listening to people’s concerns and capitalizing on their legitimate fears. Yet, while the populist approach is generally successful at highlighting the problems that citizens care about, it is less successful in fixing them and often makes the situation even worse.”
During his career at Stony Brook, Alessandro cites Peter DeScioli’s Evolutionary Psychology class and Associate Professor of Political Science Oleg Smirnov’s Computational Modeling class as two courses that made a profound impact on him. Del Ponte said that professor Smirnov’s class made him a better programmer, an essential skill that helped land him a job at the National University of Singapore (NUS), where he will start as a research fellow in the Fall. Alessandro calls DeScioli’s class inspirational.
“He did a fantastic job discussing the ideas of evolutionary psychologists and helped me understand how evolution shaped the psychological algorithms that shape modern humans’ political behavior,” said Alessandro. With DeScioli’s guidance, Alessandro designed a series of online economic games.
Where does the road lead for Alessandro? In the near future, Alessandro’s goal is to make his three years at the National University of Singapore as productive and stimulating as they can be.
“Long term, my goal is to help the European Union become the ‘United States of Europe,’” he said. “Prior to coming to Stony Brook, I was an assistant to Mario Monti, former Prime Minister of Italy, who is a fervent supporter of creating a united Europe. This unique experience instilled in me the desire to help create a world in which there is a prosperous, peaceful, and truly united Europe.”
To that end, Del Ponte views Brexit as a permanent scar for Europe regardless of whether it actually happens or not.
“Europe belongs to the UK and the UK belongs to the EU just like a limb belongs to the body,” he says. “History, cultural affinity, economic geography, and a shared fate cannot be cancelled by a temporary political division.”
Still, Del Ponte thinks Brexit might provide Europe some clarity on what it means to be a political union.
“Membership in a union comes with rights and responsibilities, costs and benefits,” he says, “but it cannot last the test of time without a shared identity and a common understanding of what it means to be part of the union. I think that the U.S. has built the ‘American identity’ whereas the EU is dangerously close to disintegrating before even establishing a sense of what it really means to be European, and how the ‘European identity’ is unique and distinct from Europe’s individual national identities. The most important thing for Europeans to do is build a European social identity.”
A truly united Europe will be possible only when we touch Europeans’ hearts and minds, he believes. “In the EU, the quest for solidarity between states has proven elusive. An important reason is that for many citizens, the EU is an abstract entity rather than part of who they are.”
Alessandro testifies that Stony Brook prepared him academically by providing strong quantitative skills and interdisciplinary training, at an intersection of political science, psychology, and economics that no other political science department offered. It also played a big role in influencing his future in a profound way you won’t find in any Stony Brook brochure.
“I met my future wife at Stony Brook,” said Alessandro proudly. “She was a medical student here and now is a pediatrics resident in New York. So in a sense, Stony Brook prepared me for married life!”
— Robert Emproto