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The Triumph of Emperor Silvio

In response to:

The Corrupt Reign of Emperor Silvio from the April 8, 2010 issue

To the Editors:

Berlusconi has not landed from Mars. He is an Italian. By focusing on a sequence of scandalous and outright illegal events involving Berlusconi and summarizing them for The New York Review [“The Corrupt Reign of Emperor Silvio,” April 8], Alexander Stille does not do justice to the complexity of Italian politics. Joining the company of the too many who believe that Berlusconi is the cause of all evils, he misses the opportunity to explain why Italians have elected and reelected an alleged “crook,” allowing him to govern the country for a decade.

When in 1992–1994 the old political and party systems collapsed, Berlusconi shrewdly and capably offered political representation to all those voters whose parties no longer existed. Only rarely and exceptionally has the center-left succeeded in putting forward a credible candidate to the office of prime minister. The center-left has not formulated a decent, long-term program of reforms. It has enacted few policies in order to solve the problems of unemployment, especially youth unemployment, of organized crime, of immigration. Because the Partito Democratico is fundamentally made up of former Communists and former Christian Democrats, they remain identified with a political past that Italian voters do not want to revive.

Moreover, the leaders of the Partito Democratico have been both unable and unwilling to provide for the emergence of a decent social-democratic alternative. Today, Italy is practically the only European country where there is no significant socialist party. Some scandals in local administrations, recently even in the once- admired “Red” city of Bologna, have affected officeholders of the center-left, forever destroying their claims of “positive diversity.” Finally, Stille forgets or does not bother to tell his readers that the level of tolerance Italians have for corruption has always been depressingly high.

While, of course, not all Italians deserve Berlusconi, the majority of them prefer him to the quarreling, divided, and unreliable opposition. Playing the cards of antipolitics and populism and extolling his own personal success, Berlusconi does represent more than faithfully the citizens of a country in which “amoral familism” is still alive and no civic religion exists.

Gianfranco Pasquino
Professor of Political Science
University of Bologna
The Johns Hopkins Bologna Center
Bologna, Italy

Alexander Stille replies:

I agree with some of Gianfranco Pasquino’s analysis. In a long piece in 2008 [“Italy Against Itself,” NYR, December 4, 2008], I argued that the inability of the center-left to offer a convincing alternative made it quite understandable why voters had turned once again to Berlusconi. The extreme weakness of the left in Italy cannot, however, be entirely disentangled from the strength of Berlusconi, and in 2010, it seems necessary to try to make sense of the extraordinary concatenation of scandals and events of the past year that have Berlusconi at their center.

Seventy to eighty percent of Italians get most or all of their political information from television, and Berlusconi controls almost everything that appears on TV. After my story went to press, wiretapped conversations of Berlusconi issuing orders to people at Rai, the Italian state broadcaster, and at the supposedly neutral agency that regulates Italian TV (Agcom) were published. In one, he orders a former employee of his who is a commissioner of Agcom to close down a series of talk shows that have dared to deal with Berlusconi’s scandals on public TV.

Indeed, in the final weeks of the recent regional elections, Berlusconi succeeded in shutting down all political talk shows—an act of political censorship that has few if any precedents in contemporary European democracy. And during those weeks, Berlusconi spoke to the Italian public on TV on average for three hours and forty-five minutes per week while the principal opposition leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, received only a half-hour of airtime. This extreme anomaly is fundamental to understanding the Berlusconi phenomenon, the evolution of democracy in Italy, and even, to some extent, the weakness of the left.

Where I don’t agree with Professor Pasquino is his claim that Berlusconi can be adequately explained through Italy’s historic “amoral familism” and by the fact that “tolerance…for corruption has always been depressingly high.” In regarding amoral familism as a kind of unchanging, essential national characteristic, Pasquino seems to be saying that Italy is not a country where you can hold politicians to any kind of moral or legal standard, a depressing conclusion that I am not quite prepared to make. But perhaps more importantly it also omits the possibility that social and political culture in Italy does change over time, if not always for the better. Berlusconi has, I think, lowered the moral and ethical bar considerably.

Despite their defects, the main parties of the postwar period in Italy were motivated by ideals and visions of a better society. In the Berlusconi era, Italian politics has become completely unmoored from any aspiration other than the pursuit of personal wealth and power—the essential messages of his TV stations. Tolerance for corruption has often been high in Italy but it is significant that in the early to mid-1990s, before Berlusconi consolidated his power, support for the Italian judges that were investigating political corruption was exceptionally high; fifteen years later, under relentless attack from Berlusconi’s TV stations, it has dropped precipitously. These changes are all significant, and cannot be understood without understanding the cultural world that Berlusconi has helped create.

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