Maybe Italy’s Politicians Aren’t Crazier Than Ours
Published at The New Yorker
The results of the last Italian election are baffling, if not incomprehensible, to most foreign observers: as one American friend put it, a majority of Italians voted either for a comedian (Beppe Grillo) or a clown (Silvio Berlusconi). A center-left coalition won a narrow plurality in the lower house of parliament with about 29.6 per cent of the vote, barely edging Berlusconi’s center-right coalition, with Grillo’s Five Star Movement, a loose collection of citizens organizing over the Internet, gaining an astonishing 25.6 per cent, more than any single party. In all likelihood, the three-sided split spells an ungovernable chaos. It would be a mistake, though, to see Italy as a crazy farce that is entirely different from America. Our two-party system has limited the success of more radical parties, but the Italian experience illuminates phenomena that are at work in the United States, too. Are we really sure that Congress is a saner institution than the Italian parliament?
Italy, for better or worse, has served as an amazing laboratory of political innovation in recent history. Fascism and the mafia were Italian inventions. And the Berlusconi phenomenon—the combining of media power, money, and celebrity, and translating it into political power—was, like it or not, an innovation that found imitators around the world. If Berlusconi represents the political potential of television, Grillo is one of the first political figures to build a major political movement largely through the Internet. And that Grillo, a not particularly funny comedian with a mop of unruly gray hair and a foul mouth, should create a political movement out of nothing and turn it into the largest party in the country in just a few years is not as strange as it might at first appear.
Five Star’s slogan “Send them all home!,” directed at Italy’s politicians concentrated in Rome, might play just as well on this side of the Atlantic. Ross Perot ran on an anti-Washington campaign in 1992, and won nearly nineteen per cent of the vote despite his supporters’ knowledge that he had no chance of winning or picking up a single seat in Congress. Italy’s proportional system, in which any party collecting more than four per cent gains representation in parliament, provides a much greater ease of entry for protest movements that would remain on the fringe in winner-take-all systems like our own—even as the sentiments remain present. If a candidate like Ron Paul, or a movement like the Tea Party, could have gained seats in Congress running on their own rather than within the Republican Party, they would have collected tens of millions of votes, as might an Occupy Wall Street party.
Almost every American Presidential candidate has run against Washington since Jimmy Carter presented himself as a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, and Reagan declared government to be the problem, not the solution. Similarly, frustration with Italy’s traditional parties has been building steadily over the past twenty-five years. In the late nineteen-eighties, Italians began trying to rid themselves of a system many referred to as partitocrazia (“partyocracy”), the domination of a semi-permanent political class that appears self-perpetuating, parasitical, and mortifying to the best energies of the country. A system that was tolerated for decades, during which the principal alternative was the Italian Communist Party, became increasingly intolerable during the nineteen-eighties as the Cold War threat receded, and after the Berlin Wall fell, Italians increasingly rebelled. Anti-political movements such as the Lombard League, now known as the Northern League, grew up from nothing and ran against centralized government in Rome—much in the way many American politicians and movements run against Washington. “Roma ladrona” (“Rome, the Big Thief”) was one of the most popular slogans of the league, which began to collect upwards of twenty per cent of the vote in much of northern Italy. The Northern League disappointed many of its supporters’ hopes and expectations for destroying the partyocracy by allying itself with Berlusconi, comfortably replacing their political rivals in Rome and engaging in corrupt practices that matched those of the old system.
Until the early nineteen-nineties, high levels of corruption in Italy were accompanied by high levels of economic growth. But since then, the country has undergone a period of prolonged stagnation and low growth. Entering into the euro zone did not help. Italy’s standard of living has actually declined, and the country’s G.D.P., unlike that of the U.S., is still lower than it was when the financial crisis began in late 2007. The biggest loser in the elections was the small center coalition headed by Mario Monti, the technocrat Prime Minister who was called in to run the government after Berlusconi had reduced the country to the brink of default in late 2011. Monti had prevented a financial meltdown, but this was accomplished through austerity measures that were extremely painful to many Italians. Among the most hated was a major property tax; since most Italians, including middle-class and lower-middle-class people, are home owners rather than renters, the tax, known as I.M.U., was highly regressive. Appearing to the electorate like a severe doctor who administers only bitter-tasting medicine, Monti’s centrist coalition collected only nine per cent of the vote. The wave of popular anger over austerity—Grillo referred to his multi-city tour as a “tsunami”—may wash over many countries dealing with its effects, including post-sequestration America.
The disappointing showing of Italy’s Democratic Party is merited, yet somewhat unfair. Despite having only tiny majorities and feuding allies, the center-left governments of the past twenty years have performed somewhat better than their Berlusconi-led alternatives—in terms of G.D.P. growth, reduction of public debt, and the opening up of areas of Italy’s economy. But the D.P. has had the same problem that many social-democratic parties have today: they offer a slightly more humane and efficient version of a modern capitalist economy rather than something that stirs some larger vision. When its leaders were members of the Italian Communist Party, they offered the prospect of a socialist utopia. Now they are offering various ways of paying off the national debt and reducing tax evasion—hardly the stuff dreams are made of. The American Democratic Party, which balanced the budget during the nineteen-nineties, has also had to offer small, incremental changes rather than a sweeping vision of a vastly better society.
The Italian Democratic Party, following their U.S. counterparts, made a somewhat courageous step toward internal democracy, initiating primaries to choose both their candidate for Prime Minister and those running for parliament. But they haven’t taken hold yet: Luigi Bersani, who rose up through the party ranks, was challenged in the primaries by the young and spirited mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who was much more charismatic and telegenic than Bersani, but who fell short because he lacked the support of the party establishment.
The resurgence of Berlusconi would seem to run counter to a powerful message in favor of change. Berlusconi, though, is very good at running for office when he is not in power, masquerading as an outsider running against the system, attacking the record of the incumbent rather than defending his own failures in office. Channelling public anger against Monti’s property tax (which he helped to enact), Berlusconi promised not only to abolish the tax if elected but to return the additional tax money voters had paid during the previous year. In a remarkable (but characteristic) campaign stunt, Berlusconi sent millions of Italian families an official-looking envelope marked “Property Tax Refund,” which appeared like a tax-refund form but was in reality a piece of campaign literature. When Berlusconi was challenged about where he would get the money to pay for the refund, he suggested that if public funds could not be found he would pay for the refund out of his vast personal fortune. He is currently under investigation for alleged vote-buying. But the tax-refund stunt appears to have won over some late-deciding voters. He has managed to maintain, despite his advancing years and his multiple criminal trials, the confident and optimistic air of a game-show host holding out the prospect of a major financial jackpot.
But, undeniably, the figure who represents the greatest real change is Beppe Grillo, whose career, from stand-up comic to political guru, may become a highly emblematic story for our times. It is significant that Grillo’s new career began, in a sense, when he was kicked off Italian television. In the mid-nineteen-eighties, Grillo caused something of a scandal by making jokes on-air about the corruption of the Italian Socialist Party, an open secret. (“If all the Chinese are socialists,” the joke went, “who do they steal from?”) He was virtually banned from Italy’s state broadcaster, RAI. But, to his credit, he managed to build a different career by touring Italy and playing in theatre after theatre, sports arena after sports arena, building up a substantial network of popular support independent of television. He started a blog in 2005 that is frequently listed as being either the seventh or tenth most popular blog in the world—an astonishing accomplishment for a figure operating in a country of only sixty million people. In 2007, he organized something called Vaffanculo-Day (“Fuck You” Day), in which he managed to convince hundreds of thousands of Italians to gather in hundreds of town squares at the same time in order to scream “Vaffanculo” and raise their middle fingers to Italy’s political class. (Tom Mueller wrote about Grillo and his V-Day for The New Yorker soon after.)
In 2010, Grillo organized his supporters into the Five Star Movement, or M5S, although this year is the first time the group ran candidates in national elections. The movement held makeshift primaries over the Internet, with candidates presenting themselves and members voting online. If Berlusconi was dedicated to the idea that “nothing exists unless it appears on television,” Grillo has been able to create a major political movement entirely without television—indeed, he forbids members of his movement from appearing on TV talk shows. The Tea Party insurgents, who are purists of a different sort, were also arguably part of a grass-roots movement that partially succeeded in a takeover of the Republican Party. But because they technically belong to a traditional party, we often fail to grasp how they have radicalized the G.O.P.
What Grillo presents is the possibility of a radically different form of democracy: participatory democracy—done through the Internet—rather than the kind of representative democracy that the world has known in the last few centuries. “A war is underway between two worlds, two conceptions of reality,” Grillo wrote in the opening of a recent book that he co-authored with Roberto Casaleggio, an Internet guru and co-founder of the M5S who is sometimes seen as the big thinker behind the movement.
In their volume “Siamo in Guerra” (“We are at War”), they maintain that there is a war between traditional forms of mediation—newspapers, television, and political parties—and the new, unmediated forms of communication and organization offered by the Internet. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Casaleggio stated that the M5S is initiating “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state.” In some ways, Grillo and Casaleggio are reviving the old dream of anarchism: a self-governing world.
Before that world comes into being, however, Italy is waiting to see what, if any, kind of government it will have in the short run. Grillo clearly hopes that by failing to coöperate with any traditional party, the Democratic Party and Berlusconi will be forced to cobble together a government that will end, predictably, in a series of unhappy compromises and more of the same, causing his own movement to grow so that he eventually wins a majority—and sends them all home. But before we laugh at this rudderless state, we might want to think of both Italy and ourselves as we watch the sequestration battle play out, or as we dive off the next fiscal cliff.
Photograph by Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg/Getty