In Italy, Politics Is Just Show Business

By Barry Strauss

Politics is theater. That’s a maxim in which no Italian needs a lesson. It goes back not only to the Borgias, but to the Caesars. Emperor Augustus -- often quoted, while on his deathbed, as saying, "if I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage" -- knew that a successful politician must be able to act the part; he must convince the public that he is a leader.

Last month's Italian elections are a case in point. The ability to dominate the public stage dictated the results. Two born actors, Beppe Grillo, an ex-comedian, and Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-prime minister who started out as a cruise ship singer, came out on top. Meanwhile, Pier Luigi Bersani, a gray political apparatchik, and Mario Monti, an ex-professor, bombed at the box office.

To be sure, no one got good enough notices to be able to form a government, which will lead to at least temporary instability. That result is not surprising. After a year of recession and an era of high unemployment, Italians are tough critics of politicians. Yet Berlusconi and Grillo each triumphed in a way, the first by disproving his political obituary, and the second by founding a political party, the Five-Star Movement, and turning it into a force to be reckoned with. (It won the most seats of any party in the lower house of parliament.) They did it in large part by generating excitement and buzz, Grillo largely via new media and Berlusconi through the television empire that he has built.

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In one of his many blog pieces, Grillo compared himself to Spartacus. The plump Genovese is no gladiator, but he certainly knows how to fire up the crowd in an arena. The hard-partying Berlusconi is more Caligula than Spartacus, but he knows how to throw a punch. He turned the election into a referendum on Monti’s austerity program.

Monti was chosen to lead a so-called technical government in 2011 after the policies of the Berlusconi government caused a debt crisis. The international bond market and the chief politicians of the European Union feared that Italy would cause a crisis. Their pressure forced out Berlusconi and brought in Monti.

Italians had high hopes of good government from Monti, an economist who had been European commissioner and president of Milan's prestigious Bocconi University. They hoped that he would restore Italy’s ability to borrow money on good terms and liberalize the Italian job market. He achieved the first goal, but only by enacting major new taxes. He made little progress with jobs.

Austerity is no more popular in Italy than anywhere else. Only the most gifted politician can sell strong medicine. Monti has other sterling qualities but he’s not a gifted politician. He made a big mistake in raising taxes in his first term; Barack Obama showed much more political savvy in waiting until his second term to do that.

After a failed Berlusconi government and an unpopular Monti successor, Italians were expected to turn left. The election was Pier Luigi Bersani’s to lose, and he lost it. The leader of the Democratic Party and of the wider, center-left coalition, offered a kinder, gentler version of Monti’s austerity but it was no sale. His colleague, the dynamic young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, might have convinced the electorate, but the Democratic Party’s voters rejected Renzi in favor of Bersani in a primary last fall, based on the better-the-devil-you-know theory. In retrospect, this was like choosing IBM over Apple.

Accustomed to a culture of regionalism, individualism and corruption, Italians have developed a well-known weakness for strong leaders. Such tough problems call for strong leadership, and only more so in the current economic crisis. Most people, and not only in Italy, would rather follow a strong leader with a bad policy than a weak leader with a good one.

If Grillo and Berlusconi were able to act the part of a leader, neither was able to convince the voters that he really is one. Grillo is untested, while Berlusconi is only too well known a quantity, having served as prime minister for 10 years, thus bearing a great deal of the blame for the current crisis.

Italy’s political mess will sort itself out, perhaps in a coalition government, perhaps in new elections. What’s less obvious is whether the right leadership will emerge.

After a long dry spell, Italy’s cinema is turning out top-quality films again. A big hit of 2012 was Caesar Must Die, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Now, if only the politicians can turn out a production called Statemanship Must Live, then filmgoers won’t be the only ones with something to cheer about.

Barry Strauss is professor of History and Classics at Cornell University.

(AP Photo)

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