October 21, 2009

What permits a democracy to survive? The Italian case

Beppe Grillo and Antonio Di Pietro
There are many ways to look at the main political issues—such as for instance the freedom of the press, which is very timely, both here in Italy and in the U.S.—as much as there are many ways to look at the social, economic and cultural ones, but only a few of them are compatible with democracy. Apart from the obvious need, for a democracy, of the dialectic confrontation between two or more political alliances, parties and individuals, that is, in other words, apart from the rules of the game itself, politics, as well as an open newspaper, should be a place of tolerance and reason where a frank exchange of ideas is directed at building up, not tearing down.

“Genuine debate—wrote the new editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper in his first editorial—brings forth the best policies; insincere or incomplete debate only the most superficially viable policies, those that are apparently the least costly. In short, claques and spin doctors won’t get you very far.” And he has remained faithful to his principles since then, to the point that the Corriere della Sera recently got into a major verbal fight with the left-wing la Repubblica newspaper, whose antiberlusconian excesses—along with the cries of the European Left and the UK-based part of the international media group News Corporation, controlled by Rupert Murdoch—have become legend.

A couple of days ago, the Corriere published an editorial by Angelo Panebianco—one of the most prominent Italian scholars of political science—headlined “L’estremista, il settario e il pluralista” (“The extremist, the sectarian and the pluralist”), which is part of that war of words and ideas. Well, what I first thought when I finished reading it was that this article needed to be written. My second thought was, “This piece needs to be translated from Italian to English.” So, since I had not the time to “accomplish the mission,” I emailed Mirino and asked him whether he was willing to undertake the task. His answer was “Yes” (thank you so much, my friend!), and below is the result. I highly recommend a thorough reading of this article, which will help non-Italian readers gain a better understanding of what Italian politics are all about and what they are missing by not being allowed to get accurate information about Italy from their habitual sources of political news.

The extremist, the sectarian and the pluralist
(Corriere della Sera, October 19, 2009)

We live in a phase similar to others in our meandering history of political battles. We are immersed in a virtual civil war. We are, even with our faults, a democracy, yet a considerable amount of thinkers from other countries, provoked by our demagogues, need to explain to us that we are subject to a dictatorship. We have completely open public debate, yet there are others who say that the freedom of the press is threatened. Some even speak of Italy as though it were Iran or Burma. We have free and regular elections but a large proportion of electors of the defeated alliance don’t recognize the legitimacy of the government in office (but certain electors of the actual majority did the same thing when the opposition was governing).

These are suitable moments to return to “fundamentals:” What permits a democracy to survive? With what virtues or qualities must democratic citizenship be endowed with? Democracy is a moderate regime. To be guided it always needs moderate forces of government, of right or left wing, and that the extremist components are kept at bay. But for this to happen it’s necessary that between the citizens prevail certain attitudes rather than others. In all democracies the majority of citizens have insufficient, sporadic, or no interest whatsoever in politics. It is always a minority, perhaps consistent but even so, still a minority, that follow political events with continuity. The prevailing attitudes of this minority dictate the tone and quality of the democracy.

There are three types of humans that meet more frequently in such a minority : the extremists, the sectarians and the pluralists. I list them in the order corresponding with the least to the most compatible with democracy. The real extremists as I refer to here are (fortunately) few, even though they are noisy, and often dangerous. Their presence depends on certain characteristics of politics, on the fact that politics, more than any other human activity, lends itself to be where one can unload one’s personal frustrations. For the extremists, politics represent a huge rubbish dump on which is thrown the worst part of themselves. Extremists are those who hate. They hate themselves in fact but they transform this self-hate into a “political enemy.” Given the competitive and conflictual nature of politics, they are ideal for this operation. The unfortunate youth who, on Facebook, wonders why Berlusconi hasn’t yet been shot in the head, is victim of the climate created by extremists (Incidentally, such an incident could be to his fortune : If he’s not stupid he will reflect and understand that a man is such only if he thinks with his head, he is otherwise commanded or influenced by the dominant climate of his environment).

Then there is the sectarian. With the exception of the extremist, the sectarian, as intended here, is not a psychiatric case. But the sectarian is terrified of opinions that differ from his or her own. Through means of communication the sectarian looks for confirmation of his or her own prejudices, rather than information or debates of ideas. The sectarian is reassured by the idea that exists, in matters of politics, the one and only, clear and incontestable “truth,” and that he or she, being honest and intelligent knows this. For the sectarian, those who don’t want to accept this established truth, are dishonest or stupid.

The sectarian fears the stress that would be created by acknowledging that the world is indeed complex and ambiguous, and needs to count on an image of certainties: good on one side, evil on the other. A great economist, Joseph Schumpeter, said that often excellent people, proficient in their work, are capable of speaking with competence and maturity about their professional problems, but regress to infancy when they start to talk politics: Good, Evil, fairies and ogres, sheriffs with white hats and bandits with black hats. Sectarians, often being anything but stupid, live with the suffering of their own contradiction: the internal coexistence of the horror of opinions that differ from theirs, and the acknowledgement of the necessity of pluralism of opinions in democracy.

Finally there is the pluralist. The pluralist accepts the fact that the world is complex, and thus there is not, based on contingent facts of politics, a permanently acquired Truth. The pluralist accepts the daily problem of (tediously) facing opinions and reflecting on facts in order to succeed in grasping that tiny, precarious “truth.” Without abdicating from his or her own deeper convictions, the pluralist can listen to diverse opinions without fear and thinks that one can be enriched by good and elegantly presented arguments.

The more the pluralist type prevails in the minority interested in politics, the more solid and sure is democracy. It’s not an issue of left or right, or actually of being berlusconian or antiberlusconian. There are sectarians and pluralists of every tendency. For example, the difference between a sectarian antiberlusconian and a pluralist antiberlusconian is that for the former, Berlusconi is the enemy whilst for the latter, he is simply the opponent.

There is then the question of the egg and the hen. There are phases in which, within the minority following politics, the pluralists find themselves in difficulty and seem to almost succumb from the overbearingness of the sectarians (always followed by an embarrassing long queue of extremists). It’s difficult to establish if, in these moments, the sectarians prevail because of being incited by the cries of the shrewd demagogues, or if, on the contrary, the shrewd demagogues have succeeded because of the existence of a large patrol of sectarians.
Angelo Panebianco *


* Angelo Panebianco is Professor of International Relations at the University of Bologna. He also teaches Political Theory at S. Raffaele University of Milan and writes commentary for the Corriere della Sera. Among his most important publications, Political parties : organization and power, Cambridge, [England] ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1988.

P.S. Ooops, I forgot to say that the picture above shows Beppe Grillo and Antonio Di Pietro. How do they come into it? Well, er ... can't you guess?


  1. Great post, awesome article!

  2. Rob, you know I like your blog and you as a person.

    I though wanted to point out 2, in my opinion, facts:

    1) Not only Rupert Murdoch's press is against Berlusconi's government, but the vast majority of the world press, no matter their political orientation - the New York Times, Le Figaro (right-wing), Le Monde, Die Welt (right-wing), Newsweek, The Economist (moderate), the Financial Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine, El Pais, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Reuters, etc. etc. the list being endless.

    2) In Freedom House’s 2009 survey of media and press independence, Italy, from 2004 onwards, was downgraded to ‘partly free’ and placed 73rd in a list of 195 countries (only just above Bulgaria.)

  3. The two 'working languages' of the United Nations are English and French. The six official languages of the United Nations are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
    One wonders why the language that should most represent 'la culla della civilizzazione europea', undoubtedly one of Europe's most beautiful languages, and closest descendant of Latin, doesn't seem to be deemed worthy of being one of the United Nations 'official languages'. Perhaps basically everything now comes down to numbers, and culture and history is more for the book case. Maybe this might be considered another subject, but maybe it isn't.

    For Berlusconi it would also seem to be another sad sign of the times when so called journalists delight in practising the perverse pastime of joining the pack to try to go in for the kill. And they are all the more aggressive if the prey is rich. If too many international newspapers joined the churlish, or 'curish', band wagon, acting like jealous and detestable hyenas, Rupert Murdoch certainly appears to stand out as one of the worst, if not the leader of the hateful pack.

  4. Mirino, thank you for the translation and I completely agree with you regarding the lack of respect the beautiful Italian language receives. It by no means, other than by sheer numbers, is secondary to French and even more so to Spanish.

    MOR, and you know how much I enjoy your intellectual musings but I feel compel to mention that Newsweek, NYT, Washington Post and The Guardian are pretty much leftist in their bent so their anti-Berlusconi stance is par for the course.

    As for The Economist, they once gave special prominence to Angelina Jolie on their pages preaching to readers about the importance of accountability. Yeah, just what I want. An actor from Hollywood telling me about accountability.

    Needless to say, I lost a little respect for that prestigious paper.

  5. That's a very pleasant comment from The Commentator. It's true that the 'noble hearts club' seem to have the institutional monopoly everywhere these days, such is the fear of 'racism' and not practising open armed, irresponsable generosity (for the image, because these days the image also has priority). But when the world's majority consists of those who criticise everything and defend nothing, then the world would have even more serious problems.

  6. Mirino: criticizing Berlusconi doesn't mean demeaning Italy, her culture or her language. Berlusconi himself is trying to convey the message that whoever criticizes him is anti-Italian, as if Italy and him were the same thing. Fortunately this is not true. Many Italians have totally different values. And it is not a question of right or left, please believe me. There are many things of the right I like, and many of the left I dislike. The problem in my view is Berlusconi. And many in his own right-wing coalition are getting aware of it.

    Commentator: I have indicated a few right-wing papers in my list but the list could be much longer.

  7. MoR, first of all thank you for your kind words, which I heartily reciprocate. In the second place I beg your pardon for the delay in my response—I generally replay straight away to all comments and questions directed to me personally, but yesterday I was too busy to sit down and write anything here.

    Let me say that what you called “the vast majority of the world press, no matter their political orientation” seems to me a bit “hurried,” since most of them—I mean most of those mentioned in this case—are pretty much leftist in their bent, as The Commentator fairly pointed out in another comment (to which I fully subscribe).

    Yet, in my view, this is not the point. The point is that, as Panebianco put it, “a considerable amount of thinkers from other countries […] need to explain to us that we are subject to a dictatorship,” and that “some even speak of Italy as though it were Iran or Burma.” And this just because they are “provoked by our demagogues,” who, besides having big influence over the international press, are probably—whether consciously or not—an instrument of big business and/or political interests. Which is made easier by the fact that they echo anachronistic but die-hard prejudices, old idiosyncrasies and absurd rivalries.

    But, that said, I can’t help acknowledging that Berlusconi himself is not without fault in this regard. On the contrary, he seems to be doing his best to provoke “allergic reactions” in the international community—see his flamboyant private life and legendary gaffes, which undoubtedly made him an easier “target” for his internal and foreign opponents. But this doesn’t imply, by any means, that he deserves such a treatment.

  8. Thank you, Mirino, your comment has earned you the honorary citizenship of the Land where il “sì” risuona!

  9. To MoR

    In principle you are perfectly right. But without wishing to insult anyone, Silvio Berlusconi, for me, represents the epitome, if not the caricature of a 'real Italian'.
    We are all fortunate to benefit from living in 'real democracies'. We have the right to criticise those we elect, and those we elect have the responsibility to honour the engagement we elect them for. Constructive criticism is absolutely necessary in democracy, but primarily it should pertain to politics and law.

    It seems to me that when critics use information that pertains strictly to one's private life, and print photographs taken and published without authorisation, this has nothing to do with journalism or politics, and it should in fact be regarded more criminal than whatever such perpetrators are trying to insinuate.

    When the press do this sort of thing with impunity, something is wrong with the legal system. In certain of these cases, no matter how flamboyant the life style of Berlusconi, he shouldn't need to take legal action to defend himself. He should have been protected by the law, and I would have thought that the list of crimes carried out by certain newspapers, in this particular exercise of defamation was considerably long.

  10. About the left/right leanings of newspapers and other publications. I have no problems with it. Just come out with it and admit where you stand. Like Le Figaro and The Guardian.

    In America, Fox News is derisively attacked because they're 'out there.' They make no bones about where they stand. That's more than we can say about the NYT, MSNBC and other news organizations including CNN. What makes it annoying is they claim to be "neutral" or speak for progressives. Aside from being presumptuous, it smells of pompousity - my word.

    Sure, they (major networks) have their conservative tokens from time to time but overall, they lean left. To me anyway.

    I'm not saying the media is liberal. I can't say this for certain. Both sides claim each has major influences. I'm just talking about those I perceive to be leftist and refuse to admit it.

    Equally as bizarre, we make much noise about the Berlusconi's and Murdoch's of this world for their right-wing stances but no one seems to mind the left-wing musings of Ted Turner.

    My point is, new media seems to have battle line drawn. Even sites that aim to be fair, the closest they can come to objective writing is to have a writer from each camp present their ideas.

    I wonder if objective journalism exists anymore. If not, is this a bad thing? I mean, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer weren't exactly objective and look, Pulitzer has a prestigious award named after him!

    My apologies to journalists who are objective or at least aim to be. I'm sure they exist.

    Meh. What do I know?

  11. There are many issues that came out in this interesting discussion. And believe me, I like that there are different and even opposite ideas on issues, which makes the debate much more interesting.

    Thus being said, I'll just add a few observations to the freedom of press thing and the private vs public life issue.

    The Freedom House, no matter what their political orientation can be [I have no idea about it] is a serious and respected organization. If they say Italy media freedom since 2004 is in danger I am inclined to believe it; plus I have my own perception of how Italian journalism and TVs operate, and finally our Prime minister's conflict of interest seems to me a further evidence of this lack of media freedom in Italy.

    Mirino also writes:

    It seems to me that when critics use information that pertains strictly to one's private life, and print photographs taken and published without authorisation, this has nothing to do with journalism or politics

    I am Italian, and I agree that private and public life can be somewhat separated. I don't believe, like Americans seem to believe, that telling lies to one's wife or husband makes one automatically unfit to govern.

    Although with Berlusconi, allow me friends, the line between the private and public sphere seems blurred if it is true that women’s sexual favours were later rewarded with a political career as minister in the government, as MP in the Italian or European parliament, or rewarded with a career in the local governments.

  12. To MoR

    As I like to believe that Italian law cannot possibly condone such abuse and corruption, as described in your last paragraph, I trust that if Berlusconi practised such methods for personal gratification, then he may eventually have to assume the consequences. But as you write, 'if it's true..' then there must be some doubt about this. Where there's doubt, there's insinuation, negation, exaggeration and minimisation depending on where one stands 'politically'.

    It could well be that Berlusconi has made a mockery of the function he has been elected for. Sometimes he even seems to delight in this. But personally I prefer openess (within the limits of decency and dignity) to hypocrisy- which perhaps is the most treacherous vice in politics.

    We see a result of this concerning the Clearstream scandal in France. I wouldn't be surprised- should Dominique de Villepin be convicted- that he tries to implicate Chirac.
    As far as honesty goes I would have more confidence in a Berlusconi than in a Chirac, and if anybody was interested in discrediting the latter, they would have no difficulty in accumulating enough evidence to do so. Maybe it all comes down to a question of interest. I don't think Rupert Murdoch's interests, for example, have anything to do with what's best for Italy, nor could he care a damn about the founder of the Parisien Museum of Primitive Art.

  13. Chirac is on another corruptive plane.

  14. "But as you write, 'if it's true..' then there must be some doubt about this

    Something concrete is in my view behind the doubts.

    Just as an example, if we can have doubts on the two female ministers (although we have recordings of phone conversations), nobody all over the world doubts that Patrizia D'Addario slept with Berlusconi. Ok, this is private. But if it is almost sure she had to renounce to the European elections after Berlusconi's wife's declarations - many starlets by the way had to renounce as well and publicly declared their disappointment-, it is though a proven fact that D'Addario ran for the Bari's local elections, we all have seen the posters.

    What basically came out bit by bit was a system of corruption where sex was exchanged with career prospects in politics or in TV. Not that this is new in Italy and that the Left is made of angels. But, again, we stumble upon this gigantic conflict of interest.

    I mean, don't you understand that having, as a prime minister, the richest man of Italy plus the biggest media tycoon is generating no little problems to our democracy?
    And I don't feel reassured when Berlusconi says: “Alla demorazia ci penso io” or “Democray? I'll take care myself”.

    We do need a decent Right, as we do need a decent Left. We have to move on (as for both Poli). Berlusconi is not the only possible right-wing leader, is he.
    I wish we had someone similar to Fini or Casini within the left coalition, but we haven't.

  15. Of course I agree with you. I'm simply trying to offer what should be an objective opinion in the hope of shifting the balance of the argument a shade more.
    It's probable that the majority of Italians of all political tendencies combined have had enough.
    If Berlusconi can no longer enjoy immunity in spite of the pertaining constitutional clause, it seems to indicate that the Italian legal system is aware of the public 'ras le bol' as well as the fact that the Prime Minister has gone way too far beyond the legal line.
    I also agree that you have some good ministers in the actual government, and if their merits are devalued by the behaviour of Berlusconi, this doesn't add to his glory either.