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?