For ten days in mid-May, I lectured in Italy promoting the translated version of my recent book, The Story of American Freedom. Among other things, the book relates how in the past generation US conservatives have “captured” the idea of freedom, identifying it ever more closely with low taxes, limited government and the ability to choose among a cornucopia of goods in an unregulated global marketplace. Little did I anticipate that on the day I arrived, Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition of right-wing parties, calling itself La Casa delle Libert (the House of Freedoms), would triumph in Italy’s national elections.
Berlusconi’s victory was good for me in that it inspired a flurry of interest in the history of the idea of freedom and larger-than-expected audiences for my talks. But it is very bad for Italy. Berlusconi is one of Europe’s richest men, with a history of corruption, conflicts of interest and alliance with some of the most retrograde elements in Italian life. For the first time since World War II the country’s governing coalition will include parties that consider themselves the heirs of Fascism. But to Americans, what may be most striking is how his campaign’s program, tactics and imagery were consciously borrowed from this side of the Atlantic.
Like Ronald Reagan, Berlusconi described himself as a “great communicator” and promised to “revolutionize” Italy by liberating the power of free enterprise. Like Newt Gingrich, he announced with much fanfare a Contract With Italians, which boiled down his campaign to a few simple points, including tax cuts, privatizing state enterprises and law and order (a thinly veiled appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment). And like George W. Bush, he portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative. Berlusconi’s contract, unlike Gingrich’s, promised to raise state pensions and combat unemployment through highway construction and other public works.
Berlusconi “Americanized” Italian politics in other ways as well. He poured his personal fortune into the campaign, outspending the incumbent center-left Olive Tree coalition ten to one. He mailed a brief autobiography to every family in Italy (some 12 million copies in all). Titled An Italian Story, it was a quintessentially American rags-to-riches tale. Every Italian, he insisted, could follow in his footsteps; his wealth should be an inspiration to others, not a source of concern. But more than specific programs and electoral tactics, Berlusconi brought to Italy the moral-political outlook of American populist conservatism, something quite different from the traditional European right oriented toward state, church and social hierarchy. Like Reagan, Berlusconi rooted his appeal in broadly shared images and values derived from the mass media and consumer capitalism.
It is significant that Berlusconi’s wealth rests in large part on ownership of television networks, shopping malls and a major soccer team. For his is a politics that identifies freedom with the private realm of personal wish fulfillment without any sense of public participation or collective empowerment. Far better than his opponents, Berlusconi understands the political dynamics of a society knit together not by traditional organizations like unions and churches rooted in local communities but the dream world of mass culture and mass consumption.
If the Italian right has emulated America, the left in this country might well learn from the problems of its Italian counterpart. Since the end of the cold war, the European left has been almost obsessively concerned to demonstrate its legitimacy and respectability. It has become suspicious of idealism of any kind, considering it naïve, old-fashioned and politically dangerous. In response to Berlusconi’s utopia of private freedom, the Olive Tree coalition offered little more than an image of competent, corruption-free administration. The left’s aura of managerial competence appealed to middle-class voters in Italy’s prosperous northwest, and the Olive Tree did well in the old (and aging) communist strongholds of central Italy. But Berlusconi swept the less economically developed south and did especially well among young voters, who found his vision of a new, privatized Italy more appealing than the left’s promise of good government. Young Berlusconi supporters interviewed by the newspaper La Repubblica described the left as old, even “geriatric,” and Berlusconi as young and dynamic. “He’s one of us,” declared an unemployed youth, of Italy’s richest man.
As in the United States, the defeated coalition has directed much recrimination toward a small group of independent voters, in this case the Refounded Communists, which remained outside the Olive Tree umbrella and whose 5 percent of the vote exceeded Berlusconi’s margin of victory. But in both countries, it is far easier to blame a tiny cadre of voters for the defeat than to look candidly at the weaknesses of campaigns characterized by an absence of courage, vision and idealism or to think creatively about how to regain the political initiative. A good place to start would be to try to recapture the language of freedom–linking it, as it has been in the past, with ideals of participatory democracy, social justice and the willingness to combat the depredations of the unregulated capitalist market. The idea of freedom is too important to be surrendered to the Berlusconis of the world.