Silvio Berlusconi and Anti-Political Leadership in Italy

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi and Anti-Political Leadership in Italy - Gianfranco Pasquino


This paper surveys the history of political leadership in Italy and the evolution of anti-political culture from Garibaldi, to Mussolini, and throughout the republican era. First, several lessons are drawn regarding effective leadership and political development through analysis of the most important political figures in Italian history. It will show that Italy is not a country with a history of outstanding political leaders. Looking at more recent developments, this paper argues that the reign of Silvio Berlusconi is the natural product a long history of Italian anti-political culture. Yet despite his rejection of politics, Berlusconi has ironically become a strong political leader—but still falls short of becoming a great statesman.


Italy is, in memorable words attributed to Benito Mussolini (1883–1945), a country of “heroes, poets, saints, navigators, and colonizers.” leaving aside the great political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, Italy has also been since its founding a country where anti-politics has dominated. From 1861 to 1919, democracy was quietly accepted and was even expanded, but the “politicians” never enjoyed prestige of any kind, and anti-parliamentarianism ran rampant. Intellectually, one cannot overlook the fact that the theory of the ruling class was born in Italy, thanks to the work of Gaetano Mosca (and later Vilfredo Pareto and Roberto Michels). As for political leadership, aside from the authoritarian Mussolini, Italy does not appear to be a country of outstanding political leaders. For his exceptional leadership qualities, Mussolini was appropriately called Il Duce (the leader), and he certainly left his mark not only on the Italian political system but also on authoritarian governments around the world. Obviously, in the history of a country celebrating its 150th anniversary of unification, there have been many political leaders. Mussolini is the epitome of an authoritarian leader, but there are several significant examples of democratic Italian leaders that also deserve some attention and consideration—some having held institutional office, others having led political movements and parties.

In my opinion, there are three fundamental ways to approach the subject of political leadership in democratic regimes. The first is to consider those figures whose leadership qualities have been recognized by historians and public opinion and extract from them the features they seem to have in common. The second is to focus on the most important decisions taken by certain figures that have had significant consequences for that specific country, analyzing how and why those decision makers have shown leadership capabilities. The third is to look at the ability of those figures to establish and maintain a relationship with society. There are no leaders without many faithful, enthusiastic, and even adoring followers.

For a long time, US historians and political scientists have studied and ranked American presidents with respect to leadership qualities and contributions to the political system. Nothing of this kind exists for even important Italian political figures. Excellent monographic studies on some have been published, but no comparative evaluation has ever been attempted. Obviously, parliamentary leaders (that is, heads of government) enjoy less visibility and, arguably, wield less political and institutional than leaders of presidential republics. The sheer plethora of post-Second World War Italian prime ministers is in itself discouraging. Nevertheless, Italian as well as foreign historians can easily identify the figures who have played important political roles in Italian history. A unified Italy would be simply inconceivable without the leadership and diplomatic qualities of Camillo Benso, Count of Cavour (1810-1861). The adventurous military prowess of Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) was also of major importance for il Risorgimento. Referred to as “the hero of two worlds” because of his additional role as freedom fighter in Latin America, garibaldi is still in all likelihood the most admired of Italian political leaders, as evidenced by the well-known expression “non si parla male di Garibaldi” (“one should not speak ill of garibaldi”). He is also highly revered for having retired from all political activities without claiming any public reward and then proceeding to lead a rather austere life.

While often cited together with Cavour and Garibaldi as protagonist of il Risorgimento, rarely is Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872) given recognition for his leadership qualities. This is understandable because he was more of a civic preacher than a political leader. Almost all the men who unified Italy belonged to the same political alignment, Destra Storica. All had important leadership qualities, but what really counted was their willingness to exercise collective leadership. Italian democracy was shaped and dominated in the years 1900 to 1914 by the figure of Giovanni Giolitti (1842–1928). His fiercest opponent was the historian Gaetano Salvemini (1873–1957), who gave Giolitti the title of “Minister of the underworld.” Yet later, in 1949, Salvemini generously recognized that in the end, Giolitti had done his best to lead the country forward (though cautiously) through difficulties and perhaps inevitable compromises.1

The Giolittian era contains two outstanding historical and political lessons. First, a fundamental quality of the Italian style of leadership is to take into account all social, cultural, and political contradictions and then attempt to negotiate a compromise. Second, if during those negotiations additional conflicts of any kind should arise, these new issues will usher in new leadership. Indeed, the rise of Mussolini as political leader can, among other reasons, be attributed to the previous parliamentary leaders’ inability to solve post-war conflicts through a bargaining process. It must be emphasized that Mussolini himself neither abolished the monarchy nor “fascistized” the armed forces, and he was able to come to terms with the Catholic Church. Thus, he did not succeed in constructing a totalitarian state but rather accommodated himself within an authoritarian regime. Because the regime was essentially authoritarian, it did not collapse immediately after 1943. The old actors—the monarchy, the armed forces, and the Church—forced out Mussolini and prepared a political transition that, had it not been for the resistance struggle, might have ended with the implementation of a quasi-Salazarist regime.

Post-war leadership

The post-1945 Italian regime is a republic endowed with traditional, classic parliamentary institutions. All of the important political leaders between 1945 and 1994 have been identified with their political parties and have to a large extent owed their political power to their role in their respective party organization. The Christian Democrats dominated Italian politics during this period and furnished all the prime ministers until 1980. It is therefore among them that one can find three important political leaders, each endowed with a different leadership style: Alcide De Gasperi (1881–1954), Amintore Fanfani (1908–1999), and Aldo Moro (1916–1978). I may be excused for not considering Giulio Andreotti (1919–), a political leader who successfully manipulated the levers of state power yet made no important decisions and had neither special qualities nor enthusiastic followers. Because there was no possibility for governmental alternation, the quality of the Communist leadership can be measured only with reference to the prestige a few leaders, both within and outside the Italian Communist Party (PCI). There is no doubt that, for quite different reasons, Palmiro Togliatti (1893–1964) and Enrico Berlinguer (1922–1984) have been the dominant figures in the PCI. Finally, because of his success in both breaking the Christian Democratic government monopoly and in preventing any Christian Democrat-Communist agreement, Bettino Craxi (1934–2000) of the Socialist Party qualifies as an influential political leader. He has also indelibly left his mark on the ten-year period of the pentapartito (five-party) governmental coalitions.

Looking at the aforementioned political leaders from the perspective of their international influence, Fanfani and Moro fade out of the overall picture. De Gasperi understood the importance of solidly placing Italy in the nascent European organizations, such as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Less positively, Togliatti succeeded in preventing the internal Stalinization of the PCI—but at the cost of supporting Soviet foreign policy positions and decisions. Berlinguer’s leadership must be evaluated with reference to his ability to distance the PCI from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) as well as his personal lifestyle characterized by austerity, dignity, and seriousness that made him a truly revered politician. Craxi was Berlinguer’s antagonist par excellence. He deliberately introduced a different political style. While the Christian Democrats and the Communists were, with slightly different approaches, willing to soften conflicts and negotiate solutions, Craxi stressed his own decision-making capabilities. Moro and, to a lesser extent, Berlinguer appeared inclined to offer social representation and political intermediation. Craxi, on the other hand, strived to shape the image and substance of someone capable of making tough decisions, as evidenced by his drastic cuts of the indexation system in 1984–1985, his confrontation of US leaders in the Sigonella crisis in 1985, and, on a quite different issue, his strong support for the European Single Act in 1985.

The Rise and Success of Berlusconi

The memories of the qualities and influence of these Italian leaders have been obfuscated by post1994 events. For nearly two decades, political leadership in Italy has been embodied by the leadership of Silvio Berlusconi (1936–). It is paradoxical and yet revealing that the contemporary outstanding figure in Italian politics is someone who is not a professional politician, who never aspired to become a politician, who despises what he calls “the small theatre of politics,” and who constantly stresses his distance and difference from the politicians who have never “worked” in their lives. Berlusconi, who epitomizes and cherishes the defining features of anti-politics, has conspicuously and, in all likelihood, irreversibly affected contemporary Italian politics. In order to fully understand the characteristics of his “political” leadership, it is first necessary to contextualize him within the history of Italy.

Berlusconi did not come from Mars. He is the logical product of the political/non-political/antipolitical culture of Italy.2 the young intellectual leader of the left-democratic opposition to fascism, Piero Gobetti (1901–1926), denoted the ascent of Mussolini and his fascist movement to power as the consequence of the “autobiography of the nation.” All the country’s inadequacies, unsolved problems, shortcomings, and liabilities (of which there were many) coalesced and found expression in fascism. Mussolini’s personality passionately embodied all of those traits. Despite several misguided attempts, it would not be an exaggeration to connect Berlusconi’s leadership to Mussolini’s: they are of different origins,3 figures, and times. One should never forget that Berlusconi is competing in a democratic environment. He is winning and losing free elections. Just as Mussolini capitalized on an outstanding dispute, the many problems left unsolved by the development of the first long phase of the republic (1948–1992), as well as the many scandals exacerbated by the pentapartito, opened a wide window of opportunity for Berlusconi, a wealthy media tycoon, who felt threatened by the disappearance of all his political friends, utmost among them fugitive Bettino Craxi. Berlusconi felt further threatened by the distinct possibility of an electoral victory by the left. At the same time, nearly 40 percent of Italian voters had witnessed the disgraceful demise of the parties that had previously represented, protected, and promoted their interests. Those voters became available and willing to entertain new options. In fact, all of them were looking for someone capable of offering a convincing representation of their interests and preferences while also providing solid protection against the “Communists.” the state of the Italian political system opened up space for creative and daring “political entrepreneurs,” an expression used by Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter to label individuals capable of entering the political market by offering a new, attractive, and competitive product.

Many of those voters found themselves in the situation of “collective anxiety” that, according to Weber, allows the possibility of the emergence of charismatic leadership. Indeed, Berlusconi proved to be that kind of leader. He had the aura of someone accustomed to tremendous success (as he continuously emphasized) in his business endeavors, including in real estate (construction of the Milano 2 residential development), television (three national TV stations, now Mediaset), and football (the successful AC Milan team). Moreover, he immediately performed the extremely significant “miracle” of preventing the left from acquiring a governmental majority. This meant not only that collective anxiety was soothed but also that “the leader” acquired the never-ending gratitude of those who had felt distinctly threatened by a Communist rise to power. Of course, Berlusconi campaigned heavily on the threat represented by the Communists, former Communists, and post-Communists. His insistence won him many votes and much gratitude from the electorate. His second miracle was the construction, from the ashes of the pentapartito, of a party vehicle called Forza Italia. Derisively dubbed by many “ignorant” left-wing intellectuals as a “flash party,” a “party made of plastic,” or “partito azienda” (party of the firm), Forza Italia has not only survived but thrived, consistently winning national and European elections. The third (and more minor) miracle was boosting the previously ostracized northern league and the former neo-fascists by including them in his two-tier governmental coalition. This, again, has been a lasting contribution to the shaping of a new party system.

Berlusconi has lost only two elections since 1994. He lost in 1996 due to a lack of an agreement with the northern league, because too short a time had elapsed since the 1994 government turnover that he considered a betrayal. He returned to office in 2001, lost by a slight margin in 2006, and then won again in 2008 with a large parliamentary majority. Since 1994, the main opposition party has changed its leadership seven times. Berlusconi has, in one word, dominated Italian politics. There is no doubt that all other Italian leaders pale in comparison to his tenure and political achievements. Critics rightly point out that his monumental conflicts of interest (which are fundamentally condoned by Italian voters) and his concentration of political, economic, and media power are all a part and parcel of his leadership profile.

Berlusconi is by all means a modern political leader, though I contend that he is entirely the product of the Italian (anti-)political culture. He has put to good use all the instruments necessary to understanding and shaping public opinion: surveys, focus groups, and marketing techniques. He has personalized his politics to the utmost and has deliberately created a “love affair” with his (often adoring) followers. Today, political analysts, commentators, and journalists point to the ability and necessity of political leaders to formulate a “narrative.” When “taking the field” in 1994, Berlusconi had prepared a specific narrative focused on his many achievements as well as his vision of Italy. The book Una storia italiana, distributed for free to twelve million households, was an innovative and extraordinary piece of political and electoral propaganda. More than ten years later, Romano Prodi and his wife at tempted a similar performance with—in my opinion— much less success.4 More recently, in his campaign to become the secretary of the Partito Democratico, Walter Veltroni attempted to formulate his own narrative by publishing a booklet, La nuova stagione,5 but to no avail. In its search for a winning leader, it appears that the left is looking for a counter-narrative to Berlusconi’s story.

In systematically chastising the leaders of the left and the Center both because they “have never worked” and because they represent “old politics,” Berlusconi has made reference to past Italian political leaders, especially to two revered Christian Democrats: seven-time Prime Minister De Gasperi and Don Luigi Sturzo (1871–1959), the Sicilian priest who founded the Partito Popolare (predecessor of the Democrazia Cristiana). These references (recently abandoned because those leaders’ lifestyles clash with that of Berlusconi) were meant primarily to invent an unlikely political pedigree (it is well known that Berlusconi’s closest political friend was Bettino Craxi), attract Catholic voters, and legitimize his leadership in the eyes of other powerful European Christian Democratic leaders. Perhaps due also to his economic power, Berlusconi does not appear to be isolated within the European Popular Party.

Berlusconi’s success raises several important questions, none of them complimentary to Italians. The first question concerns the longevity of his success. With the exception of Mussolini, no Italian political leader has held power for such a long period of time. Paraphrasing the interpretation of fascism by liberal Italian political philosopher Benedetto Croce (1866–1952), Berlusconi is not the leader of the Hyksos who invaded Egypt, resided there for almost eight hundred years, and left without a trace. Rather, Berlusconi is the product and the representative of what appears to be the dominant political culture in Italy: that of a selfish, corporatist, fragmented society that despises politics and considers politicians to be useless and obnoxious. A society that is inclined to follow its particular interests and relies on amoral familism6 has given birth to Berlusconi and has consistently supported him.

Berlusconi’s success has been paved by berlusconismo, a complex mixture of misplaced individualism, selfishness, distrust of others, anti-parliamentarism, and a lack of “civil religion.” the concept also encompasses the convictions that the State is the problem rather than the solution and that politicians care solely about their own interests and careers. There are no visible signs of a widespread, shared cultural reaction to berlusconismo, not even following the scandal of the “escorts” and “sex parties” in the prime minister’s villas. Rather, berlusconismo will outlive its founder and continue to linger in the attitudes and behaviors of Italian society. It will survive because millions of Italians hold the basic beliefs of berlusconismo, and because there is no widely shared alternative political/anti-political/nonpolitical culture. The bickering left, or what remains of it, provides several minor competing views, though nothing approaches the indispensable goal—the creation of a European political culture consisting of rights and duties, commitment, performance, and civility.

The second question raised by Berlusconi’s success concerns this inability of the Center and left to provide a convincing alternative to Berlusconi’s leadership. My explanation is based on two elements. On the one hand, both the Communists and Christian Democrats, despite having been capable of producing some important political leaders, have always held reservations and diffidence towards personalized leadership. The Communists believed in the masses and the forces of history, while the Christian Democrats emphasized that politics was meant to be a service to the people. For both parties, personal political leadership and its legitimate ambitions had to be debased, discouraged, and criticized. This intellectual climate is hardly the hotbed of powerful political leaders. Moreover, these parties became prisoner to the distaste for political leadership that they convey. Regardless of the explanation, it remains that the merger of former Communists and former Christian Democrats that has given birth to the Partito Democratico has most certainly not produced any significant political leader. Indeed, the simple fact that the Democratic Party has had three leaders in three years and that the present one is often criticized does not bode well for the future. Rather, the Center left appears better equipped to dismantle its own leadership than to construct and loyally support it.

Finally, whether or not one likes Berlusconi, it is undeniable that he has incredible charisma— which he has not always been able to fully exploit. The comparison often made between Berlusconi and Charles de Gaulle is far-fetched and even insulting, and not only because of their incredibly different lifestyles.7 like de Gaulle, Berlusconi also had the opportunity to enact major reforms of institutions and even of the Italian Constitution itself. Yet he proved entirely unable to fulfill the task of institution-builder. When his parliamentary coalition approved a constitutional reform in 2005, not only was the reform poorly drafted and full of contradictions but Berlusconi never tried to promote it or engage his supporters. It is little wonder that voters resoundingly rejected a referendum on the reform in June 2006. Rather than constructing a more efficient institutional circuit, Berlusconi preferred to challenge the existing ones—above all, the judiciary and, to a lesser extent, the presidency of the republic. He has regularly confronted the opposition, often resorting to Manichean statements: for example, his party is the “party of love,” while the opposition is the “party of hate.” Berlusconi’s leadership has exhibited truly toxic qualities and certainly deserves to be labeled as such.8


For roughly the past twenty years, Italy has witnessed the existence of only one political leader endowed with the resources and the stamina to acquire, control, and exercise governmental power while at the same time displaying a ferocious contempt for politics. This man is Silvio Berlusconi. The center-left alternative is Romano Prodi (1939–), never a political leader and, at most, a manager. Brought to the office of prime minister twice by all-too-large and encompassing coalitions, Prodi was twice ousted after only two years of difficult navigation.

When it comes to the achievements of political leaders, it is imperative to draw a clear line separating political leadership from statesmanship. Political leaders create parties or similar political vehicles. They aggregate coalitions. They shape and guide political organizations and movements. In contemporary democracies, political leaders will show their capabilities when running for office and campaigning. On the other hand, statesmen govern a country. They have vision. They implement projects. They profoundly affect and transform the existing situation, and they improve on it. The measure of statesmanship is to be assessed by the capability of a leader to leave the country in better shape than when he or she acquired political power. Visibly and vividly, all indicators that are customarily used to measure the success of a country—governmental stability, political corruption, freedom of the press, and economic growth—show that Italy is worse off than it was ten years ago. Berlusconi, the political leader, has by no means raised himself to the status of statesman.

Notes & References

  1. William Salomone, Italian Democracy in the Making (1949).
  2. This is not entirely grasped by Stille in Alexander Stille, Citizen Berlusconi (New York: C.H. Beck, 2005). For my own analysis, see Gianfranco Pasquino, “The Five Faces of Silvio Berlusconi: The Knight of Anti-Politics,” Modern Italy 12, no. 1 (February 2007): 39-54
  3. Massimo Giannini, Lo Statista: Il Ventennio Berlusconiano tra Fascismo e Populismo (Milano: Baldini Castoldi Dalai, 2009)
  4. For a deft comparison, see Cristian Vaccari, “Meet Silvio and Romano: Political Communication as Personal Storytelling,” in For a Fistful of Votes: The 2006 Italian Elections, ed. Justin Frosini and Gianfranco Pasquino (Bologna: CLUEB, 2006), 75-101.
  5. Walter Veltroni, La Nuova Stagione: Contro Tutti i Conservatorismi (Milano: Rizzoli, 2007).
  6. I use the controversial definition offered by American political scientist Edward Banfield in his book The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958), because it still captures much that is significant in Italian political culture.
  7. Donatella Campus, Antipolitics in Power: Populist Language as a Tool for Government (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2010).
  8. Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians—and How We Can Survive Them (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
Gianfranco Pasquino is Senior Adjunct Professor of European Studies at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center and Professor of Political Science at the University of Bologna. He is president of the Italian Society of Political Science (2010–2013) and a member of the National Academy of the Lincei. He also has served as a member of the Italian Senate (1983–1996). His most recent books are Quasi sindaco. Politica e società a Bologna 2008–2010 (2011) and La rivoluzione promessa. Lettura della Costituzione Italiana (2011).