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«Sergio Fabbrini Sergio Fabbrini is Director of the School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the LUISS ...»

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Sergio Fabbrini

Sergio Fabbrini is Director of the School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations

at the LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome where he holds the Jean Monnet Chair. He was the Editor of the Italian

Journal of Political Science from 2003 to 2009 and the Director of the Trento School of International Studies from 2006 to 2009. Among his recent publications in English: Compound Democracies: Why the United States and Europe Are Becoming Similar, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2010, 2nd and revised edition and America and Its Critics: Virtues and Vices of the democratic Hyperpower, Cambridge, Polity, 2008


School of Government, Luiss Guido Carli, Via di Villa Emiliani, 14, 00197 Rome, Italy sfabbrini@luiss.it


Silvio Berlusconi, Teledemocracy, Electoral personalization, Governmental Systems, EU governance.

Abstract The article presents a comparative and theoretical discussion of Silvio Berlusconi’s experience with the personalization of politics. That experience is located in the context of the technological transformations that emerged in political communication and electoral mobilization in Europe and the United States, transformations that fostered a highly personalized political process. Leaders, not parties, have become the main actors in electoral politics. This has been particularly true in Italy, where Silvio Berlusconi has been the promoter and beneficiary of those transformations. At the same time, such personalization has met formidable obstacles while moving from the electoral to the governmental level in both Europe and the United States. It was less so, however, in Italy during the premierships of Silvio Berlusconi, due to the latter’s personal control of his party and parliamentary majority. Nevertheless, the deepening of the financial crisis has shown that even such a radical personalization of politics met its limits. Under the pressure of the market and the European institutions, Silvio Berlusconi finally had to resign and was replaced by an executive composed of technocrats and professors. In the end, the technicalities of policy had their revenge on the personalization of politics.

The article was the basis of a lecture held at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues (ISSI), the Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements, with the co-sponsorship of the Political Science Department, Italian Studies Department and the Research Center on Social Change, University of California at Berkeley, 7 February 2012.

Introduction From 1994 to 2011 Silvio Berlusconi was at the center of Italian politics. He was prime minister in 1994, again from 2001 to 2006 and finally once more from 2008 to 2011. During these terms, the government and the person of Silvio Berlusconi have coincided. Moreover, when he was not in the government, he continued to be not only the opposition leader, but the most central political figure in the country. Silvio Berlusconi personalized Italian politics as nobody before him ever did. However, his dramatic personalization of Italian politics proved insufficient for dealing with the euro crisis which shocked the very foundations of the country. Thus, a combination of domestic institutional constraints and pressures from external financial market and European Union (EU) institutions and leaders, side-by-side with an unprecedented increase of the spread between Italian and German public bonds in mid-November 2011, forced the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi and his government.

How can we explain the emergence and persistence of this highly personalized leadership in the Italian government and more in general in Italian politics? This article is an attempt to look at that experience from a comparative and theoretical perspective. Indeed, a large part of the scholarly literature on Silvio Berlusconi looked at his political experience from within Italian politics and history, interpreting it as an expression of the peculiarities of the Italian political system (Tuccari and Armao 2002) or of the Italian media system (Marletti 2010) or of the Italian televised culture (Mazzoleni and Sfardini 2009). Nor does the article aim to interpret the content of the political leadership of Silvio Berlusconi, conceptualized by some scholars (Campus 2006) as ‘anti-politics’ or by others (Lazar 2009) as ‘new politics’. This article adopts a rather different analytical approach: Berlusconi’s case is discussed in the context of the personalization of politics induced by the role television has come to play in structuring public communication and electoral competition in Europe and the United States. Thus, it looks at the political experience of Berlusconi from outside Italy, trying to identify, in that experience, properties shared by other democracies (and properties that are not). Too often ideographic approaches tend to become idiosyncratic, in particular when dealing with highly contested political cases. At the same time, the Berlusconi case is discussed to gain an understanding of the nature and degree of the limits affecting the process of personalization once the leader has achieved governmental power and has to manage complex policy challenges, in particular in the context of supranational integration.

It is a shared opinion among scholars that politics in established democracies has become a personalized activity. The nature of political leadership in both Europe and the United States has changed dramatically since the development of the technological transformations beginning in the 1970s. The revolution in the system of political communication led to a de-structuring of the social and cultural divisions that mass parties have traditionally represented and made their traditional organization redundant (Dalton and Wattemberg 2002). The role played by television is particularly salient, as it constructed a new context for the organization of the political process known among scholars as tele-democracy. It may be added that such a context is changing as new Information and Communications Technology (ICT) tools are making less hierarchical forms of information and mobilization possible, such as social networking. However, in recent decades, the television and the technologies of electoral information and mobilization radically changed the logic of electoral politics. Leaders, not parties, became the main actors in electoral competitions on both sides of the Atlantic.

At the same time personalization encountered formidable obstacles in moving from the electoral to the governmental arena, obstacles frequently under-evaluated by much of the sociological literature on tele-democracy. Electoral politics is lastingly personalized in all advanced democracies, but the same cannot be said for governmental politics. Certainly, democratic governments were becoming further and further identified with their leaders (Helms 2008), but identification was not enough to transform those governmental institutions into pure bases of personal power. In Europe and the United States, thus, a tension emerged between electoral politics and governmental power. Leaders who came to government through an intense personalization of the electoral campaign discovered, sooner or later, that they could not govern only by themselves nor through personal charisma because of the complexity of the policies to be dealt with and the existence of other institutional and political actors with their own political agenda. Thus, by personalization I mean the leader-centered logic within the communication and electoral process, while by personalization’s limits I mean the logic of the governmental systems that, according to different modalities and in various degrees, obstruct the latter’s transformation into personal regimes.

In Italy, institutional and policy constraints on the personalization of politics have been for long less stringent than in other democracies. The full personal control of his own party and coalition and the weakness of the opposition (because of its internal divisions) allowed ample room for maneuvering to Silvio Berlusconi. When the constraints on his behavior came from the magistrates or the holders of state power (such as the president of the Italian Republic), Silvio Berlusconi used them as an occasion for accentuating his role as personal representative of the people under the siege of elitist institutions. In sum, he transformed any criticism of his persona into an opportunity for fueling a permanent electoral campaign from the government or from the opposition against the country’s establishment, reputed to be against the popular sovereignty he (and only he) represented. This strategy was rather successful, but it came to an halt when he tried to use it also against criticism coming from EU leaders and above all against the markets’ lack of confidence in his governmental policies. At the very end he had to step back, ceding power to a government of technocrats. Thus, even the most extreme case of personalization of politics shows that contemporary democracies, in a context of highly interdependent economies, cannot be governed by ‘politics without policy’.

Here I will proceed as follows. First, I will discuss the personalization of political communication induced by television. Second, I will analyze the features of the personalization process induced by new technologies utilized in electoral campaigns. Third, I will identify the reasons why the process of electoral personalization has met with formidable resistance from the institutional structures of modern governments. In all three sections, I will discuss the specificity (but not the uniqueness) of Silvio Berlusconi’s experience with personalization. Finally, I will conclude stressing the paradox raised by Silvio Berlusconi’s fall.

I. Personalization in a tele-democratic era I.1. The television-imposed process of personalization Modern democracies are generally considered to be tele-democracies (Sartori 2003; Arterton 1987), that is, regimes in which politics is organized around the means of mass communication.

Television in particular has become the main source of political information. Literature on the phenomenon abounds. According to this literature (among many authors, see Fenster 2008 and Edelmann 1988), an inevitable link between politics and show-biz has emerged within teledemocracies – a link that is primarily the result of the central role television has acquired in political communication. Tele-democracy has urged citizens to turn into a television audience (Manin 1997), an audience that political leaders seek to attract with their messages and rituals. The political debate aims to emotionally engage the audience (just like movies or entertainment shows) without requiring its direct participation. Citizens watch the political show, but they experience it as outsiders, as something that concerns the actors on the show (politicians) but not themselves.

As the media system (and television in particular) has become the privileged environment for the construction of politics as performance, it follows that those involved in staging this show occupy a central role in determining both its content and its participants. Although this process has necessarily been shaped by the different internal logics of the national media systems (Hallin & Mancini 2004), deciding what is worthy of being considered a political event or not has fallen to the media. It has been argued (Castells 2009) that in tele-democracies politics does not exist objectively, but rather has become a subjective construction disseminated by the instruments of visual mass-communication. A fact appears to exist only if it has been reported visually on television. Rather than fact being transmitted through image, the image creates the fact.

In particular, political news becomes noteworthy not because it is relevant to the lives of citizens, but rather because it is reported so as to attract their attention. And nothing attracts more than reports of rivalry and discord between political leaders: although such disputes may have little resonance in the daily life of many citizens (viewers), it can still be presented in a way that evokes emotions and identifications that draw citizen-viewers in. On television, the complex historical, institutional and social processes that gave rise to a specific event and shaped its outcome are simplified in order to be presented as an emotionally comprehensible confrontation between political leaders. On the television screen, the complexity of political phenomena has been replaced by the personal abilities or shortcomings of a leader.

This political personalization has also been supported by the process of internationalization and Europeanization of democratic politics. This process has increased the decision-making role of the executive vis-à-vis the legislature and, within the former, of its head (and a few other officials such as the Treasury or Foreign Affairs ministers or secretaries) vis-à-vis all other members of the Cabinet. After all, presidents or prime ministers participate in international summits or European Council meetings of heads of state and government of EU member states where crucial decisions are made. A growing number of policy issues are decided within international or supra-national organizations rather than by domestic actors working within national institutions. Moreover, the greater complexity of policy issues has inevitably made understanding of what differentiates one political leader or party from another (in terms of policy solutions for issues) more complicated.

However, if policy has emigrated to Brussels, the G-20, or NATO, politics still remains a domestic business (Schmidt 2006). What is at stake when politics is divorced from policy at the domestic level? The personality of leaders has proved to be the simplest way to connect policy to politics.

That discrepancy has motivated the media to focus on individual politicians rather than on policy issues. Leaders in competition have come to play a surrogate role for policy differences.

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