«Sergio Fabbrini Sergio Fabbrini is Director of the School of Government and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at the LUISS ...»
Polling has thus contributed to lessening the importance of one of the most consistent advantages of mass political parties (and, in particular, of large working class parties), namely the detailed knowledge of the views of the voters (or of a large share of them). Modern opinion polls, which are generally carried out by private firms specialized in the field, can provide political elites devoid of a mass organization with the information necessary to design a political strategy.
Considering also the other electoral technologies that have become widespread since the end of WWII, first in the United States (Grossman 1996) and then in all the main European countries, such as phone banks and direct mail, one can see that the organizers of an electoral campaign are able to interact directly with those segments of the electorate whose support is considered necessary to the success of the campaign without calling on the mass party of the past. Once opinion polls have identified the groups that may be receptive to a campaign’s message, or those whose preferences need to be confirmed, it is sufficient to rely on professional agencies or on efficient electoral committees to reach them and to motivate them to cast their votes.
Beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, European countries – particularly Italy – have followed the US path in employing new electoral technologies (Farrell 1996) The crisis of the traditional mass parties magnified the role of the new technologies. Of course, those technologies cost.
However, while these costs may have made fundraising integral to the success of an US electoral campaign (La Raja 2008), in Italy the new party of Silvio Berlusconi did not need to raise money, its founder being one of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the country. Certainly the new technologies were also adopted in France by the Gaullist party (that kept changing its name in the last twenty years, from the Rally for the Republic in the 1990s to the Union for the Presidential Majority in the 2000s). In both countries, particularly during the 2010s, the new electoral technologies, under the impetus of political entrepreneurs like Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy (president of the French Republic from 2007 to 2012), became decisive in an electoral campaign (Campus 2010).
This was true also for the parties of the Left, from Tony Blair’s (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown’s (2007-2010) Labour Party in United Kingdom to the German Social Democratic Party of Gerard Schröder (1998-2005) and the French Socialist Party of Ségolene Royal (who lost as Socialist candidate in the presidential elections of 2007) and then of Francois Hollande (who finally won the presidential elections in 2012). Paraphrasing Duverger, one might say that after the end of the Cold War, Europe witnessed a contagion from the Right of the organizational model of the electoral campaigns, whereas previously it was the Left that dictated which model to emulate.
Contemporary electoral politics have thus acquired the characteristics of an entrepreneurial activity in the proper sense. Electoral campaigns have come to be run according to a professional logic rather than the logic of party activism. Each candidate with access to substantial resources can afford to construct his/her own organization and his/her own electoral committee, generally within an existing party. The candidate has come to use the same techniques to convince voters in the electoral arena as are used to win over consumers in the economic arena by a firm. However, if there is no doubt that these new technologies contributed to transforming the parties into support structures for a leader, it is also true that such a transformation was dramatic in Italy compared to other European countries and the United States. Silvio Berlusconi did not only make an electoral use of the new technologies, he constructed a brand-new personal party around them. Moreover, he not only transformed his nationally diffused media company (Mediaset) into a political party, he used his formidable financial resources to acquire the new tools of electoral mobilization.
It remains to be seen whether the spread of the internet will go on to affect the personalized logic of the organization of contemporary parties. Indeed, the decentralized nature of the internet is going to promote the development of horizontal relations between supporters and leaders that seem at odds with the vertical relations of the personal party. In any case, the post-mass party politics of the last two decades magnified the importance of personality and money in electoral politics - and Silvio Berlusconi had both. But this is only part of the story. The political process does not end with electoral success. Indeed, electoral success is the key to opening the door to government, but not to answering the challenges coming from the latter’s functioning. Governing is an activity which has to do with winning the consent of the citizens but also and mainly with solving their problems.
Policy, kept at the margins during the electoral campaign that has stressed only (personalized) politics, has inevitably a central place in the governmental activity. This activity is highly institutionalized, because of the complexity of the problems it has to face and the high number of interests it has to consider. It was precisely in dealing with the institutions and policy-making that Silvio Berlusconi came to discover that personalization is not sufficient for governing successfully.
III. The limits to personalization: the governmental system III.1. The case of the United States If it is true that the electoral process has been personalized, the same cannot be said for the governmental outcome of that process. The personalization of electoral politics has not gone unchallenged, encountering substantial resistance in the institutional organizations and logics of both European and US governmental systems. Let’s see why. I will start with the United States to better locate Berlusconi’s experience in a larger comparative framework.
In the United States, personalized politics has institutionalized itself in the electoral arena.
The presidential race is a competition between individuals: individuals who were able to win the primaries of their respective parties on the basis of their personal abilities, and who address the electorate soliciting votes more for their persona than their program. Once in the White House, and facing Congressional constraints, the candidate elected president has frequently found that he must go public and search for personal relations among citizens in order to neutralize congressional resistance to his proposals (Kernell 2006). Candidates for Congress have also personalized their strategies. They run on a personal basis and are only able to emerge victorious if they manage to personally encompass the various interests and the most representative sentiments of the electoral district or the state they want to carry.
The personal vote (as the criterion informing the voting decision) is justified because the individual representative or senator enjoys a credible margin of discretion in decision-making in the institutions in which he or she operates. Indeed, the president enjoys institutional independence from Congress and, simultaneously, Congress has remained an institution with broad legislative powers. Thanks to Congress’s decentralized decision-making structure, individual members generally matter in the legislative process, particularly in domestic pork-barrel issues. They are able to pass acts useful for their district or state, thus increasing their chances of reelection by the constituency they serve. Yet neither presidential independence nor congressional decentralization are unfettered. The president has had to realize that it is not enough to govern by rhetoric. In the absence of parties that link him to Congress, the president has been able to accomplish little, in particular since the 1990s, because Congress has witnessed an unprecedented process of organizational strengthening and partisan polarization.
In a context of growing polarization of partisan politics, party building has brought on an increasing tension between governmental branches (Fabbrini 2008). Divided government (the situation in which different parties control one or the other of the separated institutions of government) was the norm for most of the 1990s (1991-1992 and 1994-2000), was superseded by unified government in the aftermath of September 11 (2003-2006), and re-merged again after the mid-term elections of 2006 and 2010. Apart from rare situations of deep domestic or international crises, the personal president (that is, the president elected on a personal basis, as defined by Lowi
1985) has had to operate within the powerful constraint of checks and balances that Congress can always activate. The presidency (the executive) has been personalized, but not the government as such. In the American separation of powers system, Congress has continued to retain its own independence from the president. Indeed, with the parties’ polarization, that independence has become a source of intense political conflict with the president, especially in the condition of divided government (Galston 2010).
However, also under a unified government, the president and Congress may pursue different agendas, as shown by the experience (betwwen 2009-2010) of the health care reform project advanced by the Democratic President Barack H. Obama in a Democratic Congress. That project was contested by influential sections of the Democrats in Congress (the so called ‘blue dogs’).
Indeed, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, signed into law on March 23, 2010, resulted as a significant milder version of the original plan supported by the president and his supporters (McNamara and Marlowe 2011). In a separation of powers system, the president can rely on his personal party when running for the presidency, but not when governing with the Congress (even when it is controlled by fellow partisans). Only the dramatic crisis generated by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 allowed president George W. Bush to rely on his role as Commander-in-Chief to impose his personal leadership on the Congress. As soon as the crisis was over, the personal president returned to be a ‘semi-sovereign Prince’ (Fabbrini 2005).
In Europe as well the migration of the personalization of politics from the electoral arena to the governmental arena has met with significant resistance. Pressures towards personalization evident in the electoral arena have certainly contributed, inter alia, to opening the system for selecting candidates in several European parties (Hopkin and Houten 2009). Yet, although parties are now more open than in the past, they have continued to play a role in the governmental process.
Admittedly, in political systems where the members of parliament are elected by single member districts (with a plurality in United Kingdom or a run off in Fifth Republic France), the vote has acquired a personal character. Nevertheless, in those same democracies (parliamentary in the first case, semi-presidential in the second), governments cannot function without parties connecting the legislative majority to the executive (and to the president of the republic, in the French case).
Indeed, in Great Britain, parties have continued to play a significant role in balancing the personalization of the prime minister. It was the conservative (parliamentary) party that fired prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and replaced her with John Major; and it was the Labor party annual national conference that finally imposed the succession of leadership from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown in 2007, notwithstanding the remarkable contribution of both Thatcher and Blair to the success of their party in three previous electoral contests.
Although the direct election of the president of the republic in France has inevitably increased the personalization of political parties, the president of France still has to rely on his party’s support in the legislature, as illustrated by the experiences of both Jacque Chirac (1995-2007) and Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012). Both French presidents needed the support of their own parliamentary party to have their proposed legislation passed. But the MPs of the party, although they have to remain loyal to the president, are not personally dependent on him. They have been elected in uninominal districts on behalf of a party not only for the benefit of a presidential candidate.
It was during the Berlusconi governments in Italy that personalization of government reached its highest level in a parliamentary democracy. What distinguished the Italian experience from the other European parliamentary cases was that Silvio Berlusconi was free of any influence or constraints from his party, Go Italy (from 1994 to 2008) and the Popolo della Libertà or PDL (after 2008). Although PDL was made up of the personal Go Italy, the more structured party of Gianfranco Fini’s Right National Alliance plus a plethora of small other groups, its dependence on Silvio Berlusconi was unquestionable. The electoral system introduced by the center-right in 2005 has further strengthened the control of the MPs by the party leaderi. With the PDL, and previously with Go Italy, Silvio Berlusconi behaved like the owner of a private firm. Indeed, facing the challenge to his leadership by Gianfranco Fini, in the summer of 2010 he initiated Fini’s expulsion from the very party he co-founded. In no other European democracy has the leader’s party been transformed into an organization at the full disposal of the leader.
Certainly, even Silvio Berlusconi as a prime minister met with considerable hurdles in trying to transform electoral personalization into personal power at the governmental level. In the period from 2001-2006, the struggle between the various parties of the coalition led to the substitution of some ministers and even to a government reshuffle in 2005. Between 2008 and 2010, the rivalry with Gianfranco Fini constituted a significant interference in Berlusconi’s full control of the parliamentary majority and then, between 2010 and 2011, the rivalry with the main partner of his party, the Northern League, and with the minister of Finance Giulio Tremonti, dented his governmental leadership. Moreover, the constitutional court and the president of the republic regularly intervened in order to preserve the division of powers of the republic called into question by questionable proposed laws the Berlusconi government submitted to the parliment.