A new book reveals why Silvio Berlusconi’s countrymen put up with him.
Come hear Beppe Severgnini speak about Silvio Berlusconi and Mamma Mia! at a panel moderated by Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and Stefano Albertini, the director of the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò at NYU. The panel starts at 6pm on Friday, Nov. 4 at the Casa Italiano, 24 West 12th Street, New York, N.Y. Please RSVP to Virginia@sallyfischerpr.com as seating is limited.
Beppe Severgnini is a columnist for Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper, a contributor to Time, the Financial Times, and the Economist. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, Mamma Mia!, Severgnini tackles the big question that foreigners have about Italy: Why do Italians tolerate Silvio Berlusconi?
How was it that Silvio Berlusconi—Mr. B. for short—was voted into power (1994), voted in again (2001), and voted back in (2008)? The hammerings he took in the administrative elections and referendum (2011) hint at change, but the question remains: Why does a majority of Italians support and/or put up with him? Can’t they see his appetites, his limits, his methods? Obviously, they can. If Mr. B. has dominated public life for almost two decades, there is a reason. Actually, there are 10.
1. The Human Factor
What do most Italians think about Silvio Berlusconi? “He’s just like us.” And the ones who don’t are afraid he might be. Mr. B. adores his kids, talks about his mamma, knows his soccer, makes money, loves new homes, hates rules, tells jokes, uses bad language, adores women, parties hard, and is convivial to a fault. He has a good memory and a knack for tactical amnesia. He’s come a long way, switching between life’s freeways and its shortcuts. He’s unconventional, but knows the importance of convention. He extols the Church in the morning and the family in the afternoon, and brings girlfriends home in the evening.
Mr. B. is great entertainment value, so he gets away with plenty. Many Italians ignore his conflicts of interest (haven’t we all got ’em?), his legal issues (a defendant is easier to like than a judge), and his international bloopers (he’s so spontaneous!). What about the broken promises, the half truths, the blurring of public and private life? Some people get worked up about that sort of thing; others turn a blind eye. Apparently, there are more of the latter than the former.
2. The Divine Factor
Mr. B. knows that praising the Church helps most Italians feel less guilty about not going to mass, or systematically ignoring seven of the ten commandments. We don’t expect our leaders to walk the walk when they talk the talk. Private indignation at public contradictions shifts votes in many democracies, but not in Italy. Silvio knows that he’s dealing with a country that eschews expectations to avoid disappointment.
The Vatican, if not Italy’s parishes, is content with Catholicism-friendly legislation and doesn’t worry about the bad examples. Catholic movements such as Comunione e Liberazione like to focus on ends, which are safely in the future and therefore negotiable, rather than the means their friends employ to reach them. This eschatological take is music to Mr. B.’s ears, for it shifts attention from actions to intentions.
3. The Robinson Factor
Every Italian feels he or she stands alone against the world, or if not the world, the neighbors. We take pride in surviving, socially and economically. It shows how resourceful we are. Much has been written about Italian individualism, its expedients, its limitations, and its consequences. Mr. B. started out from there, first amassing his fortune and establishing himself as a self-made man, before building on Italy’s distrust of all things shared, the widespread antipathy for rules, and the inner satisfaction Italians take in finding a private solution to a public problem. In Italy, there is no real cohesive public pressure for a new, fairer tax system. People evade the one they have. Every Italian feels like Robinson Crusoe, a castaway on a crowded peninsula.
4. The Truman Factor
How many newspapers, apart from sports papers, are sold in Italy every day? Five million. How many Italians regularly use bookstores? Five million. How many Italians browse major news websites? Five million. How many watch the Sky TG24 and TG La7 news? Five million. How many watch current affairs programs on late-evening television? Five million, across the political spectrum.
You get the feeling they’re always the same people, so we’ll call them the Five Million Club. Are they important? Obviously, but they don’t decide elections. Television—all TV, not just newscasts—remains pivotal, because it molds images, sends out messages, leaves impressions, tells you some things and, crucially, keeps quiet about others. Guess who owns private television and controls public TV in Italy. It’s like Peter Weir’s seminal film, The Truman Show. Someone helped us think.
5. The Hoover Factor
Hoover, founded in 1908 in New Berlin (now Canton) in Ohio, is synonymous with vacuum cleaners. In English-speaking countries, to use a vacuum cleaner is simply “to hoover.” The company’s door-to-door reps were skillful, legendarily tenacious manipulators of psychology, ruthless in pursuit of a sale.
Mr. B. has a flair for commercial seduction, carried over from his previous careers in construction, television, and advertising, that he now applies to politics. He’s well aware that a message has to be straightforward, appealing, and reassuring. He knows that repeating it works. And he is convinced that in an appearance-obsessed nation, image is key. In Italy, making the right impression wins hands down over doing the right thing.