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The Fall of Rome

Bankrupt and bloodied, Italy’s political elite clings to power

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Italians have been told not to worry too much about Luigi Preiti, the 46-year-old businessman who opened fire at the April 28 swearing-in of new prime minister Enrico Letta, wounding two policemen. Preiti, press accounts assure the public, was in a condizione molto delicata, having recently lost his job and split from his wife. The problem is that the whole of Italy is in a condizione molto delicata. Unemployment is in double digits. Citizens are fighting over the spoils of an economy nearly 7 percent smaller than it was five years ago.

David Clark

Worst of all, the government cannot find a way to balance its books that the public will tolerate. That is why February’s elections produced a deadlock between three irreconcilable forces. The left-wing Democratic party (PD), which had successfully prevented reformists from ending the stranglehold of the party’s Communist-era leadership, got the most votes for the lower house. The 76-year-old media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the populist conservatives, spent months attacking German bankers and Italian taxmen, and stunned the country by nearly winning the Senate. A quarter of the country voted for the Five-Star Movement (M5S) of comedian Beppe Grillo, which seems to want to do away with the country’s political system altogether. Mario Monti, who led the “technocratic” government installed in 2011 to please Italy’s EU creditors, was left in the dust. It is not surprising that it took two months of calumny, threats, and purges before the Berlusconi-ites, the Democrats, and the rump of Monti’s forces could unite to fend off the Grillo movement and form a government, however shaky.

Americans uncertain what to expect from Letta’s new government may find it useful to think of him as a younger, more Italian version of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman. Letta comes from the center-right. His political family is the old, anti-Communist Christian Democrats, the youth wing of which he once led. His literal family includes Gianni Letta, an uncle, who is an intimate of Berlusconi, the longtime prime minister. But there came a moment about 10 years ago when Silvio Berlusconi turned into a politician no well-bred young Italian could be seen in public with. Enrico cast his lot with the center-left.

That is how he and I came to share a pizza one lunchtime in Rome in 2003. Letta was trying to explain how the future lay with his Margherita party, which rejected both Berlusconi and the Communist heritage of the left. I had the (immodest) impression that I understood Letta’s situation better than he himself did. His centrism was temporary. The left had already captured him. Berlusconi’s charisma and money were essential to the right, but the left could get rid of the Communist stigma by merely changing its name, which it had already done a number of times. When the various Communist, post-Communist, socialist, and antiglobalist groups reconstituted themselves as the Democratic party in 2007, Letta was among its founding members.

But Letta knew what he was doing. Here is the difference between a “moderate Republican” in the United States and a centrist on the Italian left: No one needs a moderate Republican. But for two decades Italy’s leftists have had a desperate need for moderates, as a means of staving off reform on the inside while implying to everyone on the outside that such reform was actually taking place. That pivotal position has now made Letta prime minister, with a lot of help from the financial crisis of the last half-decade.

In 2009, two longhaired baby boomers​—​a shaggy, grumpy comedian named Beppe Grillo and his somewhat spiffier adviser, the futuristic PR man Gianroberto Casaleggio​—​started a party called the Five-Star Movement (which they deny is a party at all). They had noticed that the followers of Grillo’s blog were responding to his pox-on-both-their-houses riffs with a frenzied enthusiasm. The frustrated grillini (which means “little crickets” in Italian) were similar to the people who flocked to MoveOn and Meetup in the middle of the Bush years, except that they lacked a single hate object. Grillo’s people have an almost religious faith in the Internet, and in the ability of “direct democracy” to solve Italy’s corruption problems. Over the Net, they began to organize “V-Days,” messageless, rather primal gatherings where mostly young participants would rally behind the slogan Vaffanculo, the Italian version of the universal insult telling people where to stick it.

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