When I told friends that I was going to Italy to study the political situation there, the usual response was an amused puzzlement. Italian politics, I was informed, is like the Italian army: a grand opera performance of a comic opera plot. I am not so sure. Since the later Middle Ages, the Italians have been feuding and fighting in a grand style that often looks suicidal, but what are the results? The Renaissance, Italian opera, and—most recently—a standard of living that combines a high disposable income (largely unreported) with an everyday life that the American leisure class can only envy. The difference between Italy and the United States can be measured most simply by considering the table. Over there, everything is fresh, local, and wonderfully prepared—four and five course meals, washed down by wine that cannot be successfully exported beyond the region. Here, on the other hand, hardly one American in five knows how to prepare the simplest meal from scratch.

Even in politics, the Italians may have a few lessons to teach. Perhaps because Italian public life has always been a cynical game, Italian political thinkers have written about politics with a remarkable candor. In The Machiavellians, James Burnham traces an intellectual history from the author of The Prince down to Mosca and Pareto. Today one might wish to include the occasionally brilliant Communist Antonio Gramsci as well as Giovanni Sartori, now at Columbia University. But, my friends tell me, look at how often the Italians change their government. Really? Since the 1950’s, we have had eight Presidents; however, in looking back over the past 35 years of Italian politics, one sees only the figure of Giulio Andreotti. As one Sicilian gentleman told me on a train, “Mussolini was a dictator, of course, but so is Andreoth, only he is not so good a ruler as Mussolini.”

Where else in the world would a retired businessman tell a stranger not only that he was a Fascist during the war, but—worse—that after years of being an anti-Fascist, he has come round to preferring II Duce to the current rascals? “At least he tamed, if only temporarily, the Mafia. It was your President Roosevelt who turned Sicily back over to Lucky Luciano.” It is a story that every Italian seems to know and of which every American is ignorant, how FDR cut the deal with Luciano, who threatened the Sicilians with retaliation if they resisted the American invasion. In return, the Mafia was restored to its former glory. These twin subjects, the corrupt despotism of the government and the power of organized crime, continually recur, like musical themes, in every conversation about politics.

My excuse for spending three weeks in Italy was an invitation from the Centro Internazionale di Studi Lombardi (the International Center for Lombard Studies) to read a paper comparing American and European democracy. CEISLO is ably directed by Professor Giuditta Podesta of the University of Genoa, who has acquired an old convent in the village of Olginate, not far from Lecco, and the organization’s stated goal is to deepen and broaden the awareness of human interrelatedness (they take a particular interest in European unification) from the particular standpoint of Lombardy, a key region of Europe that connects North and South, Latin with German Europe.

Every year CEISLO assembles a distinguished group of scholars and journalists to discuss and debate the prospects for European community or the lessons of comparative anthropology. The talk is stimulating, the food wonderful, and the hospitality gracious. Lecco is a prosperous industrial city, but it is also the birthplace of Manzoni, and despite all the strains imposed by modernization and urbanization, the Italian lake country is as redolent of literary associations as any in the world.

For my own part, I had come to preach a message of localism and regionalism as the true basis of the American system. In the course of my remarks, I ventured to observe that the localist spirit of the old Italian republics was still alive, since the party of local autonomy, the “Lega Lombarda,” managed to win almost 20 percent of the vote in the most recent administrative elections.

Bringing up the Lega in a group of academics is a bit like praising Pat Buchanan at an editorial meeting of any magazine published in New York, but I did hear one burst of applause. Afterward, this turned out to have come from a Como businessman, Elvio Conti, one of the oldest members of the Lega. I had lunch with Conti, Professor Podesta, and Professor L.V. Ferraris (now of Rome University and formerly ambassador to West Germany); the talk was animated and at times heated. Of course the Lega had its points, but why were the members so little interested in cultural matters? When Conti ventured to proclaim his faith in Lombard culture. Professor Podesta brought him up short. “There is no Lombard culture—so many different peoples have contributed to the region—there is only a culture of Lombardy.”

Even after a few days in the region, the phrase “culture of Lombardy” begins to make sense. For one thing, the people look different, as much Swiss as Italian: a bit taller, but thicker, and heavier-boned than other Italians. “I am so ashamed when I meet Americans,” a young Lombard active in the Lega tells me. “When you think of Italians, it is nothing but scrawny little guys and pizza parlors.” I assure him that Northern Italian cooking is now regarded as gourmet food, and that Robert de Niro is more popular than Al Pacino.

The streets in Lecco and Como are clean, the shops attractive; and in the morning the squares are bustling with the activity of busy and disciplined men and women on their way to work. The only slouchers are the government officials, and they are for the most part from the South. (Coming across the border by train from Zurich, there were three customs officials to ask qualcosa da di chiarare without bothering to check either luggage or passport. No wonder Lake Como was always a smugglers’ paradise.)

But it is the character of the people that is most distinctive. A fine old Lombard, a veteran of World War II and of several German camps, expresses with eloquence what I am to hear over and over from other Lombards: “We are a hardworking and honorable people. The Southerners, especially the Sicilians, are more creative, more refined. They seem to have a greater capacity for poetry. But the Lombards are a simple race, without guile. Do you know what they call us in the South? Polentoni [big polentas], and it is not because of what we eat, but that is how they think of us, as bland, flavorless mush. Why? Because, unlike other Italians, we are not furbo [cunning].” He is nonetheless suspicious of the Lega Lombarda.

The Lega is controversial throughout Italy. The newspapers condemn it as fascist (which it certainly is not) and racist—a codeword in Italy as in America for anyone who happens to love his own people. When Conti walks into a room full of academics, there is an immediate eruption: “Tell us plainly what you stand for, then leave us alone.”

It is a good question. The Lega began life not as a political party but as a grass roots coalition of Lombards who had lost patience with the Italian political system, which they regard as a corrupt, inefficient bureaucracy thoroughly penetrated by the Mafia. The members made speeches and held meetings but they took no part in politics. Eventually, as Conti explained to me, they were stopped on the street by people who asked them, “Why don’t you enter the political arena and do something?” They did, and with results that terrify the regular parties. Because Italy does not have a winner-take-all electoral system, the Lega now has several delegates in the European Parliament, two deputies in the lower house, and one senator: party leader and hero to his followers, Umberto Bossi. In mid-September, friends and enemies of the Lega were citing polls that projected 30 percent or more of the vote in Northern Italy.

The Lega is unique in European (and American) politics in basing a grass roots political coalition on popular issues—local control, tax reform, government corruption, immigration—that are set within a broad historical-political vision. What Bossi and his followers envision for Italy, is a federal (they often prefer the less ambiguous term “confederal”) system in which local and regional governments are allowed to have a say in making their own laws and policies. The first principle of the party’s program states that it is “for the self-government of Lombardia, replacing the centralized state with a modern federal state that knows how to respect all the peoples that constitute it.”

The idea of federalism will in itself carry no elections, and much of the Lega’s activities have been concentrated on hardball issues like taxes, crime, corruption, welfare, and immigration. Much of this is cast in the form of a North/South problem. Northern Italians work, pay taxes, and obey the laws, while the South has specialized in producing bureaucrats (including teachers and judges), loafers, “disabled” workers, and criminal conspiracies. The local representative of the Liberal Party in Olginate, a man of remarkably good sense, strenuously objects to the Lega, but he speaks the same language: “Why does it take one day for a Swiss worker to make something that takes two days in Lombardy and a week in the South?” The Liberals blame government corruption and deplore the Lega’s “politics of resentment.”

The resentment in the North is captured in one of the Lega’s most successful posters. A hen is shown laying golden eggs into a basket held by a fat woman in a traditional Southern dress: PAY AND SHUT UP, LOMBARD DONKEY, is the heading, while the rest of the poster explains: “The Lombard hen lays golden eggs for Rome and lower down. They all stay fried in the pan, and return no more to us.”

But everyone in Italian politics complains about corruption, inefficiency, and the Mafia. What is different about Bossi is that instead of pointing the finger at Palermo and Naples, he denounces “the parties of Rome,” by which he means all the major and minor political parties that divide up power and offices after elections. What others talk about only in private, he discusses openly: why could the government defeat the Red Brigades but is powerless in the face of organized crime? In late September another anti-Mafia judge was murdered in Sicily, and even the establishment press began writing of the “crocodile tears” of the politicians who refused to do anything but make impassioned speeches at funerals. A writer in the anticommunist Milan daily Il Giornale wondered if the inertia had anything to do with the fact that while the Red Brigades killed politicians, the Mafia only kills judges.

Bossi is more direct. At a rally, he tells his followers, “Many of us were once Christian Democrats, and many still are tempted to support the PDC. But I tell you that that is the very worst thing a Lombard could do. And I will tell you here what I have not hesitated to say elsewhere: that a vote for the Christian Democrats is a vote for the Mafia.” Later, when I question him about the Mafia, Bossi explains that the Mafia and Camorra by themselves are nothing: it is their linkage with the parties that trade government contracts for kickbacks and votes that makes it impossible to suppress them. The only solution to organized crime in Italy is “to disentangle it from the political system.”

But if the question of the Mafia is bound up with the Italian political system, it is also part of the North/South confrontation. The Italian newspapers and magazines have been filled, this past year, with accounts of the Mafia’s move northward into Bologna, Milan, and Turin. Americans who are familiar only with the more domesticated manners of the naturalized Mafia in the United States will not easily appreciate what is going on in a country where the forces of organized crime routinely murder anyone who stands in their way, and when the Lega Lombarda rails against the infiltration of Southerners into Northern Italy, their case is only strengthened by the increased level of Mafia activity.

The Lega claims it is not anti-Southern per se, only that it wants the Lombards to be able to manage their own resources. They also resent what amounts to an affirmative action program that results in disproportionate numbers of Southern Italians in government jobs, particularly as teachers and as carabinieri. In Central and Northern Italy, the favorite form of humor is the carabinieri joke—”Why do the carabinieri have stripes on their pants? So they can find their pockets”—but these jokes are not so subtle digs at the Southerners who seem to dominate the national police force. The Southerners I talked to were very blunt. One army colonel of Sicilian ancestry (who is also an artist and journalist) told me quite simply that he hated the Lega Lombarda because “They hate us.” However, it is true that a Lega is being organized in Sicily, where its principal focus of hostility is the Mafia.

But more controversial than this anti-Southern resentment is the Lega’s position on immigration. The streets of Italian cities are now swarming with Tunisian and Moroccan vendors of cheap merchandise. They don’t pay bus fares, they sleep in churches and on park benches, and they hector the tourists at an outdoor cafe: “Buy a book matches? Come on, buy book matches.”

In late September a group of Pakistanis occupied a church in Milan, refusing to leave until the city “finds us a place to live.” Many Lombards asked me the inevitable question: “Why is it up to us to provide housing for them? Why don’t they just go home?”

The Lega is on to a popular issue in Italy. In February the major parties ramrodded a liberal immigration law (the Lege Martelli) through the parliament over the protests of Liberals, Republicans, and Bossi. The new law appeals to only two groups, immigrants and politicians, and Bossi’s response has been to call for a referendum, explaining to the press that the governing coalition can either reform the immigration law or face the rising tide of popular discontent. “Immigration,” he told the Corriere della Sera, “conceals a concerted plot to acquire authoritarian power. They want to arrive at a multiracial society as a means of creating tensions and confrontations among the populations and then to legitimate a solution of strong authoritarian government.”

The Lega’s critics accuse the members of racism, but I saw little evidence of it in the days I spent with them. One day at lunch, I ask Conti directly how he responds to the charge. He points to a Moroccan sitting across the room from us. “Do you see that man? I don’t hate him. If he is willing to work, I would give him a job. I am proud to be a Lombard, true, but that does not mean that I hate other people for being what they are.”

In fact, the Lega’s attitude toward Southerners and North Africans seems typical of the Northern Italians I met. After my talk a journalist who has spent some time in Canada asked ironically if I thought that the Lega represented true democracy. Nothing but racists, he exclaimed. “Italy’s real problems are economic,” he tells me. “The Lombards, Piedmontese, and others in the North are willing to work, but the Southerners refuse. They come up here only to go on welfare, and even when they do take a job, they are very unproductive, and everywhere they cause trouble.” I tell him he sounds like the Lega Lombarda. “I did not say they were wrong about everything,” he says, smiling, “but they have gone mad with history.”

To an American he seems to have a point. What other political party in the world takes its name from the 12th century? The original Lombard League was formed in 1167, when several cities banded together to resist the depredations of Friedrich Barbarossa, who had succeeded in destroying the great city of Milan. They met at the village of Pontida (near Bergamo) to swear an oath that every Lombard—Ghibelline as well as Guelf—should unite to defend their common liberty. I asked my friend the war veteran if the local people, say the man who occasionally drove me around, preserved any memory of these events; he assured me that the fellow would know nothing at all. But one day on the way to Bergamo, I spotted a sign for Pontida. I asked the driver if we were anywhere near. “Yes,” he said, “there is the famous convent where the Lombards swore the oath.” “Against the emperor?” “Yes, against Barbarossa, and it was here that the Lega Lombarda held their great rally a few months ago.”

I had read of this rally in the Italian press. Eighty thousand Lombards assembled and raised their right hands as Senator Bossi recalled the events of eight hundred years ago and recommitted himself and his followers to the oath of Pontida. There are a few Americans who are still fighting a war that ended 125 years ago, and some of us still regard the Wars of the Roses as part of our national history; however, I cannot imagine an assembly of eighty thousand American conservatives swearing loyalty to Richard III or even the House of Stuart.

But Italians as a nation are mad with history, the Southerners even more than the Lombards. One of the major living poets in Italy is Albino Pierro from Basilicata. Pierro, who now lives in Rome, began his career by writing poems in Italian, but as time went on he became impatient with this literary language he had learned in school, and for the purposes of his poetry, which is both highly personal and seriously metaphysical, he began to work in the dialect of his village. To accomplish this, he had to establish the orthography and grammar of “Tursitano,” a dialect which had never before been used for literary purposes. When I spoke with him, Pierro took some pains to explain to me that he is not a dialect poet, i.e., some quaint figure of artificial folklore, but simply a poet who needed to create his own language. It may be the most ambitious experiment conducted by any poet of this century, but—and this is typical of Italy—it is an experiment that reaffirms the poet’s links with the history and soil of his native place.

If the Lombard dialect has so far produced few major poets, there is a widespread revival of interest in the literature and culture of Lombardia. A regional paper, Vento del Nord, regularly prints a section in dialect and devotes considerable space to celebrating Lombard writers of the past. The second principle of the Lega Lombarda—and to many members this may be more important than the principle of federalism—calls for “reaffirmation of our culture, history, the Lombard language, our social and moral values.” At party gatherings, members consciously adopt the Lombard dialect, which is as different from Tuscan as Scots is from English. They have their own flag, their own national anthem (in “Lumbard,” of course). For this reason, they are frequently accused of wanting to break up Italy into a set of warring petty states. One rightist complained to me that Italy could only be governed by a strong centralized state, and a Christian Democrat in Rome insisted that the Germans are right: in unity is strength. “Are we going to have to go through customs three times, every time we take a trip from Naples to Milan?”

The party’s worst political gaffe so far has been Senator Bossi’s diatribe against the Italian flag. The pattern, he said, is borrowed from the flag of the French Revolution, but the color green was added by the Masons. (Freemasonry is an almost obsessive political topic among even anti-Catholic Italians, who are very suspicious that so many American Presidents have been Masons.) The party’s enemies used this speech as conclusive evidence that the Lega really is a separatist movement, but a few days later Bossi—without taking back his strictures—apologized for any offense he had given, and said he would defend a flag that so many Italians had shed their blood for.

Any South Carolinian or Virginian ought to be able to understand the concept of dual sovereignty and dual loyalty in principle, but it is another thing to come face to face with it. I had been out of Lombardy for two weeks, in Rome and Tuscany, when I was invited up to Como to attend a rally. The rally was in Lezzeno somewhere between Como and Bellagio, and the weather threatened rain as we drove along the shore of Lake Como and stopped across from a building flying what I took to be the Swiss flag. No, I was told, it is the flag of Lombardy. About a hundred people wait for the arrival of Senator Bossi. It is an interesting cross section: small businessmen, blue-collar workers, and not a few professionals. The local party leaders range in age from late 20’s to mid-50’s, but on the whole it is a young crowd. I speak with an architect who tells me he supports the Lega but that his son is wild about it and buys all the posters, pins, neckties, and party paraphernalia that is available. “The young,” he explains, “are tired of the corrupt old system and many of them look to Bossi as the hope of the future.”

When the senator’s car is spotted, most of us rush outside to greet him. “Look,” someone says, “still no escort.” And despite recent threats against his life, Bossi gets out of a small car accompanied only by his wife and an aide. We gather in a small courtyard and as the wind and rain intensifies, Bossi describes how the press has been trying to get him to provide them with sound bites on the most recent act of Mafia terrorism. He builds to a denunciation of the entire political system and lays out the Lega’s program of reform.

The rain eventually drives us inside, and after a round of drinks, I was able to talk to him for about an hour. At first, Bossi seems not even to acknowledge my presence, but as the interview proceeds he several times tells his followers to be quiet and repeatedly brushes aside the signals and whispers informing him that he is holding up dinner. Later, I discover that although journalists from all over Europe have been besieging the senator ever since the spring elections, I am the first American to interview the head of the Lega Lombarda.

I begin by asking him the question that had been on my mind for several days: is it possible to be a good Lombard and a patriotic Italian? “We are not separatists,” he insists, “and there is no component of violence in our program. Self-determination and autonomy are not the same thing as separation, but the right to have a say in the laws that are made. What we want is democratically to modify the Italian centralized state and transform it into a confederal state, using Switzerland as a model.” As an intermediate level between the regions and the nation, the party proposes a political structure that is analogous to the Swiss cantons: the three republics of the North, Center, and South. In fact, the party is organized on this basis throughout Italy, and the Lega Lombarda is now only the most powerful section of the Lega Nord.

I ask Bossi if he has any plans to counter the hostility of the press. The Italian papers and news magazines routinely print vicious caricatures of him that resemble World War II cartoons of General Tojo. Recently Bossi had lashed out at a news conference, describing journalists as “worms” that refuse to print the truth. “In Lombardia,” he insists, “the press does not present a serious obstacle, because here is where the Lega got its start, and the word has passed from house to house.” More generally, he says, the Italian press has made a fatal alliance with the political parties, and the various segments of the mass media represent specific economic and political interests. (In broadcasting, this “fatal alliance” is an official arrangement.) “There are, however, honest journalists who do not accept this logic. I am talking about Montanelli, although he does not exactly think like us.” (Montanelli, among the most celebrated journalists of postwar Italy, is the founder of the anticommunist Il Giornale.)

Bossi is right not to despair, even of the Italian press. As his popularity and influence grows, he is attracting more and more coverage, and despite the fairly uniform misreporting and editorial hostility, an occasional fairminded comment can appear. In May, the very establishment columnist Giorgio Bocca asked his readers in Espresso (the rough equivalent of Time): “Why has one Lombard in five voted for the Lega Lombarda? People say that a vote for the Leagues is a pro-northern, localist, egoistical, even racist vote. But the dimensions of the vote say something else. There is a rising ‘NO’ against the corrupt, arrogant, and conspiratorial oligarchy of the major parties, against the palace.” Even journalists cannot afford to ignore reality forever.

Most Italians think of the Leagues as a strictly Northern phenomenon, and I ask the senator if this notion of autonomy is applicable only to Italy (particularly Northern Italy) or if it is a universal ideology. To answer that, he looks back to the 19th century and the valid criticisms made by Marx. But the Marxists established governments that attempted to liberalize society by limiting the power of the great interests. Unfortunately, in pursuing these liberal ideals, Marxists sacrificed other, equally important liberal principles: personal and religious liberty, freedom of association, etc. Marxism was clearly in error, but the error is not simply the error of Marxist ideology. The really important error is the whole project of the centralized state. “What we are proposing, in contrast with this doctrine of centralization and the government controlled by great interests, is federalism and autonomy. This is not an ideology of class but of autonomy, an ideology of liberty, and, above all, of justice. . . . The Jacobin state of liberal centralization, which is an instrument of centralized power and the pawn of the great interests, is at this moment in a historic confrontation with the federal state that will replace it.”

Bossi envisions a new European community based on these principles of federalism and autonomy, and the twelfth and final point in the Lega’s program advocates “the construction of a Europe based on autonomy, federalism, respect and solidarity among all the peoples and thus between the Lombards and every other people.” This is something quite different from “World Federalism,” which seeks to empower an even higher level and more ruthless bureaucracy than we have now in Europe and the United States. Bossi’s vision is more like Chesterton’s, in The Napoleon of Notting Hill. A federal European community would respect the rights of individual nation states; more importantly it would represent not only an affirmation of historic nationalities and cultures but also a devolution of power down to the local and regional levels.

Up until a few years ago, this was easy to dismiss. By one of the larger ironies of the past several months, Bossi’s dream of a Europe confederated out of historic nationalities is no longer as impossible as it seemed until recently. The European Parliament is providing an opportunity for Scots, Bretons, and Lombards to meet each other, and there is something like an autonomist caucus taking shape in the parliament. European unity may, in the end, turn out to mean not world government but a resurgence of regionalism and ethnic nationalism.

I am suspicious of all and every universal ideology, and I wonder—as we eat a seven-course dinner at Da Tony just outside of Bellagio—if the Lega has not gone mad on ideology as well as on history. But after the first few glasses of wine are drunk and the polenta consumed, the talk switches from political systems to local gossip and that greater gossip that constitutes a nation’s history. One of the younger members makes the mistake of trying to drink the American under the table as we listen to a young man on crutches tell a series of stories in dialect that must be hilariously funny, because everyone is laughing. I can’t get a single word. As the dinner progresses from prosciutto to cheese tarts to risotto to rabbit to roast beef to salads and dessert, I am given language lessons and learn to say “nu” and “su” (pronounced in what sounds like a Swedish accent) instead of “no” and “si.” There is general hilarity at the crazy American’s attempts, as when older kids teach the kindergartner to say bad words.

In the next few days I spend attending party meetings and talking to members I give up any suspicion that these Lombards are really ideologues at heart. They are, as the old soldier described them, a plain hardworking people struggling to maintain some sense of who they are in a country, in a world that only wants them to “pay and shut up.” How unlike the United States.