Italy experienced a revolutionary election on March 27, 1994, an election in which many Italian voters could make a difference. This mood of optimism and engagement stood in stark contrast to the many elections that have left Italians so disillusioned in recent years—local administrative elections, national elections to two houses of Parliament, and even international elections for the European Parliament, to say nothing of referenda.

There are several reasons for this growing estrangement from the electoral process, but in fundamental terms, Italian society (i.e., the real country) has separated from the political class (the legal country). The case of Italy reveals the paradox of modern democracy, in which the ruling class ends up constituting a nomenclatura far removed from the real problems and needs of the average citizen. Voter apathy is a common problem within the West, but Italian apathy is aggravated by the knowledge that Italy has been ruled, since World War II, by the Christian Democrats (DC). Even if the DC did accomplish its mission—stopping the great communist threat in 1948—the DC has failed to give birth to a sound government based on its “Christian inspiration.” On the contrary, the DC has smoothed the way toward national secularization and made it possible for subversive radicalism to advance at a steady pace, despite the fact that Italy is still a Christian and “conservative” nation. At the very least, the DC allowed this process to grow. It let the radicals and the communists gain part of the cultural and political power in the country, even if they never actually ruled the country (they came very close, when a coalition government between DC and the Communist Party was to be established by Giulio Andreotti and Enrico Berlinguer, in the second half of the 1970’s). The DC also invited the Italian Socialist Party (PSI)—a sort of liberal and technocratic group under Bettino Craxi—to share power in the 1980’s and allowed liberals and radicals to take over journals, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, TV channels, and the academy.

When the Berlin Wall collapsed, many of the falling bricks hit the heads of Italy’s rulers. The DC, no longer needed to oppose the Italian Communist Party (PCI)—which was fueled by Moscow—has been sent packing, only to be pursued by revelations of bribery and corruption through the so-called tangentopoli investigation. Two years of covert investigations resulted in indictments and convictions that shook the ruling parties: this is why, all of a sudden, the DC and PSI disappeared from the public scene. But not the communists, who have been clever enough to revive their public image by riding the tiger of mani pulite, “clean hands”—the new ideology of “public honesty.” (Mani pulite is also the name of the judicial investigation that uncovered the “great robbery and bribery swindle,” but the phrase has come to mean much more.) The former PCI became the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS) and sailed through the storm of tangentopoli. Everyone seems to have forgotten that, thanks to consociativism (collaboration between the ruling party and the opposition), communists had actually joined—albeit indirectly—the Italian ruling class. So, untouched, renewed, and empowered by the November/December 1993 elections, PDS came to lead an electoral coalition called the “Progressives,” a huge alliance ranging from red hard-liners to ecologists, who were able to win the mayoral elections in most towns.

Rome itself witnessed a direct confrontation between Francesco Rutelli (a “green”) and Gianfranco Fini, leader of Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), thanks to the new majoritarian electoral law. On the eve of the vote in Rome, Silvio Berlusconi entered the arena by publicly saying that if he had been in Rome, he would have voted for Fini. The declaration was greeted by a great roar in the press. Until that moment Berlusconi was a powerful private manager, owning firms, newspapers, and three TV channels. Fini was the leader of what is often dismissed as a neofascist party, and for this he has been banished from the “respectables.”

The history of the MSI is too long to be told here, but one point is crucial. Since the liberal press has constantly warned against the potentially totalitarian element in Italian politics, many good-willed foreigners, out of ignorance, have been alarmed by MSI’s growing popularity. As a party the MSI was too complex for easy definition; even if neofascist nostalgia was one of the elements, the party, since the 1970’s, has tried to build a broad “national right-wing” alliance (the complete name of the party in fact is MSI-DN, Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale) of diverse elements—traditionalists, conservatives of various stripes, monarchists and so on, not all of them at home with fascism. Moreover, the “Final and Transitorial Dispositions” of the Italian Constitution made it illegal to reorganize the fascist party under any form. The mere fact of MSI’s legal existence indicated a public, albeit tacit, recognition that it was not an actual neofascist party.

Fini lost the 1993 election, and Rome still has its “green” mayor (Giulio Andreotti, who, famous for his sarcastic humor, used to say that environmentalists are just like tomatoes: as they ripen they turn from green to red). But something happened. What seemed to be a sure leftist (i.e., neocommunist) victory in the subsequent spring elections was thwarted by an outsider, Berlusconi.

In less than three months he was able to put together a party (Forza Italia) whose principal base of support comes from local civic groups opposed to the left. Working hard, Beriusconi succeeded in forging a strange coalition with his two major quarreling allies. The first is the Lega Nord (a kind of libertarian, federalist movement based mainly in Northern Italy, which Chronicles readers have heard about from its editor), while the second is the MSI. Better to say the former MSI, since the party has been transformed into a broader right-wing coalition, the Alleanza Nazionale (AN). Cutting all ties with any remnants of fascism, the clever Fini is putting together a sort of rightist (in the United States it would be called “conservative”) party opposed to so-called Progressivism and dedicated to rebuilding the nation both morally and politically.

In March 1994, Beriusconi’s coalition won the elections, defying all predictions and canceling the hopes of many big-business liberals, who were ready to jump on the neocommunists’ bandwagon. Since then, the reconstructed DC (whose present name is Partito Popolare Italiano, or PPI) and the Progressives have had their ups and downs, especially the neocommunists—they held on to much of the power they already enjoyed, so that they could challenge Prime Minister Berlusconi and stall his programs. The coalition in Parliament—as Angelo Codevilla has described it, a sort of “Reagan Coalition, Italian Style,” including libertarian, traditionalist, nationalist. Christian, neoconservative, and anticommunist branches, plus a small but influential number of liberal-libertines—with its nonprogressive base of voters fed up with years of leftist misrule, now calls for economic reform. As during the Reagan years in the United States, this is the result of a “quasi-hidden” silent majority. The similarity does not end here, since in Italy, as in America, the dispossessed opposition in Parliament (Congress) has stirred up a ferocious attack on the Prime Minister with the support of the liberal press.

Two observations on this comparison. The first is that the parallel itself ends here. In many respects, Italy has experienced the opposite trend to the one in the United States. America has seen the growth of a conservative popular consensus and the emergence of a more serious alliance of right-wing scholars and intellectuals. What made the Reagan and Buchanan coalitions possible was a public grounded in American tradition. Italy, at least since World War II, seems to have forgotten its roots, and its identity as a conservative Catholic country. The history of the cultural conflict with the Catholic Church is another topic that would lead us far afield, but the results are still visible today. He who misunderstands history mistakes present-day policy. If we fail to grapple with the Risorgimento (the long historical and ideological process that led to national independence and unity in the 19th century) and its aftermath—the “reconstruction” of Italian people when the heirs of the Jacobins won the war against traditional Italians—we will never build a sound “conservative” alliance to rule the country. And any reforms will be superficial.

But even if we have lost our memory, the March 1994 elections are a small sign of hope. I do not trust elections or “new governments” as such, but the dynamics of the spring vote are highly relevant. Berlusconi was able to forge a winning national party because he was clever enough to poll the attitudes throughout Italy. He actually asked people about their hopes, needs, and feelings. It was on the survey results that he built his winning agenda.

This is obviously a dangerous way to conduct polities, since it can slip into a tyranny of the masses. But the opinions have been constructive, and Italians have displayed a common sense that seems almost unbelievable in the age of television. They asked for less government, private enterprise, sound values, and they affirmed the traditional Italian principles of family and religion. This is why, nowadays, Gianfranco Fini is becoming the most popular political leader in the country (as Berlusconi himself recognizes and other allies fear), and not only in the Center and the South of the country, while Bedusconi holds his position and Bossi’s Lega Nord has its own problems (an internal feud and deteriorating public opinion after Bossi’s continuing attack against AN, Forza Italia, and the government of which his own party was a pillar). Fini, in fact, seems to personify exactly the agenda that Italians expressed in Berlusconi’s polls, or at least he gives the impression that he is the one who can best advance it.

Berlusconi’s government could have been one of the last political chances for Italy. Its enemies—the leftists—knew this, and they did everything they could to block its way. At home, the “Reagan Coalition, Italian style” had to guard itself against both a split in its coalition, as happened to the conservative alliance in the United States after Reagan, and the many George Bushes and James Bakers that could jump out of the top hat.

While Italians still fear this, a final split within the government coalition (the second threat) eventually came, thanks to Bossi. After months of attacks from the oppositions in Parliament (Roceo Buttiglione’s PPI and the Progressives, led by Massimo D’Alema’s PDS), combined with growing though “indirect” hostility from the judiciary—and the combative media—Bedusconi resigned on December 22.

Deprived for months of the support of his former ideologue, Gianfranco Miglio, who left the Lega and became an independent member of Parliament in support of Berlusconi’s government, Bossi saw in PDS and PPI new horses to ride. For the first time in its history, there were significant protests against its leader by pro-government leghisti (some 30 members of Parliament led by Senator Marcello Staglieno, while Minister of the Interior Roberto Maroni, a leghista, seemed to play on both Bossi’s and Berlusconi’s sides) who wished to conserve what has been called the “Pole of Liberties and of Good Government” (Berlusconi’s network of coalitions). Curiously enough, Bossi always denounced PLOS as the heir of gigantic communist statism, and PPI as the heir of a corrupted and statist DC—issues later forgotten.

Note that with the new majoritarian electoral law (though imperfect, Italian style), Italians voted for a precise government and not for parties responsible for making and unmaking alliances at a later date with no respect for the will of the voters. Unable to form a new majority in Parliament and fearing the popular response (their programs being so different), the Lega, PPI, and PDS invented a “technical” government ruled by a man super partes, also called “government of the President” because the Prime Minister would be chosen by this institutional chief. That is a gentle way of upsetting the popular votes, thus advancing the most dangerous, clever, and seasoned of the oppositions—PDS. Berlusconi’s alliance presented its call for new elections as a way to observe the rule of democracy (which I do not think is the avatar of any Absolute Spirit, but which is the system ruling Italy and thus has to be respected by people mouthing its rhetoric).

While PPI’s Roberto Formigoni tried to distinguish himself from the PDS-PPI coalition (a love affair sponsored by L’Alema and Buttiglione, but highly criticized by the Italian bishops), President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, who is supposed to act as a man above the parties out of respect for the Constitution, actually played (to say the least) a more ambiguous role. Born a Christian Democrat and elected by Parliament prior to the March 27 election, the president appears to be tied to “palace politics”—a way of molding and kneading a lust for power in the old DC custom by using moderate votes to give de facto power to the left, regardless of the will of the voters. As the major threat, PDS applies the old political rule of divide et impera, dividing Berlusconi’s coalition and thus completing the strategy of solve et coagula—making, unmaking, using, and destroying alliances (PPI and Lega) for the sake of power and ideology.

History is on the run in Italy, and every day brings something new. But regardless of what happens by the time this article is published, one thing is sure: Berlusconi’s government—”The Reagan Coalition, Italian Style”—despite its mistakes and inadequacies, was salutary for this country and indicated a way of reform. It may only have been a first step in a long run, but if we turn away from this path, or something similar, the future will be grey and dangerous. Reconstruction, restoration, and counterrevolution are long and slow processes, not unlike subversion, deconstruction, and revolution. To turn back a 50-year tide is tantamount to going forward, for in the words of G.S. Halifax in his Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections, “the best Qualification of a Prophet is to have a good Memory.” We must look deeper into our national past, which we will be able to do only after resolving the present Sea of Troubles and defeating the still mounting wave of liberal progressivism.