Ben Worthy and Felia Allum analyse the legacy of Silvio Berlusconi, highlighting that in his leadership of a ‘personal party’, pioneering of the ‘politics of spectacle’, and many conflicts of interest he casts a long shadow over modern democratic politics.
Much of the time, when we talk about modern politicians, we are actually talking about Silvio Berlusconi. He created the lenses through which we look at many modern political leaders today; as personalities, as populists, and as media figures. While his death may, perhaps, represent the end of an era for Italy, his time in power marked the beginning of the breakdown of traditional, representative democracy.
For his imitators and successors, Berlusconi was a precursor in many ways. He was one of the first modern politicians to wipe away the traditional political party and its electoral machine, relying instead on his personality and the media to win votes. He placed himself squarely in the mould of strong leaders from Italy’s past, praising Mussolini on numerous occasions. In 2023, it’s hard not to think ‘We are all living in Berlusconi’s world now’.
Berlusconi was, in the historian Paul Ginsborg’s words, a ‘Statesman, salesman, superstar’. Since the 1980s as a media tycoon he shaped Italian culture through his TV channels and weaponised his vast wealth, celebrity and media control to catapult himself to the centre of Italian politics, where he stayed for four decades. He was the populist and the anti-politician, the charismatic media star supposedly reaching voters others couldn’t, and the performer who created endless spectacles instead of governing the country.
Many of the labels we habitually use now to describe modern politics stem from him: he was the ‘Presidential’ leader of the ultimate ‘personal’ party, he was a populist, who destroyed the established parties, values and standards. His approach and style live on everywhere, from Budapest to Mar-e-Lago, via, at least until last week, Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
What was it he did?
First, Berlusconi was one of the first modern leaders to head a ‘personal party’, a term coined by political scientist Mauro Calise, to explain what happens when personalised politics and non-traditional parties replaced ideology. As the supposedly successful entrepreneur, Berlusconi turned politics into a business, and simply promised to give voters, often directly and bluntly, the things that they wanted. If leadership is about ‘disappointing people at a rate they can stand’, then Berlusconi tried to buck the trend, offering everyone everything.
He offered a new economic miracle, a bridge to Sicily or, suddenly and without warning, the abolition of council tax in the dying moments of a TV debate. And it helped him win not once, but three times. Berlusconi bypassed and cut out traditional political parties and institutions, instead using his ownership of 3 TV channels and reputation as a ‘celebrity’ to try to reach voters directly, and censor and attack anyone who scrutinised him.
In 2001, Berlusconi signed a 5 -point personal contract with the Italian people, promising to resign if he achieved fewer than 4 of them (he didn’t, and he didn’t). Underneath his promises was, of course, a darker side. In true populist style, whenever his promises failed or nothing happened, it was because an ‘elite’, an unlikely coalition of immigrants, elites and communist judges, had stopped him.
Second, Berlusconi was a master of the ‘politics of spectacle’. Partly because of his extensive media control and his ownership of the football team AC Milan, but also partly because of his communication skills, he was the centre of all media coverage, star of his own videocracy.
Berlusconi seemingly blundered around creating controversy and continual conflict. He insulted opponents, threw around racist insults and denigrated women. As he did so, Berlusconi constantly broke down the fourth wall with moans, winks, gestures and bemused asides. For all the buffoonery, at the centre, as the author Tobias Jones pointed out, was a more calculated ‘martyr narrative’. In 2006 he claimed “I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”
Finally, more than most politicians ever dared, Berlusconi shamelessly breached, broke down and bludgeoned the long-established barriers between public and private interests. His conflicts of interest were extraordinary and more extensive than most, and he did nothing to limit them. Despite promising to resolve all his conflicts in his first 100 days, he continued to appoint, and involve himself with, the head of the RAI and his 3 TV channels.
He ruthlessly used his office to protect himself and advance issues that helped him, more blatantly than many dare, changing criminal law and reducing judicial power to protect himself, while erasing many boundaries around morality in public office, financial or otherwise.
However, the questions and scandal that dogged him grew worse and worse and the institutions he fought began to close in, through inquiries, investigations and vetoes. As other leaders in his mould are now learning, making everything about the leader has double-edged consequences. Voters and allies grew, eventually, tired of the constant corruption and lack of delivery, made worse by the financial turmoil of 2008 and Berlusconi’s unwillingness to act. Scandals eventually dragged Berlusconi down-and dragged him out of power, as he lost popularity and, crucially, the support of coalition partners.
Berlusconi leaves a tangible imprint on Italian democracy. His way of doing politics, and in particular his destruction of the power of traditional political parties, showed the way for the Matteo Renzi and Beppe Grillo, two leaders of unusual, personalised parties. He left a more bi-polar party system, and enabled the normalisation of the Far Right. His denigration of immigrants, his coalitions of right and far right and his grand promises of infrastructure spending all live on in Meloni’s government.
Beyond the Italian border, the key elements of his leadership style leave a model for modern personalised politicians elsewhere. Berlusconi’s premiership was a sustained assault on democratic institutions and values. While Trump and Johnson were still minor TV celebrities, Berlusconi sought to keep power not through governing, but by creating endless swirls of media spectacles, controversy and conflict. He refused to abide with election results, and denied responsibility, accountability and even the truth itself. He will cast a long shadow over modern democratic politics.