Italy: life is politics, democracy is serious

Democracy Italian Style, by Joseph LaPalombara. New Haven: Yale University Press. 308 pp. $25. Most visitors to Italy prefer not to take it seriously. They pursue their dalliances with villas in the Tuscan hills. They revive dimmed sensibilities among Italy's art troves. They seek to be humored by the uncomplicated cucina Italiana - in all, to nap in Italy's sun.

But it would be a pity to remain a stranger in Italy - even though this condition of being an outsider, an alienation, is one that even the Italians share. A Dante, in exile, writing a Divina Commedia that describes the warring political factions and families, a philosophical, religious, and artistic universe, must invent a Virgil who can explain it all to him, to the point where inspiration can take over.

Yale University political scientist Joseph LaPalombara would not likely make himself out to be a Dante or a Virgil, and yet he has written a useful guide to the modern Italian state - ``Democracy Italian Style'' - that peels away the platitudes about Italy and explains the ironies of the Italians' own views toward their country.

These ironies abound: The Italian Communist Party, dedicated to recasting Italy's political institutions, nonetheless at critical moments comes to their rescue. Italians profess indifference to politics; still they go to great lengths to make an accounting at the polling booths on election day. National governments in Italy seem as ephemeral as fruit flies; yet each new government appears largely to re-create its predecessor, or the one before that, with minimal substantive change, whatever the appearance of instability.

Italians identify with the spectacle of public life. They have a term for it - spectacolo. Life is politics. They disdain and yet follow avidly the shortcomings of la classe politica, those in public life who write and speak the peculiarly florid rhetoric of officialdom.

``Members of the Italian political class,'' LaPalombara writes, ``are masterful manipulators of words; they rarely talk or write themselves into blind alleys; they make of wisdom and the instinct to survive instruments that keep in check a more primeval urge to humiliate one's opponents. Most of them practice, to wholesome effect, what Machiavelli preached: a defeated political enemy must be either utterly destroyed or (cautiously!) turned into an ally.''

The Italian piazza, where up to a million people can gather in cities like Bologna or Rome, is the setting for the political spectacle. The mass media, particularly television, play their part. If not carrying political speechifying like so many football scrimmages, the media take up national incidents and wring from them every political nuance. At the same time, an underlying pragmatic social contract is in force: The national business carries on as usual, without interruption in the legislative flow, when outwardly the political leadership appears under duress.

Italy suffers from partyocracy - a surfeit of political groups which alienates voters. Italians know that power and influence still reside in the hands of a relatively few families, as was the case before their modern democracy was founded at the end of World War II. They know northerners run the private industrial sector while southerners control the national bureaucracy. After millennia of exploitation by conquerers, up to the recent Fascist madness, they avoid contact with the state at all costs. Add to this, Italians resist change. They are suspicious of one another's motives.

And yet almost everyone votes in Italy - typically 9 out of 10. On election day Italians hasten to their home precincts throughout the peninsula to take part in the Big Spectacle - in what LaPalombara depicts as a mass affirmation of individual identity.

Like Mussolini, the stereotypes about Italy deserve to be stood on their head. Surely there is reason to learn the Italian language and to appreciate the drama beyond the threshold to which LaPalombara takes us.

Richard J. Cattani, the Monitor's Editorial Page editor, has lived in Italy.

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