The Promise and Perils of Cleaning House: Lessons from Italy

In countries beset by endemic corruption, efforts to expose and root out corrupt networks, and to punish the participants, can and should be celebrated. There are, of course, always legitimate concerns about the role that political power struggles may play in anticorruption crackdowns (think China and Saudi Arabia), an issue we’ve discussed on this blog before (see here and here), and that I may turn to again at some point. But in today’s post, I want to put those issues to one side to focus on something different. Suppose that some combination of government investigation, citizen reports, and media scrutiny exposes a major corruption network. Suppose that even though people always suspected that corruption was all too common, the investigation reveals that the rot runs much deeper, and goes much higher, than most people had imagined. Suppose further that, as a result of these revelations, law enforcement agencies take aggressive action, putting many people in jail and causing many others to lose their government positions. Again putting aside for the moment concerns about political bias, this is all to the good. But, what happens “the morning after,” as it were?

The hope, of course, is that by “cleaning house,” the state will be able to turn over a new leaf; the “vicious cycle” of self-perpetuating corruption may be broken, and those corrupt officials disgraced and removed from power will be replaced by a new generation of cleaner (though of course not perfect) leaders. Unfortunately, while that’s one possible scenario, it’s not the only one. In his presentation at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, the Italian political scientist Giovanni Orsina used the Italian “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) investigation into widespread political corruption, and the subsequent rise of Silvio Berlusconi, to illustrate how, under the wrong set of circumstances, a well-intentioned and widely-celebrated corruption cleanup could contribute to the rise of a populist—and deeply corrupt—demagogue.

I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion on the validity of Professor Orsina’s analysis, and I gather that other analysts have a different view of the long-term impact of Clean Hands, but his arguments strike me as plausible and sufficiently important that they’re worth considering, not only as potential explanations for developments in Italian politics, but perhaps more importantly for their potential applicability (mutatis mutandis) to other cases. In particular, Professor Orsina identifies two related but distinct mechanisms through which an aggressive and seemingly-effective anticorruption crackdown can contribute to the rise of a populist demagogue like Berlusconi.

  • First, a sufficiently sweeping crackdown on corruption can create a power vacuum. As Professor Orsina put it in his remarks at the conference (at 42:24), as a result of the Clean Hands investigation, “all the historical parties from the center-right to the center-left in Italy – the governing parties, the parties that have governed Italy for decades – don’t exist any longer, because the judges have destroyed them. So a huge part of the electorate doesn’t have their historical reference points. They don’t know who they should vote for.” And Berlusconi was able to fill this vacuum, forming an alliance with the post-Fascists and the ethno-nationalist Northern League party. The main opposition to this new right-wing political force, Professor Orsina points out, consisted mainly of the post-Communists. But a combination of the traditional anti-communism of most Italian voters, coupled with a sense that the post-Communists were arrogant, moralizing hypocrites, made it easy for Berlusconi and his party to coast to victory. While this analysis is to some extent Italy-specific, but there seems to be a more general lesson here. Much as we might be tempted to celebrate a thorough root-and-branch attack on corrupt parties and political systems, there’s also a risk – if the existing political institutions and organizations are thoroughly destroyed or discredited – of creating a dangerous open space for more sinister political forces. That doesn’t mean that if politicians have committed crimes we should let them off the hook. It doesn’t mean we should tolerate the perpetuation of a corrupt system that works for the powerful but hurts ordinary voters. But it does mean is that reformers should be attentive to the need to preserve, build, or in some cases reconstruct institutions that can structure and channel political competition, and perhaps preserve a degree of political continuity and stability, even as anticorruption efforts are – rightly – driving corrupt leaders from power and disrupting entrenched corruption networks.
  • Second, and perhaps even more relevant to a wider range of countries and contexts, when investigations and prosecutions expose widespread corruption, the result in some cases can be a deepening of cynicism about politics and politicians – and about the ordinary, mundane, grubby process of governing. This cynicism can prove counterproductive if it makes citizens even less likely to participate in the political process. More worryingly, this increased cynicism about politicians can create more opportunities for self-styled “outsiders” or “anti-politicians” to achieve electoral success, often through demagogic appeals. Professor Orsina suggests that the Clean Hands campaign may have had this sort of effect, helping to open the door to Berlusconi. As he put it (see the video at 4:01), the Clean Hands investigations and the associated prosecutions contributed to “an utter deligitimation of politics, and professional politicians. It is impossible to understand why Berlusconi won the elections without looking at … the fact that politics – as a specific activity with its own rules, its own set of habits, and its autonomy – had been completely destroyed [by the Clean Hands prosecutions].” Again, Italy in the 1990s may be an extreme case in terms of the extent and broad impact of the anticorruption prosecutions. But the basic problem that Professor Orsina identifies is one that strikes me as having potentially much broader applicability: exposure of corruption can, under some circumstances, make citizens even more cynical about politicians – and perhaps, even if this cynicism is to some extent justified, it can make things worse, if it leads more citizens to disengage from the political process, or make them susceptible to snake-oil salesmen like Berlusconi, or those suggesting that the only way to fix the system is to burn it down.

Let me close by building on this latter point with an example that’s a bit closer to home for me, at least geographically. Six years ago, Sal DiMasi, the former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, was convicted of a number of federal crimes for his role in a large-scale corruption scheme involving millions of dollars in bribes, kickbacks, and misappropriation of state resources. At Mr. DiMasi’s sentencing, presiding Judge Mark Wolf remarked:

This case has been very dispiriting. It has demonstrated a recurrence of corruption in state government and a recurrence of that corruption at the highest levels of the state legislature. It will undoubtedly heighten public cynicism regarding public officials in the short run. However, I’d like to say that the case also shows, I believe, that the system … does work and something can be done to combat corruption…. The message in this case – from this case should not just be one of cynicism, but I believe also one of hope.

Judge Wolf nicely captures a fundamental tension or paradox with respect to the longer-term social and political impact of successful anticorruption prosecutions. On the one hand, study after study shows that citizens overwhelmingly dislike corruption in their governments, and they often cheer on aggressive efforts to uncover and punish corruption. Sometimes, especially where political corruption is widespread, a major corruption crackdown—one that topples figures previously thought untouchable—can inspire, as Judge Wolf says, a sense of hope. On the other hand, as Professor Orsina reminds us and as Judge Wolf acknowledges, there’s a risk that these cases end up producing more cynicism than optimism.

I’m not aware of much research that focuses specifically on the question of when, or under what conditions, anticorruption investigations and prosecutions are more likely to produce optimism – and associated desirable behaviors like greater engagement in the political process, greater likelihood of reporting corruption, etc. – and when they are likely instead to produce cynicism – and possibly, as a consequence, less political engagement, less trust, and grater susceptibility to demagogic appeals. But it strikes me that this is a question that deserves greater attention, given that the success of anticorruption campaigns should be measured not only by the penalties they impose in the short term, but also by their longer-term impacts on political institutions and culture.

4 thoughts on “The Promise and Perils of Cleaning House: Lessons from Italy

  1. Such a thinly-veiled call to arms (or to academic study) deserves an equally thinly-veiled response. The question you pose is interesting, indeed worthy of closer study. (I’ll put it on my list of things to do.)

    Italy is not, of course, the only country to have suffered this outcome. In Latin America alone, consider Brazil, where Lula’s electoral success (after many defeats) came in the wake of the Collor scandal. In Venezuela, Chávez Frías was elected after he attempted a coup d’etat against a president eventually convicted for corruption. Comedian Jimmy Morales became the president of Guatemala in the midst of a high-reaching corruption scandal. All three ran on more or less populist, anti-corruption platforms, and all three have faced at least allegations of corruption, themselves. Here in Mexico, where there is already a state vacuum despite strong party leadership, the front-runner for next year’s presidential race is a socialist-populist who has railed against the corruption of the main parties for decades, so your question hits especially close to home for me. If he wins, how can we avoid a further downward spiral?

    One factor that gives me hope is the increasing role of civil society. A plethora of pro-governance NGOs has flourished in the last decade. These have pushed for legal reforms, including the creation of a National Anti-corruption System (This may or may not prove to be effective, but more on that in another post.) and a law that requires all elected officials–and candidates–and public servants to publish their income, assets, and conflicts of interest (this passed only in some states, but represents an improvement over what is required in the United States). At the same time, the press–relatively free from censorship but somewhat dependent on the parties–has exposed case after case of corruption. If López Obrador wins, the fact that he is not supported by either of the major parties means that he and his will be held more accountable. In short, in Mexico this election is taking place at a time of increasing political/democratic engagement. However, as in the countries already mentioned, a win by López Obrador would create a surge of expectation that would be difficult to fulfill even by the best-intentioned government with a majority in Congress, let alone a possibly corrupt government opposed by a corrupt Congress (hypothetically speaking).

    At the heart of your question is this: what causes cynicism and disengagement vs. engagement and proactive democracy? I suspect that the main factors would be the level of law and order already existing, the level of perceived corruption (you’ve written on that before), economic inequality, the concentration of economic power, and to what extent people see democracy as not only access to rights, but also a responsibility.

  2. Pingback: The Promise and Perils of Cleaning House: Lessons from Italy | Matthews' Blog

  3. Excelent post! Wherever corruption is deeply ingrained in institutions, the exposure of evildoings risks unintentionally undermining the legitimacy of institutions themselves.

    Once again, it is possible to identify similarities between the Mani Pulite (in Italy) and the Lava Jato (in Brazil) investigations. Polls show that, after Lava Jato, the credibility of institutions such as Political Parties, Congress and even the Presidency has sunk, whereas the armed forces gained credibility and are currently by far the most trusted institution in Brazil [1].

    Even though a military coup remains highly unlikely, the overall cynicism towards the traditional political players is certainly a major reason why Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist with close ties to the militaries, is doing dangerously well in the polls for the presidential election in 2018.

    The question – which definetely deserves more attention from researches – is how can one fight corruption while at the same time preserving the trust in institutions.


  4. Perhaps this is an issue with the prevalent Westphalian model of state governments, and an answer might lie in how several jurisdictions have promoted further fragmentation of political and other power within state structures? The jurisdictions where this ‘vacuum’ most often follows is where that decentralization is absent, I would think, and suggests some degree of correlation.

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