Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

My post last month offered some reflections on Professor Giovanni Orsina’s interesting observations, at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, about how the wide-ranging Clean Hands (mani pulite) investigations in Italy may have contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—first by creating a power vacuum, and second by contributing to the delegitimation of professional politicians and traditional political organizations. Today I want to pick up on another thread of Professor Orsina’s analysis, echoed and amplified by his co-panelist, the journalist Beppe Severgnini. Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini’s insight is that is that part of the secret to Berlusconi’s success – and the apparent willingness of many Italian voters to overlook his corruption and other misdeeds – is what for lack of better terminology I’ll call the “politics of absolution.” Here’s how Mr. Severgnini describes the phenomenon (see 57:34 on the video):

[A] populist plutocrat [like Berlusconi] is warm, empathetic, admits his sins – and forgives yours. It’s a very smart thing because he admits his huge sins, and he forgives your little sins…. [To] every shopkeeper who gave 50 Euros to the local policeman, … Berlusconi [said] “OK, don’t worry, this is not important.” … The smart thing, and the very subtle thing [is that by saying,] “I forgive you for those 50 Euros,” … in a way I buy your [acquittal of] me, [even though for me] it was 50 billion, not 50 Euro…. I forgive you the small things, so you forgive me for the big things – and maybe you vote for me. And that’s exactly the psychological trick, and it works extremely well.

Professor Orsina’s analysis is similar, emphasizing the contrast between Berlusconi’s forgiving, indulgent populism and what many voters perceived as the arrogant moralization of his chief opponents on the Italian left (at 45:20):

[The Italian left said to the voters,] “This is a corrupt country, this is a country that must be … corrected, … and we are those who can … teach the Italians how to behave.” Now, this was perceived as extremely arrogant…. On the other side, [Berlusconi] was saying, “Come on, guys! You are good! This is a great country…. I am in no position to tell you what to do…. What I want to do is to create the conditions for you to do what you want to do because what you want to do is good.” Of course there was no match…. Now, of course, when Berlusconi was telling the Italians, “You’re good, you can do whatever you want,” he was wrong. And when the left was telling the Italians, “We should behave better,” they were right…. [But] this [is] … why Berlusconi won the elections and the left lost.

I lack the expertise to assess, or even to intelligently discuss, whether this analysis of Italian politics is correct. But it strikes me as plausible, and moreover, if the diagnosis is accurate in this or other contexts, then understanding the politics of absolution may have at least two implications for efforts to combat corruption.

  • First, the politics of absolution suggests an important and perhaps underappreciated connection between so-called “grand” corruption and “petty” corruption. Many researchers have already observed that grand and petty corruption may be intertwined as part of a systematic corruption network. But the Berlusconi example suggests another kind of connection: When petty corruption is widespread – when many ordinary people have occasionally paid bribes, or done similar things like cheat on their taxes or operate their businesses without a license – it may be easier for grand corruption to flourish, in part because it is normalized (people may not like it but see it as “the way things are done in this country”), and in part they feel secretly or subconsciously relieved when senior officials implicitly tell them they’re not so bad. By contrast, when most people feel that they “play by the rules” in their own lives, they may feel even more resentful toward powerful actors who “cheat” or “rig the system.” This suggests a somewhat more optimistic spin on this same basic point: Working to root out petty corruption – something that even corrupt leaders may favor – can, in the longer term, make grand corruption less sustainable, as a new generation of citizens is less tolerant and less susceptible to the politics of absolution.
  • Second, the politics of absolution implies that even if voters dislike corruption – as poll after poll indicates is true in the vast majority of countries – this does not necessarily mean that “anticorruption” is a winning political issue, at least if those emphasizing anticorruption take a strident moralistic tone. This is particularly true in countries where corruption is widespread among ordinary citizens, many of whom feel (or at least try to convince themselves) that they’re basically good people caught in a bad system. If politicians and activists aren’t careful about their tone, then they can come across—inadvertently—as saying to many ordinary people, “You are bad.” And people don’t like to be told that they’re bad; they tend to resent it. There’s a connection here, I think, between the phenomenon that Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini describe in Italy, and the research, which I’ve posted about before, showing that well-intentioned anti-vote-buying campaigns in poor communities in the Philippines may have backfired, because the intended targets of those campaigns perceived the messages as condescending and insulting.

Now, before closing, I must acknowledge that there’s an obvious criticism of the suggestion that the politics of absolution is often an effective political strategy for insulating corrupt leaders from accountability. What about all the cases in which thousands of citizens have poured into the street to protest corruption? What about all of the examples where anticorruption, or other morally-tinged issues, have proved to have wide appeal, even (or perhaps especially) to voters who may themselves have participated at some point in their lives in corrupt systems? All that is right, and suggests that even though Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini may well have identified an important political phenomenon, we need to be careful not to exaggerate its effectiveness or its domain of applicability. That said, my instinct is that the politics of absolution is a genuine phenomenon, one that has implications for the political strategy of anticorruption advocates and others.

2 thoughts on “Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

  1. This was a great blog, Matthew! Thanks for sharing these perceptions, and from our Italian colleagues… I’m surprised you haven’t had more comments because I think these questions are crucial to ‘cracking the nut’ when it comes to making real progress against grand corruption, as opposed to just playing never-ending and ultimately unproductive games of political cat-and-mouse. Very fundamental.

  2. Pingback: Guest Post: Berlusconi and Corruption, Stability and Change | GAB | The Global Anticorruption Blog

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