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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Populist Plutocrats Conference–Video Available

Last Saturday, on September 23, Harvard Law School organized (in collaboration with the Stigler Center at the University of Chicago) a conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” which I previously advertised on this blog (see here and here). The event was video-recorded for those who are interested but were not able to attend in person. At the moment, the available video is a full, unedited recording, which you can find here (on the Stigler Center’s YouTube channel). We’re hoping to get the video edited and uploaded in a more convenient format soon, but for those who are interested, I’ll provide in this post the time locations for different sessions of the event:

I hope and expect that we’ll have some more posts in the coming weeks that reflect and engage substantively with some of the discussions at the conference, and in particular how they relate to issues of corruption and related topics, but for now I hope some of you will check out some of the video recording.


Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading