After ruling Italy for most of the past 17 years, Silvio Berlusconi seems to have left office for good. But the questions raised by his rule remain. Severgnini, a prominent Italian columnist, has made a career of cross-cultural interpretation, explaining Italy to Anglophones and Anglo-Saxon life to Italians. He is a savvy and engaging writer, and this conversational book is a solid, if somewhat predictable, introduction to the Berlusconi saga. For all of Berlusconi’s faults -- indeed, in large part because of them -- he came across to many Italians as simpatico. The more he partied, acquired material possessions, and fooled around (while praising his family), the more people seemed to like him, at least up to a point. As prime minister, he exploited a remarkable knack for salesmanship and seduction. His professed religiosity and anticommunism tapped into a deep postwar conservative vein in Italy. The literate Italian public -- meaning those who regularly read newspapers and books, watch serious TV news, and browse the Web -- is surprisingly small, a trend exacerbated by Berlusconi’s control over the media. Normal checks and balances did not work, because the Italian legal process could neither convict him of corruption nor force him to divest himself of his media empire, and left-wing parties were too divided and bereft of new ideas to compete.
Viroli, a political philosopher, is less interested in explaining Berlusconi’s political longevity. Instead, he holds up Berlusconi’s success as a mirror, asking what it tells us about modern democratic societies everywhere. Viroli believes it calls into question the fashionable libertarian conviction that freedom alone is enough to optimize politics, the belief that the state should defend only “negative liberties,” leaving us alone to enjoy our property, opinions, and rights. That narrow conception of freedom is compatible with the enormous concentration of power, both public and private, that leads to a progressive debasement of public virtues and degenerate social behavior. A pervasive culture of lying and cynicism saps the active engagement of citizens in their communities. Individuals become sycophants, and politicians become manipulators. These are problems that infect not just Italy but all Western democracies, to varying degrees. That is the troubling lesson of Berlusconi.