There is a tradition in American journalism that makes it very hard to take Italian politics seriously. Even when themes of ethnic contempt are decently hidden, the comic motifs remain. Metaphors of operatic postures, political deals as tangled as spaghetti, and the public's sunny indifference make the Fascism of Mussolini, the nearly fifty years of the Italian republic, and the current government all sound much alike—always unstable and corrupt. Miraculously, this impression is sustained by its own erroneousness. Proven dangerously wrong by Fascism's contribution to world war, by a Communist party that terrified many a cold warrior and influenced the left throughout Europe, by a nearly unequaled economic miracle, and by fifty years of remarkable democratic stability since 1946, the familiar images work as well as ever. Predictions disproved became evidence that Italy was volatile. Disasters that did not occur—like traffic less lethal than it looks, free flowing wine with little drunkenness, seductive men who prove harmless by the second date, or Venice forever sinking and still gorgeous—merely demonstrated that sober Anglo-Saxons misinterpret Italian frivolity. Against all this, those who use English and are informed about Italian affairs have for a generation had to insist over and over that Italy is a prosperous modern nation, that Italians care a lot about politics, and that each cabinet change is not really a "crisis" of the system. Now it is doubly hard to make the point that the current crisis is real, that its outcome matters, and that we have reason to be concerned.

    To understand the current political situation, two general points about Italy since World War II need to be kept in mind. Each runs counter to impressions that remain widespread, even while leaving room for some familiar clichés. Italy has enjoyed fifty years of economic growth, at a rate no other industrial nation can match for so long a period. In that time the Italian Republic was marked by a political stability so firm that it might better be called rigidity.

    Such economic growth was necessarily accompanied by great social change and dislocation. The taste and social graces for which Italian culture is renowned provide no immunity to vulgarity and ostentation, and every excess associated with the nouveau riche elsewhere, including the United States in the 198Os, has its exuberant Italian versions visible in villas, Lamborghinis, cellular phones, and corruption. The differences between North and South, an important strain in Italian life since unification, remain. The South has prospered, too (and its per capita income is well above that of Portugal, Ireland, or the poorer districts of England), but much of its economy depends on government subventions and social payments. For more than a generation southerners have moved away in search of work, primarily to Northern Italy, where they have tended to congregate in crowded urban districts, whose crime-ridden denizens are easily victimized by prejudice that labels them ignorant and slovenly. Italy's economic life has been more unusual, however, in the extensive role its government has played. Through government-run holding companies (a Fascist legacy), the state has directly controlled a larger part of the total economy in Italy than in any other non-communist society.

    Political stability throughout the Republic's history was the result of a multi-party political system dominated by the Christian Democrats who sat in every government, usually held a majority of the cabinet posts, and more often than not had the prime ministership. Adjustments to subtle shifts in thin parliamentary majorities were accommodated by frequent changes of government, but stability followed from continuity in the makeup of cabinets, in which many of the same figures served year after year. Thus while most governments lasted less than a year, the same people served over and over as ministers (for any given period, Italy has had, for example, fewer ministers of foreign affairs than the United States has had Secretaries of State).

    Weak governments and a long-lived political class increased the importance of the power of an expanding bureaucracy and the autonomous power of political parties. Smaller parties especially benefitted from the need for delicately balancing slim majorities, which followed from the practice of excluding the second largest party, the Italian Communist Party, from all governments. Each party had its constituency, and its popular vote rarely varied by more than a few percentage points from election to election. The parties got along with each other (and here the practice included the Communists) by dividing up government posts and expenditures for services, by allocating appointments to and contracts let by government-dominated industries, and by extending their influence into university appointments and the entertainment industry. Thus businesses carefully divided their accounts among publications and advertising agencies associated with the Christian Democrats, the Communists, and the Socialists; and entertainers, by joining one of the major parties, assured their access to a particular set of concert halls across the nation.

    In this system, elections were exciting, expensive affairs, marked more by great rallies and brilliant posters than real debates, that culminated in extraordinarily high voter turnout. Parties, more than candidates, were the issue, and policies were presented in general, indeed delphic, terms wrapped in skillful rhetoric that indicated attitudes and direction with few specific commitments. Parliamentary discussions were vigorous, often of high quality, sensitive to public opinion, and even influential; but decision-making and the continuous negotiations among parties (and within their many factions) took place largely behind closed doors. This was a system that worked by rewarding subtle maneuver and complicated compromise. If it favored postponing difficult issues, it could often regroup to deal with them effectively; but it was a system no one could love and few were willing to defend. Policies and relative party strengths did glacially reflect social change, and the rumors of private deals and corruption may have been more imagined than actual behavior.

    To succeed in this system, parties needed some able leaders (and there were many), but most of all they needed vast organizations to sustain local branches that maintained an enormous array of social activities and publications aimed at every segment of society. All this required elaborately maintained networks of direct and indirect patronage and, above all, money. At the peak of the Cold War, the Christian Democrats benefitted from funds from the United States and from its connections to the Catholic Church in addition to more public sources, and the Communists relied on significant subsidies from the Soviet Union. The electoral rivalry of these parties of skillful propagandists was for forty years the backbone of electoral politics. Gradually the Socialists and to a lesser extent smaller parties, got into the game. With glasnost, however, the sources of declining foreign support dried up; and parties turned more and more to other devices. In a booming economy, parties could use their patronage and their power to influence licenses and contracts in exchange for sizable contributions from large enterprises, foreign and domestic. Such gifts were prohibited by law, however (there was some truth to the comment that the difference between political bribery in Italy and in the United States was that in Italy it was illegal). As vast sums flowed into secret party coffers, a growing portion stuck to the hands of the party leaders who arranged for them.

    This was the political system—one of weak governments that sustained the status quo in which a high degree of participation and public awareness produced only limited response—that was suddenly swept away in the aftermath of the fall of communism. Italy, with the largest communist party outside the communist sphere, experienced the greatest political collapse of any non-communist country. For some time it looked, however, as if Italian politics would once again meet a looming crisis in the nick of time. The old system had clearly been eroding, and pressures for change were rising. The modernizing economy had become intolerant of the inefficient, sluggish, and self-interested bureaucracy. Entrepreneurs were increasingly, and the newly rich noisily, restive over high taxes. New waves of immigrants from Africa triggered resentments and fears that fed intolerance, including incidents of racist violence from small neo-fascist gangs. An economic downturn (during much of which Italy's slow growth rate remained higher than that of any European country) coupled with restructuring to create rising unemployment and increased demands for action of just the sort governments found most difficult.

    Then independent magistrates, almost by accident, began uncovering the widespread practice of graft, undermining the feeble legitimacy of the entire regime as the judicial discoveries extended from industry to industry and nearly every party, although the Christian Democrats and Socialists remained the most heavily implicated. Significantly, the public response was one of civic outrage, and the demand for reform became irresistible. Characteristically, Italian politics did attempt a kind of house cleaning. An interim government began to tackle the budget deficits that decades of growth had tolerated, and a new electoral system designed to favor single-member constituencies was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum. The new law was intended to favor local candidates rather than parties, to weaken the national stranglehold of parties, and to guarantee strong and stable majorities. Firmer measures against corruption and against mafia violence were supported on all sides. The Communist party, which decades before had in effect become a social democratic party critical of eastern European communism, seemed poised to benefit from its record of probity. With some pain, it even abandoned the communist label to become the Party of the Democratic Left (PDS). Without communism to oppose, the Christian Democrats lost the raison d'etre that had held together a broad coalition of interests ranging from progressive to reactionary; and it, too, reformed and changed its name. Italy had apparently established the basis for a more responsive democracy.

    Elections this spring were intended, and expected, in effect to certify this transformation and propel it into new and lasting political forms. Opinion polls showed clearly that the majority of Italians were centrists and that the left was strong. Instead, three new elements, taking advantage of the public mood, led to a more uncertain result. First, like eastern European countries holding their first free elections, Italians faced ballots in which there were almost no familiar parties. The Communist party was gone, its members divided between the PDS and a smaller, militant wing loyal to the old symbols. The Christian Democrats were gone, replaced by three heirs with vaguely differing programs; and there were parties that focused on opposition to the mafia, on environmental issues, and general reform. The electoral system would exact a high price for such multiple parties, as it was designed to do, but it had not yet discouraged them from trying to gain a place in the political arena.

    Second, other new parties proved far more dynamic and inventive. This was a political campaign unlike any other Italy had ever seen, although Americans would have found its worst aspects familiar. The Northern League had grown in support over the last decade on a program that denounced the government in Rome as southern, inefficient and corrupt. Its dynamism came, however, from the daring of its erratic leader, Umberto Bossi, who had made a career of saying out loud things that it had not been respectable to say. He denounced welfare expenditures and subsidies to the South and (inaccurately) claimed that the North paid proportionally more in taxes and received less. More important, he did this with unpredictable turns that captured headlines and with an often witty and direct speech that played to covert prejudice and that was deliciously unprecedented in the courtly rhetoric of Italian politics. In addition, the neo-Fascists took on new life. A small party isolated on the fringe of public life, they had relied on muffled appeal to an aging nostalgia for the old regime to win support that was always less than seven percent of the vote. Their new leader, Gianfranco Fini, presented a different image, for he looks like a well-dressed businessman and sounds like a responsible reformer (except for moments of candid praise for Mussolini as a great statesman and affectionate gestures toward skinheads). Most important of all was the sudden candidacy of Silvio Berlusconi, a familiar media billionaire and one of the most personable of Italy's extremely wealthy self-made men. His movement, carefully not called a party, was named after the Forza Italia slogan of the national soccer team (many of whose stars play for the Milan team that Berlusconi owns-along with the principal private television networks, several influential newspapers, and a major publishing house, among other interests). Presenting himself as the very symbol of change, Berlusconi mounted an American-style, media-savvy campaign, recruiting grassroots supporters (often small businessmen and professional people) in every city and town. While the PDS bravely and dully spoke of the need for cutting expenditures and raising taxes, Berlusconi promised prosperity and reduced taxes, talked of a government of experts devoid of politicians, and warned against the dangers of renascent communism.

    Third, the electoral system proved a decisive change. It allotted two-thirds of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies to candidates with the most votes on the first ballot, however far they were from a majority, The votes cast would have produced a parliament very different from its predecessor, even under the old system. In this parliament, however, the overwhelming majority of the new deputies have never before sat in a representative body. Whereas in the past, the Italian Chamber almost exactly reflected the votes won by each party, even the smallest, the new Chamber only loosely reflects aggregate votes. Forza Italia, the neo-Fascists, and the Northern League, with some minor allies, command a firm majority in the Chamber. The electorate was less decisive. Berlusconi's Forza Italia won just 21 percent of the votes (slightly more than Ross Perot in the United States); the neo-Fascists won 13.4 percent (the biggest single surprise of the election), and the Northern League more than 8.4 per cent. On the other side, the PDS held onto 20.4 percent of the votes, a good showing although their rather tired and old-fashioned campaign had failed to win much new support. The additional disappointment for the left was that all the other parties on the left garnered only 9 percent. The three parties of the center won 17.5 percent, but the largest of them, the Popular Party which is the direct descendant of the Christian Democrats, had only 11 percent. The political transformation, then, rests here: with the weakness of the old center and old non-communist left and on the strength of three new parties that have formed the government. Great as it was, the change in voter patterns was not so great as the change in government it brought about.

    Berlusconi proceeded with remarkable skill and clear-eyed cynicism to form a majority with the Northern League and the neo-Fascists. Despite constant carping, they have held together, the neo-Fascists grateful for their sudden rise to respectability, the Northern League afraid to risk another election after the disappointing results of this one. So far, the government has not tackled any of the serious problems Italy faces. Berlusconi has instead concentrated on consolidating power, moving most decisively to gain control of the secret services and the state-owned television and radio networks. Several times, his majority has threatened to fall apart, most dramatically when he issued a decree restricting the independent power of the magistrates investigating corruption. Their heavy use of preventive detention has kept the investigations unfolding. When arrested and imprisoned, corporate officers and politicians have chosen to talk to win their release, revealing how much they had paid in bribes and to whom. The device does, as Berlusconi suddenly noticed, raise real issues of civil rights; and the timing of some of the arrests suggests a troubling awareness of their political effect. Berlusconi, however, was not convincingly cast as a defender of civil liberties, especially as it became known that his brother, a major officer in Berlusconi's holding company, was the next to be called in. The Prime Minister was forced to back down (with his partners joining the opposition in denouncing his measure), and his brother has since confessed that their company kept a huge slush fund for bribing officials.

    That is where things stand during the August recess. The coalition remains together, its frequent announcements to that effect a reminder of its fragility. The imminent need to address substantive issues will strain it even further. Still, Berlusconi has shown considerable skill, and he may hold on to his majority. If the government falters, more drastic and dangerous steps are easy to imagine. The more likely outcome would be another set of elections. Although the government parties would be likely to lose significant support, the left does not yet show signs of the leadership or program to do more than make marginal gains. Thus the outcome would depend very much on the emergence of a stronger center to take part of the place long held by the Christian Democrats. These parties of the center could tip the balance toward a center-left coalition or, less likely, support a restructuring of Berlusconi's coalition. Either choice might lead to the kind of essentially two-party system the electoral reforms envisioned; yet all that depends on the grace with which some or all the members of the current coalition would abandon office.

    Right now, Italian politics really are volatile, and there is a crisis. The last time the Italian political system had to deal with the collapse of the established party system and the upheaval accompanying new mass parties (then the Socialists and the Catholics), at the end of World War I, Italy invented Fascism, which proved to have wide appeal from Portugal, Spain, and Belgium, to Hungary and Romania. That history need not repeat. The more immediate danger lies in the disillusionment with democracy itself and with the possibility of meaningful reform. That is now an added burden for all Italian politicians on top of the economic and social issues still to be faced. Whatever the Fascists stand for, it is not democracy and pluralism, and the fact remains that they now share power in one of the world's richest nations. Newer and poorer democracies are certainly watching, and everyone else has reason to.

    Americans, too, can find much to ponder in a political process that allows sound bites and media slogans to drown out most serious political discussion; in which party discipline and ideological coherence are easily lost despite a long tradition; in which resentment of budget deficits and taxes and distrust of government is mobilized by mean-spirited rhetoric against poorer regions, minorities, and foreigners; and in which a wealthy maverick can use his fortune and media skills to run against the establishment while in fact remaining well connected to it. Italian politics today have a significance that extends beyond its borders or those of the European Union. Whether we watch gloomily or with hope, we would do well to break with tradition and take current events in Italy seriously, even from across the ocean.

    Raymond Grew is Professor of History at the University of Michigan.