We’re all critical of the leaders of our time: Obama let us down, Merkel isn’t Adenauer, and Hollande and Cameron are just pale copies of Monsieur Mitterrand and Lady Thatcher.
Meanwhile, in Italy, in front of the disappointing batch of candidates for national elections, nostalgia runs deep for figures of the past from Christian Democrat leader Aldo Moro to Communist Party chief Enrico Berlinguer.
If the current polls are correct, the Democratic Party’s Pierluigi Bersani should come out ahead, though he will rely on support from interim centrist Prime Minister Mario Monti and others. Silvio Berlusconi, after 20 years in politics, still has a solid block of around 25% support together with the Northern League, proving that his comeback was not made of “plastic.” Either way, comedian-turned-political activist Beppe Grillo is expected to garner enough support to be a significant and unpredictable force in Parliament. His Five-Star Movement has benefited from the inability of Monti’s government to tackle corruption or produce a reasonable reform of the electoral law.
As much as one would like to forget, our leaders get where they are because we voted them there. We pretend to forget that, if they’re not up to scratch, it’s everybody’s fault – the entire ruling class: managers, businessmen, unions, academics, artists, bankers. There isn’t a profession that isn’t using all its force to defend its own privileges and the status quo.
The price of bitterness
It could appear that the “weak” leaders of our generation are a result of a country that has lost the value of the shared community. But one thing is sure; whoever wins the Italian elections will have to find the right tone to communicate with the people. It’s the same problem that David Cameron faces with a UK that wants to leave Europe, as well as with a Scotland that wants to leave the UK. Spain’s Mariono Rajoy, who is down 10% in the polls, has the same situation with the Catalans who want independence from Spain; and Francois Hollande has become a disappointment to the French as quickly as did Nicolas Sarkozy.
In an Italy, as well as a Europe, that isn’t getting any younger, the people look to the past – to the years of the economic boom, sexual liberation and peace – with a personal and political nostalgia. The young Italians look at the ballot boxes with bitterness because they have been hurt by this economic crisis and have neither the means of their peers in America to innovate, nor the enthusiasm to create a new political movement.
Yet, in the end, bitterness doesn’t pay off in politics or in life. Looking at the U.S. presidential elections from the 20th century onwards, the candidate with the most optimistic message always prevails over their gloomy rivals. Whether they’re wrong or right, we want to hear words of confidence from our leaders.
In Winston Churchill’s first speech in 1940 as British Prime Minister he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat...” While this is often quoted as an example of a leader plainly laying out the difficulties a country faces, it was actually a taste of Churchill’s optimism, especially compared to his pessimistic predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, who was ready to surrender to Hitler.
A path forward
During the Italian electoral campaign, nobody has spoken of reform as a good thing. Too many fear technology, research and new digital knowledge, thinking they are snobbish games that shut out anyone who doesn’t have a job.
It’s a false myth that will wreak terrible damage. To maintain economic growth in the north of Italy, and to create one in the south – because an entire generation cannot stay unemployed for their entire lives – the only path is through innovation.
If you think back to the necessary public spending cuts to counteract the debt: if imposed, they stem investments and cut jobs – which scares people. A less painful and more effective reform, like the one long advocated by economist Kenneth Rogoff is to reduce public sector costs more efficiently.
Bersani knows that a budget of up to 13 billion euros looms over 2013. He knows that going deeper into debt isn’t possible, but he also knows that some people define as “perverse” the EU’s philosophy of cutting spending in the middle of a recession with millions unemployed.
True reforms, not the petulant kind that the liberal purists threaten people with, are beyond the State v Market dispute. The State facilitates research and start-ups, as well as sustaining the workers who don’t have the necessary knowledge and training.
The market promotes innovation and spreads technology – if in two generations, thanks to technology, South Korea has gone from being hungry to doing extremely well, why doesn’t that happen in Sicily?
Italians are frustrated with the last 20 years of polemics, weak governments and reforms that have put people on the chopping block. Both the next Prime Minister and whoever is in the opposition must listen to the people, otherwise Italy risks being left behind.