27 May 2011

Partisan Immunity, Italian Style

Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire prime minister of Italy, has stirred up a fresh round of outrage among his critics after complaining to the President of the United States (and into an open microphone) that the various criminal charges filed against him have been the handiwork of a "dictatorship of leftist judges." Perhaps the Italian thought that President Obama, as a Democrat whose Secretary of State is married to Bill Clinton, would sympathize with his complaint that sex crimes had been charged against him for political reasons. He may also have hoped that the President would agree with the implicit general premise that criminal complaints against political leaders are always politically motivated. One reporter, however, observed that Obama was "visibly perplexed" by Berlusconi's venting.

In the past, I've argued that the invocation of what I call "partisan immunity" is typical of bipolarchial polities, where no accuser is assumed to be non-partisan (or sincere) and any misfortune for one or the two dominant parties is presumed to benefit the other. Italy is not a formal Bipolarchy, but its governments tend to coalesce along ideologically bipolar lines. Berlusconi is the leader of a "center right" coalition, for instance, who sees himself persecuted by the Italian "left." But I suspect he might feel the same way about his legal troubles were Italian politics more ideologically pluralistic. There is a temptation for people in political power, and many of their acolytes, to assume that any scandal is part of a political plot against them. In the 1990s, President Clinton's alleged crimes could be fit into a counter-scenario of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" dedicated to driving him out of office by any means necessary short of violence. On that assumption, many Democrats determined to defend Clinton at all costs, whether he was objectively guilty or not. It is not inconceivable that political operatives might try to frame a leader for crimes he or she did not commit, but it is also highly unlikely that such a scheme could stand courtroom scrutiny. It's more likely that, while the leader may presume conspiracy out of pure egoism, his acolytes are motivated less by any objective conviction that conspiracy is afoot than by their fear of the evil consequences should the leader fall. In the American system these fears are especially irrational, since an impeached and convicted President would be followed in office by his Vice President and fellow partisan, though the scandal may be presumed to hurt the party's chances in the next election. The real fear is that the rival party or ideological enemy would benefit in any way from the leader's disgrace. Ideology and partisanship exacerbate the leader's selfish and self-deluding interest to combat justice with conspiracy theory. If so, Berlusconi's home fans probably feel the same way about the sex charges against him as Democrats in the U.S. felt back in the Nineties -- or as some French Socialists feel now about Dominique Strauss-Kahn's legal jeopardy.

In all such cases, fear of the ideological enemy tempts politically-minded people away from the demands of impartial justice. Representative democracy is in trouble when one party becomes convinced that the victory of another, while legally permitted, is morally intolerable. That feeling results in the sort of moral compromises covered under the partisan immunity principle. Regrettably, the feeling is probably irrepressible. A party can rise, after all, whose victory could prove not only intolerable but fatal for democratic institutions. We can't tell citizens to accept the victory of any party with equanimity. What we can do, ideally, is convince them that their party or their leader is not so indispensable that it should be allowed to get away with anything. That task will almost certainly be easier when partisans can't assume that the triumph of an intolerable ideological enemy is the only possible consequence of their leader's disgrace. This is an argument for greater political pluralism everywhere, but it doesn't rule out the possibility of some partisans assuming that any alternative to their leadership is intolerable. The triumph of such a party in any setting really would be intolerable, and the remedy in such a case might be nothing short of revolution. We can only hope that a more pluralistic political environment would make such outbreaks less likely.

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