I used to wonder how a society as old, grand and sophisticated as Italy could choose an elderly businessman as flamboyant, scandal-prone and inexperienced in government as Silvio Berlusconi to the position of prime minister. Then the U.S. elected Donald Trump and I found out.
Three years after Trump's election, it should bring more caution than comfort to his critics, including myself, to remember that Berlusconi served for a total of nine years, making him Italy's longest-serving prime minister since World War II.
And, despite a string of business and sex scandals that include a 2013 conviction for tax fraud, Berlusconi continues to be active in politics, elected in June to the European Parliament.
And well into the Trump presidency, a lot seems obvious to me now that I missed before.
For one thing, voters will forgive all manner of political hijinks and suspicious insider deals if they feel as though, one, you are always ultimately on their side and, two, all of your critics are their enemies too.
It is this art of being perceived as a voice of "the people" and "the forgotten American," as the newly sworn-in President Trump put it, that will cause your own political base to armor themselves against any discouraging words or subpoenas aimed against you or your political allies.
Unlike the old days of on-the-ground political campaigns, television and other media have become the new precinct captains. Trump showed us that by rising to stardom in gossip columns and as the host of a popular reality TV show. Berlusconi also knows show business from the inside -- he was a musician and cruise ship crooner in his youth who went on to own television networks and a sports team.
Now a new Italian study published by the prestigious American Economic Review takes a closer look at the role television, particularly the network owned by Berlusconi, played in his political rise. Unlike those who have looked at the influence of biased news, the study by Ruben Durante, Paolo Pinotti and Andrea Tesei looks at the impact of entertainment TV through Berlusconi-controlled Mediaset, which happened to be growing as Italy's first privately owned TV network in the 1970s.
The study concludes that "individuals with early access to Mediaset all-entertainment content," as Berlusconi bought up regional stations in the 1980s and into the 2000s, "were more likely to vote for Berlusconi's party in 1994," when he first ran for office. That pattern continued for five elections and is driven by heavy TV viewers, namely the very young and the elderly."
Here's the touchy part: "Regarding possible mechanisms," the authors write, "we find that individuals exposed to entertainment TV as children were less cognitively sophisticated and civic-minded as adults, and ultimately more vulnerable to Berlusconi's populist rhetoric."
In other words, the paper argues that the spread of entertainment TV competing with the comparatively sedate government-owned channel made a new generation of voters less prepared intellectually to resist or question simplistic, emotional appeals to beat "the elites."
So, does TV make us stupid? After reading the paper, I am not totally convinced, although it is tempting to think so. Nevertheless, similarities between the successes of Trump and Berlusconi offer important lessons to aspiring candidates in democracies everywhere.
First, regardless of how sophisticated the voters may be about the issues, it is essential to let them know that you hear them in their own words and respond as though you really care.
Second, populism -- the rallying of "the people" against "the elites" -- is not limited to one party. Both sides can play this game and often do. Berlusconi's party ran into its toughest opposition when populist voices rose up on the left, particularly the Five Star Movement, led by Beppe Grillo, a comedian, actor and blogger who could match Berlusconi's showbiz appeal with his own.
Three, a direct, simple and candid-sounding appeal works best to draw the largest support, leaving the details to be hashed out later. Look for an example in the mileage Trump gained from such slogans as "Build that wall" and "Dump Obamacare," even after the details proved to be more complicated than he apparently expected.
Finally, voters need to beware too. If the slogans and plans sound too good to be true, they probably are. Candidates of whatever party aren't going to deal with the tough questions unless we demand it. That's not too much to ask, whether the answer entertains us or not.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)(c) 2019 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.