Commentary. Most Italians want a strongman who will lead the country without having to submit to the rules of democracy. It goes without saying that such behavior is contrary to the principles and values on which our republic was built.

Change doesn’t need a strongman

During his recent speech to the country, Italian President Sergio Mattarella said, quoting Charles Hughes, that “when we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free.” Nevertheless, it seems that valuing differences and the plurality of voices is no longer the prevailing principle nowadays: instead, the push for conformity and for obeying a “supreme” leader is dominant. 

This is because one of the political (or sub-political) aspects that we have inherited from 2019 is the desire to have a “strongman” in command. As various studies have been showing for some time, and as the latest CENSIS report highlights, a majority of Italians want such a political figure, who would be the only one capable of leading the country without having to submit to the rules of democracy—or, at least, that’s what their followers would say.

Obviously, this is nothing new in itself: the history of humanity has been marked throughout by the presence of “strongmen.” In modern times, however, politics has accepted the compromise—or the conflict—between the primacy of the parties and Parliament on one side and a strongman on the other. One can find many examples of this, both worldwide and in Italy, on the left as well as on the right. For instance, Renzi wanted to be the only one in charge, and in this pursuit he managed to almost destroy his former party. Salvini, on the other hand, has a party made up of yes-men and keeps projecting an image of himself as determined and decisive.

It goes without saying that such behavior is contrary to the principles and values on which our republic was built.

And yet, the yearning for a “strongman” is fueled every day, even from places, or figures, or whole fields from which one might least expect it. One example is the following headline, from last year’s final edition of La Repubblica: “Anti Salvini cercasi” (“Wanted: an anti-Salvini”). The article commented on the responses to Ilvo Diamanti’s poll, from which it emerges that the Lega leader is both the most liked Italian politician and—even more strongly—the most disliked, and that all Italian politics in 2019 revolved around him. 

This is an accurate description for a situation that is fairly obvious. But why force this fact in order to introduce an extraneous concept with the title “Wanted: an anti-Salvini”? Who exactly is clamoring for that? Is it public opinion, or rather the media, which happens to like a type of communication built on slogans, which bypasses political intermediation, which speaks directly to the people, drumming up support while pointing a finger at the enemy?

The explosion of social media has certainly contributed to giving even more “power” to the figure of the strongman. One might note that the most successful politicians on social media are those who use these platforms not in order to open dialogue or pursue debate, but to launch effective zingers, of the kind that are not ascribable to a party—and, therefore, to a “collective”—but rather to that particular individual. This is precisely where the “strongman” comes up.

This is the context in which notions such as “anti-politics” or “anti-partisanship” operate.

However, if we really must analyze this supposed need for a personalistic alternative to Salvini, we can say that there is such a figure already: namely, Conte (who ended up in second place in the poll on the question asking who was the best politician). He has probably earned the right to play this role with his famous speech before the Chamber of Deputies, when, in front of the parliamentarians and in front of the whole country, he treated the Lega leader like a spoiled, arrogant, overbearing child. In those few minutes—unprecedented in the recent history of the Parliament—Conte laid bare the nakedness of the alleged Emperor, demonstrating that he can be the leader to oppose Salvini, but without putting himself forward as an alternative strongman.

Our idea of leadership is a radically different one. It is rooted in many people, men and women, not just particular individuals. It is based on democratic confrontation. It isn’t fueled by supposed certainties, because it finds strength even in doubt. It tries to persuade, not to impose. And it does not seek the easy path of manufacturing support, because it believes in participation: a principle born of strong conviction, which one can also see expressed in movements, such as the Sardines. 

That’s why it would be a good thing if in 2020, the world of public information were to be less submissive in the face of rampant cravings for “strongmen.”

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