Why do voters in mature democracies choose plutocratic populists? One possible answer is: because voters are either immoral or unintelligent, or both. This answer is extremely satisfying for those who have built their political identity in stark opposition to populist battlecries. It has been repeated countless times by progressive politicians and intellectuals in Berlusconi’s Italy. And it is implicit in Hillary Clinton’s "basket of deplorables" quip. However satisfying in terms of identity politics, though, this obviously prejudiced answer might be confirmed by empirical research – but it might also not. And if it happens to be partial or wrong, then it can spell the political ruin of those who run against the populists. It can hardly be doubted, for instance, that the unrelenting inability of Berlusconi’s opponents to understand him and his voters goes a long way toward explaining his multiple electoral successes.
Setting our prejudices aside, comprehending people who vote for plutocratic populists, and endeavoring to look at the world from their point of view: these are crucial exercises if we are to make sense of the phenomenon at all. And, for those who care, increase the chances that plutocratic populists be beaten at the polls. Much of what has happened in Italy and helps explain Berlusconi is by no means exclusively Italian, though. The withering legitimation of the political as a specific and autonomous domain of human action, with its own specific rules, and requiring specifically trained personnel.
The “invasion” of the political domain by principles and personnel coming from private management, public technocracies, and the judiciary. The changing relationship between politics and time. The growing importance of the horizontal cleavage between people and elites, and the dwindling importance of the vertical cleavage between left and right. The increasing political relevance of emotions. The divorce of power and responsibility that turns politicians into perfect scapegoats, destined to bear the blame for problems that they no longer have the real possibility to solve. Italy, in sum, is particularly interesting because it has both anticipated, and exhibits on a larger scale, features that can be detected in all democracies.