"Democracy, Italian Style" by Joseph LaPalombara

Democracy, Italian Style Joseph LaPalombara

Publication date:
10 Sep 1989
Yale University Press
308 pages: 235 x 156mm

“A country that seems to lean into the void but never really falls into it may actually be firmly anchored there, like the Tower of Pisa.” –Joseph LaPalombara


The Italian republic, at forty, is alive and well.  Some consider this fact a miracle; many more judge it a paradox.  Italy is the country of permanent crisis, where there have been forty-five national governments in forty years.  Tax evasion is a way of life, one adult in three votes “communist,” the citizens have no kind word to spare for their political leaders and instructions, and the state itself is simultaneously in conflict with the Vatican and at war with the Mafia and political terrorists.  How could a democracy take root, to say nothing of grow robust, in such an improbable setting?


In Democracy, Italian Style, the foremost expert on the Italian political system unravels this puzzle and, in the process, suggests that the only real paradox is the failure of so many observers, including Italians themselves, to recognize that what may be pathological for democracy in one climate may actually work in democracy’s favor in Italy.  Writes Joseph LaPalombara:


--Although Italy seems rent by conflict, the leftists, laical, and Catholic political enclaves that contribute to these clashes also serve to keep them within bounds.  Terrorism itself, far from weakening Italian democracy, has actually strengthened the people’s democratic backbone.


--Italy’s much-maligned political leaders have few peers among democracies, in part because few others have been as severely tested.


--Much of Italian politics turns out to be “spettacolo” and rich in nuance.  Elections, the legislative process, contacts with public officials, tax evasion, and political patronage do not mean in Italy what they may mean elsewhere.


--More than other democracies, Italy is heavily dominated by its political parties, and many deplore this condition.  But, far from being the bane of Italian democracy, the parties are its saving grace.  For this reason, demands for radical reform of the present system should be resisted. 


Challenging the still-dominant picture of Italy, LaPalombara asserts that in a relatively short span, the Italians have managed to forge a remarkable democracy, one that reveals degrees of toleration, freedom, and sheer political inventiveness others should find enviable.


“A wonderful book.  It opens an unusual window onto Italian politics, for one thing, but it is also a remarkably sensitive an intelligent introduction to Italian society in general.” –Kai Erikson

"An excellent primer on Italy today, written by an American who knows his subject well."?Gore Vidal                                   

"A lively, literate look at Italy?a view from the outside that is really a view from the inside."?Umberto Eco

"A spirited, sympathetic, and penetrating interpretation of Italian politics. This insightful analysis of how the Italian polity really works is a masterful overview and synthesis by a scholar willing both to generalize about and to evaluate Italian democracy. LaPalombara expresses strong opinions with grace and erudition, opinions that will be widely endorsed, reviled, discussed, debated, and even researched by native and foreign scholars of Italian politics and society."?Samuel H. Barnes, University of Michigan

"A brilliant work that gives one a truce understanding of Italian politics and will lead to significant rethinking of how democratic governments operate."?Sidney Verba, Harvard University

"This book is a joy. With verve, wit, and iconoclasm, Joe LaPalombara teaches us as much about democracy as he does about this fascinating, paradoxical, and ultimately logical society. Democracy Italian Style will help to establish Italy in its rightful place as an important democracy in Europe."?Sidney Tarrow

"A spirited account and defense of Italian political culture which shows the many strengths and the stability of Italy's democracy and party system, without concealing their flaws or the persistence of an old tradition of political violence. It displays the same virtuosity as that which he attributes to the actors in the Italian political spectacle."?Stanley Hoffmann, Center for European Studies, Harvard University

"A wonderful book. It opens an unusual window onto Italian politics, for one thing, but it is also a remarkably sensitive and intelligent introduction to Italian society in general."?Kai Erikson, Yale University

"Democracy, Italian Style brilliantly presents a powerful rebuttal to the often-heard thesis that democracy in Italy trembles on a shaky constitutional system and an uncivic political culture. Joseph LaPalombara draws from his forty years as the leading scholar of Italian politics to show that such Italian ways as treating political conflict as 'spettacolo,' voting as 'witnessing,' and combining fiery rhetoric with cool behavior have produced a political order that is one of the most stable in Europe, that provides the United States with one of its most reliable allies, and that copes with the economic, social, and cultural problems of the 1980s as well as any democracy and better than most. It should be read by anyone who is concerned with the realities as well as the appearances of democracy in the 1980s."?Austin Ranney, University of California, Berkeley

"Brilliant and controversial, LaPalombara demolishes the conventional view of Italian politics and offers a fresh perspective. The book is to be read, loved, and challenged."?Gianfranco Pasquino, professor of political science, University of Bologna and Senator of the Independent Left

"LaPalombara's book has the virtues of clarity, liveliness and extensive research."?John Haycraft, Times Literary Supplement

"It is the merit of Joseph LaPalombara's book to reveal that there is a certain logic and stability underneath the roiling surface of contemporary Italian Politics."?Virginia Quarterly Journal

"The author's tone throughout, befitting his subject, is more aggressive than defensive. The Italian republic has been given a bad name, and he intends to redeem the lady's honour."?Economist

 "LaPalombara's book makes a strong case that this system has bred a 'political virtuosity' that has made Italy a strong, creative democracy."?Robert Whitcomb, Providence Journal

"I admire his courage in plunging into the treacherous waters of 'national character.'"?H. Stuart Hughes, New York Times Book Review

"Vividly explains everything about Italian public actions and private attitudes."?Frederick Vreeland, Conde Nast's Traveler

"Democracy, Italian Style is the most complete essay on contemporary Italy available and the 'passeaggio obbligato' for any scholar of Italian affairs. It is a splendid book."?Dr. Furio Colombo, President, Fiat U.S.A.,Inc.

"In this lively book, LaPalombara presents the challenging thesis that Italian democracy works remarkably well and may have something to teach democracies of longer standing. . . . The book will be invaluable to a broad range of readers, including those seeking an uncomplicated but reliable guide to Italy's political system."?Library Journal

"A considered, readable argument that Italy's most glaring fault-political instability-has actually served as a healthy inoculation."?Theodore Stanger, Newsweek International Edition

"Lively and well written, Democracy, Italian Style is a gold mine of information for those who have not lived in Italy. It dispels at least a dozen misconceptions commonly held about this dynamic and wealthy industrial power. Democracy, Italian Style will be a standard reference book for years to come for those who wish to have a highly readable and useful picture of this wonderful country."?Ambassador Maxwell M. Rabb, U.S. Ambassador to Italy

"The book is a first-class primer on contemporary Italy; I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes something of a classic."?Ian Thomson, Listener

"It is the merit of Joseph LaPalombara's book to reveal that there is a certain logic and stability underneath the roiling surface of contemporary Italian politics."?Virginia Quarterly

"The professor speaks with unquestionable authority, having observed the Italian political scene for almost 40 years of the republic."?David Sinclair, Sunday Times

"A brilliant work of political and social analysis. No other book, in Italian or English, even approximates Democracy, Italian Style in depth, originality, comprehensiveness, and lucidity. LaPalombara presents a mature and penetrating synthesis of Italian political life based on three decades of research and writing on Italy."?Choice

"Effectively sweeps away the old stereotypes."?Claudio Segre, London Review of Books

"LaPalombara clearly demonstrates that Italians have, when all is said and done, developed for themselves a remarkable democracy that displays levels of toleration, freedom, and political inventiveness that can and should serve as a model for other nations."?Daniel Gringauz, SAIS Review