18 February 2021

Understanding political crises

There are, essentially, three conditions required to effectively read a political crisis.

First of all, you must first understand the structural context and particularly the institutions involved, because a political crisis is always inevitably also an institutional question, as it must follow the rules that dictate the course of public life within a political system. And the political context, both domestic and international, especially for a country like Italy that is highly exposed to European and global winds. Now, to understand institutions as well as we know politics, we must also understand history. Both institutions and history take shape, are structured and are more profoundly understood if we can project them over the long term. A solid understanding of political and institutional history, both internal and international, is thus indispensable to having an exact understanding of the framework within which a crisis unfolds.

Second, you have to be able to understand how the actors of the crisis move. From the structural dimension, or shall we say from the script, we get close to an analysis of the dramatis personae, or the protagonists. History helps us here too: recent history because – to understand the actors in the crisis, their objectives, strategies, hopes, fears – we must have observed them over the years, as well as history in general, because it offers a rich sample of experiences that, for analogy, can help us understand our protagonists’ objectives and initiatives. But, in this case, literature too can help us. Literature is a source of knowledge: having read novels, knowing how the great poets and writers of the past understood human behavior, can help us in our analysis.

Lastly, we mustn’t have too much information. Or, the exact opposite of what I’ve just said in the first and especially in the second point. In all political crises, and Italian crises in particular, always so incredibly intricate, there is a lot of noise. Tactics, little strategic moves, declarations and initiatives that only serve to muddy the waters: micro-fibrillations destined to begin and end in a single morning without ever having a truly deep impact on the course of the affair. Those who are very close to things, very much inside the mechanisms, often tend to mistake these fibrillations for structural data and to remain prisoners of their own hopes and fears. In short, they risk losing sight of the bigger picture. Once the analyst has made up his mind on the basis of structural data and knowledge of the protagonists, he must then be careful not to spend too much time chasing contingent facts or give too much importance to daily jolts.

Giovanni Orsina, Professor of Contemporary History and Director of the School of Government at Luiss University