atteo Renzi can’t stop talking. He Tweets and yammers and mugs for camera and web alike. He salts his every move with comment. He leaves no accusation unrebutted. He never lacks a self-serving bromide about change. It’s statesmanship with a distinctly adolescent flavor, as if the role of a 40-year-old prime minister was to make 40 into the new 14, tinkering with and talking about a country he says he’s determined to fix. And fix it he may.
His “Yes We Can” team just rammed through voting reform guaranteeing any party that gets 40 percent in a general election vote the majority bonus needed to govern outright. Critics accused him of behaving like Benito Mussolini, since Mussolini first installed the bonus idea in 1924. Renzi responded and responded and responded, and thumped his chest. Critics criticize, he said, we change things.
The change was particularly annoying to some, coming as it did when Renzi’s Democratic Party was riding a wave of popular support that puts it at close to 40 percent. Once a bastion of the old left, the PD has become something of a warring tribe consisting of old school, pro-union hacks and new school, take-it-apart-and-put-it-back-together moderates, the latter and larger faction controlled by Renzi, with “if-you-don’t-me-you-can-leave” overtones.
Renzi has also mostly brushed aside a challenge from web populist Beppe Grillo, who seemed poised to stir the pot a few years ago. That stirring came undone when Grillo and friends, riding a near-25 percent showing in 2013, refused to set aside colicky mix of insults and hate speech that ensured their political rise. Anger was all they knew.
Grillo’s hate-mailings eventually wore out all but his most loyal co-bleaters, with his Five Star Movement losing its competitive edge and fraying at the edges.
But Grillo also taught Renzi a valuable lesson. Keeping new-age Italians on your side, or at least aware of you, meant not letting them alone for a second. Grillo pioneered the bothering method online. It’s a 21st-century spin on small town gossip with smartphones replacing piazza benches and the late afternoon talk-a-thons they hosted. Few citizenries are as culturally verbal as Italy’s, which mobile phone communication feeds on and nourishes.
In Rome, bus drivers are often so involved in mobile conversations they have no time or inclination to take questions from lost passengers — never mind that the drivers are stuck in glass compartments. Renzi is sensitive to the value of the incessant voice. It’s a shameless sensitivity, like that of a girlfriend or a mother who calls fiancée or son on the hour to check up on things. Renzi exasperates by intent, seeing exasperation as better than anonymity, which his predecessor, Enrico Letta, preferred, and which cost him his job. He wasn’t loud enough to suit Renzi’s team of newcomers, chock full of pushers and sellers. Old school Letta shied away from personal branding, at home in the arcane maneuvers of party backrooms.
Renzi’s backroom is everyone’s waiting room, and like a country doctor he’s constantly poking his head in to smile and explain what’s happening behind the curtain. Perception, the Australian author David Malouf once observed, “has just as much to do with what is ignored and passed over as what is observed.” But he wrote that 40 years ago.
Men like Renzi, and many 21st-century Italians like him, ignore that notion of perception. They don’t ignore much of anything, instead “affirming” through intrusiveness that is kin to a constantly panting dog huffily unaware of the loud sound it’s making.
Ironically, this invasive, look-at-me method of assertion long predates Grillo and Renzi. The Catholic Church had a monopoly on attention getting and on repetition, ornately and theatrically using masses and homilies to reiterate aspects of a single message time and again. It was all the more powerful for its transmission in ornately hyperbaric chamber, a church, and under gilded circumstances intended to foster awe. Popes, liked or less liked, still mostly repeated the same things to different people, hoping the repetition sinks in, becoming first familiar and then the norm.
Renzi is eager to become Italy’s norm, and these days behaving like a meddling, grown-up teenager seems like the best way to tell the wayward and the distracted that they now have a new BFF, and he’s there for them, like it or not.