From Washington to Berlusconi

As Italians went to the polls to elect a new prime minister on Monday, general disgust with a dysfunctional economy contributed to the shocking rise of comic-turned-political leader Beppe Grillo, whose 5 Star Movement has capitalized on a wave of voter anger with the ruling political class.

Another surprise was the return as a political force of billionaire media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, who was driven from the premiership at the end of 2011.

Though many hold him personally responsible for much of Italy’s current crookedness, Berlusconi has been skillfully working the current climate of “fed-upedness.” The media tycoon from Milan made headlines recently by threatening to bolt the euro zone if Germany continues to insist on austerity, and promising amnesties for tax evasion and illegal building.

Last Friday, Berlusconi went so far as to promise that he would personally refund an unpopular property tax. “I will take four billion euros of my own fortune and give it to Italians,” he promised — a pledge of about $5.3 billion.

While Berlusconi no doubt viewed it as a legitimate — indeed magnanimous — use of his wealth, others will sneer at it as arrogance tantamount to a mass bribe of the electorate. On the other hand, Italians are so disillusioned with politicians who are unable to grapple with economic problems other than by emptying the pockets of the middle class and the poor, they might just grab the dough and give Berlusconi another chance.

Berlusconi’s offer raises once again the question of the role of money in politics, no less in America than in Europe.

The checkbook-waving Berlusconi style is unthinkable here. The closest we come to it is the dubious argument that self-made men like Mitt Romney are uniquely equipped to grapple with economic problems. Americans who chose Obama over Romney obviously did not buy that notion.

By the same token, it is clear that wealth is no disqualification for high office, neither legally nor practically. The rich and very rich, despite their differences from you and me, have often enough won the confidence of the masses. The list is long and glittering with gold: Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush. Barack Obama is also a millionaire, however small-time by comparison.

Indeed, the democratic phenomenon of the poor voting the rich into power began with the Founding Fathers. Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were all landed gentry, plantation owners and slaveholders.

For all of their revolutionary idealism, they were not above buying votes. It was as American as Yankee Doodle. “Swilling the planters with bumbo” was the Colonial American tradition of bribing voters with rum (including a concoction known as bumbo). Almost everyone with a checkbook big enough did it. For example, George Washington once served 160 gallons of rum to some 400 voters during the 1758 campaign for the Virginia House of Burgesses. Apparently, they saw nothing wrong with it.

There are positive arguments to be made in favor of the affluent in politics. For one thing, they are far less susceptible to bribery and influence peddling. It’s those who can’t fund their own campaigns who must kowtow to the rich. Lyndon Johnson, who put in his stake with the big oilmen of Texas who financed his campaigns and others through him, was only one example of many, though a notable one.

Then there is the more high-minded argument that those who own the most have the biggest stake in society and will govern the most responsibly. This is a very old argument, the basis of property as a qualification for suffrage. It has not fared well since the French Revolution first did away with it in 1792.

In more recent times, politicians have been more circumspect about their wealth. Due to the Depression and bitter labor conflicts, politicians learned not to flaunt it. Being “rich as a Rockefeller” could be a liability. Nelson Rockefeller was a popular New York governor who demonstrated he was just like you and me by chomping knishes on the Lower East Side and calzones in Little Italy. His nickname, “Rocky,” was a tribute to his politicking gusto.

Some defused the issue of wealth by kidding it. Kennedy quipped at the rumors (actually, fact) that his father lavishly bankrolled his campaigns by quoting him as supposedly saying that he would foot the bill, whatever it cost to win, but vowed he would not pay for a landslide.

But the Kennedy wit did not stop Hubert Humphrey from complaining in full throttle about Kennedy’s spending superiority in the hard-fought West Virginia primary of 1960. “I don’t think elections should be bought…Anyone who gets in the way of papa’s pet is going to be destroyed… American politics are far too important to belong to the money men,” said Humphrey, who in his losing campaign “felt like a grocer running against a chain store.”

None has entirely escaped the resentment that wealth generates, especially in hard times. Accusations about George W. Bush’s connections to Big Oil surfaced repeatedly, but he was so successful in smothering them in his winning down-home style that many Americans were not even aware that he grew up owning the ranch, not just working on it.

Michael Bloomberg, listed by Forbes as one of the 10 richest men in America, surpassing even the Kennedys and the Bushes, has proved three times that wealth is no bar to elective office although he, too, has been accused of using his money to buy off opponents .

Money has always played an important role in politics, and the advent of mass communications has greatly magnified it.

In the end, however, despite the edge that the super-rich may have in political campaigns, in a democracy, it’s always up to the voters to decide. Despite his wealth — or as some have argued, because of it — Romney lost the election. In Italy, it seemed that Berlusconi’s promise of billions also didn’t suffice to sway a clear majority of voters. Near-complete results showed no clear front-runner and raised the possibility of a hung parliament.