Sartori, the Theoretician of Democracy Who Brought Logic to Politics
Alessandro Lanni 11 April 2017

“Political science must be relevant, it does not involve studying butterflies.” Attempting to discover the theory of reality is what the Florentine political analyst Giovanni Sartori, who died on April 1st at the age of almost 93, had tried to do for his entire life. This amusing comment was made by Gianfranco Pasquino, a political scientist, a former senator.

On this occasion Pasquino is above all a student and a great expert on Sartori ever since he attended the halls of the “Cesare Alfieri” University in Florence during the Sixties. Pasquino explains that Sartori’s originality lies in the theorist’s search for the “relevance” of his ideas in reality. Reset asked him to outline a portrait starting with his personal memories in order to set the man he describes as a “giant of world political science” in the correct perspective.

How did Giovanni Sartori’s career as a political scientist begin

Sartori wrote a great deal for many magazines in which he played many roles, even that of editor-in-chief. He wrote and wrote, from 1950 to 1964, the year in which he won a competitive exam not in political science, but sociology. It was a famous one because, unless I am mistaken, the top three winners of positions were Franco Ferrarotti, Sartori second and Alessandro Pizzorno third. A real competition between giants.

And so that was how he came to teach at “Cesare Alfieri” University.

At this point, when he was summoned by the university in Florence, he asked for his position to be changed from sociology to political science, a new chair created for him. In those years, however, he was already famous abroad, in particular in the United States, because until the beginning of the Sixties, political science in Europe was rather modest.

So he was a great intellectual invisible to Italian public opinion?

Sartori became very famous in Italy when he started to write for the Corriere della Sera in 1969, when the editor-in-chief was Giovanni Spadolini. I was in Florence attending the classes he held for young students – in December 1967 – and he had no public visibility in Italy. In the course of those years, Sartori devoted himself exclusively to his studies, to attending universities and conferences very far away from Italy. His public presence was almost non-existent until 1969.

What was the situation as far as political science was concerned in Europe during those years?

There was only one celebrity, the Norwegian Stein Rokkan, who was above all a great cultural organiser. Then there were Maurice Duverger and Raymond Aron who enjoyed visibility mainly, I would say, because they were “Parisian”. I cannot remember any real German or British political scientists at the beginning of the Sixties. One great British political historian wrote a very mean book against American political science. Bernard Crick was an important personality in Anglo-Saxon culture and later wrote a wonderful biography of George Orwell.

What was Sartori’s position in this scenario?

Sartori was famous because he attended international conferences and wrote and spoke in very good English. He himself translated his book Democrazia e definizioni  (Il Mulino 1967) and published it in America in 1960 in a version he had translated and adapted, entitled Democratic Theory (1962). It was during those years that he was invited to Yale.

In what way has he left a mark on political science?

The authentic originality was his immense ability to write effectively and brilliantly as well as in a very precise manner. Sartori’s construction of concepts and his use of words are unbelievable. Then there is also his use of logic in political science with a positivistic attitude and hence the opposite of idealism. Sartori had started his career teaching philosophy and had also written about Croce, but he was, however, always a positivist. The other element of originality is that he knew the philosophical history of these concepts, that of representation and democracy above all.

What role did he play in Italy?

On the one hand there was political science in the style of Norberto Bobbio, who was a philosopher, and that was the left-wing branch that I would define as “actionist” even though Bobbio was also very close to the Socialists. Sartori acted as a counterweight; his was classic liberal political science. Bobbio’s Turin was a political science faculty slanted to the left; Florence instead was rather orthodox and right-wing, the liberal right of that period. The two of them knew they were different and they exploited these differences. Sartori wrote about democracy long before Bobbio did publishing Il futuro della democrazia in 1984; Sartori had written his as early as 1957. The final version, which is a real and proper summa, was The Theory of Democracy Revisited (1987, in two volumes), reviewed by the Turin philosopher in the review of “Political Theory”.

One of liberal democracy’s key concepts is that of “élites”, nowadays one of the main targets of right and left-wing populists all over the world.

Sartori wrote about the élites. He studied Mosca, Michels and Pareto. Sartori takes into account that concept of élites, because his theory of democracy is largely inspired to Schumpeter’s, hence the idea that voters choose between competing groups and that whoever wins and must govern is a de facto political élite. It is a competitive theory of democracy between groups that should have the required competence and capabilities. According to Sartori, a good democracy is one governed by political élites and not one conquered by economic élites.

How did he think democracy could achieve this objective?

Sartori wants democracy to be governed, but he does not remain glued to this adjective. What matters are the procedures and modalities with which governments are chosen. And in this there is a positive assessment of the post-1949 German system that has been capable of producing governing élites.

Another of Sartori’s definitions is that of a “polyarchy of merit”.

“Polyarchy” is a word used by Robert Dahl, who Sartori knew and was also associated with, because he taught at Yale for a while in 1966 or 1967, I think. The fundamental point – on which Sartori agrees with Bobbio – is that there is democracy when there is pluralism.

“Polarised pluralism”. It is with this expression that Sartori defines Italian democracy and in particular that of the “First Republic”.

To tell the truth, the Italian case only attracted him at a later date. Sartori was always interested in comparative politics and Italy was just one case and not even among the most important. Those wishing to compare political systems sixty years ago had to inevitably study the United States, Great Britain and Germany. But then they also had to study France, a country presenting a political regime in transition from the Fourth to the Fifth Republic in 1958. Sartori repeatedly said that in order to understand Italy, one had to above all have studied other systems. Those who only know about Italy are not even capable of explaining Italy.

So where did he start from so as to understand Italy?

Polarised pluralism is present in Weimar’s Germany, in Spain that would then become Francoist, in Fourth Republic France and in Allende’s Chile. Wherever there are two extreme anti-system oppositions, one right-wing and the other communist left-wing, it is not possible to form stable coalitions. In all cases involving polarised pluralism the system has collapsed. It has survived only in Italy thanks to the fact that the ‘centre’ was very large. This comparative explanation still seems brilliant to me.

Does that description of the Italian case still work?

Nowadays one could say that since there are no longer Fascists and Communists, that kind of political system has vanished. And yet, there can still be polarisation. If there are political parties on the extreme right and the extreme left that cannot cooperate, it is evident that the system once again becomes blocked at the centre. Sartori said that this is a classic case in which there is no alternation and it is in the centre that all contradictions are unloaded and therefore corruption also turns towards the centre, which by always governing becomes the catalyst for all those wanting privileges. Where there is no alternation the “scoundrels” in power are never sent packing. That is what has happened in Italy.

Is there an extreme right and an extreme left in today’s Italy

The real problem – and Sartori wrote about this too – is that the Italian system is unstructured. Political parties exist and yet they don’t exist, they vanish, they merge and they divide and the system is not consolidated. The “polarised pluralism” system has resisted because between 1946 and 1992 very few new political parties were born, effectively only the Northern League. A system is destined to instability when there are jolts, setbacks and rifts and it cannot therefore guarantee governability, a word dear to Renzi’s followers, but one Sartori rarely uses.

Sartori and Bobbio were two giants in the worlds of philosophy and political science.

Norberto Bobbio was a great political philosopher. What remains of his work is the attempt to create a general theory of politics, always contradicted, but the elements of which can be found in his work. The book Destra e sinistra remains an important attempt to define the two political polarities. Il profilo ideologico del Novecento is Bobbio’s best book and it is an extraordinary book. Bobbio respected Sartori greatly, in spite of the fact that he criticised some aspects of his political positions and Sartori in turn also greatly appreciated Bobbio. They also had a good personal relationship. Sartori spoke at the Lezioni Bobbio the year after the philosopher’s death and wrote a beautiful eulogy in the “Rivista Italiana di Scienza Politica” – Italian Review of Political Science –  (which he had founded in 1971), stating in no uncertain terms that “he was the best of us”.

What legacy has Giovanni Sartori left us?

Sartori has left us an unequalled and perhaps unique book on political parties as well as his theory of democracy. One can have a participatory, deliberative or online democracy, but first one has to have created democracy in the terms outlined by Sartori. Without that, all this amounts to “short races” on the edge of the abyss. Above all Sartori has left us the idea that political science must be applicable, that is must be applied. Knowledge improves when applied to reality. Political science is needed to understand the mechanisms and the institutions, but, above all, to transform those mechanisms and institutions to improve life. It is also a study of how men and women behave in politics according to certain rules. This part of Sartori’s ideas, set out in the book Ingegneria costituzionale comparata (often published by the Mulino, lastly in 2004) is extremely powerful, even when one disagrees. It is the best example of how relevant political science can be achieved.

Translated by Francesca Simmons