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Italy Sets Course for Left-Right Populist Surge

Italy is wrapped up these days in the efforts of its two strongest political parties to forge a coalition government. Presumably they will succeed, though whether the resulting civic structure will have any staying power remains an open question. But in terms of the broad political trends in Italy, Europe, and the entire West (including the United States), it doesn’t really matter much. Whatever happens with the emerging Italian government, Italy has set itself upon a new course. It’s the path of populism, fueled by many things but primarily by the West’s immigration crisis.

William Galston offered an interesting insight into all this the other day in a piece in The New Republic. Galston, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, wasn’t writing about Italian politics but rather about the turn towards populism in Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But he had a broader point. “The global democratic tide,” he wrote, “which began in 1974 with the end of Portugal’s authoritarian regime, crested in 2006, making way for anti-democratic populists. Many Western leaders have yet to come to terms with this new reality, hoping that anti-immigrant sentiment is just a passing phenomenon.”

Galston derided the tendency of Barack Obama, when he was president, to dismiss ideas and movements he opposed as being “on the wrong side of history.” No, said Galston, history “has no ‘side,’ no ‘end,’ and no immanent tendency to move in a particular direction.”

Right now it seems to be moving in a populist direction, and many, including Galston, are quick to lament what they consider the “anti-democratic” underside of this populist wave. But people don’t turn away from democracy simply because they get tired of it or bored with it or because they would really rather live under a dictatorship or an overt oligarchy. They turn away from democracy when they feel that the democratic system no longer works for them.

In that sense the blame for such a turn of events more properly rests with the elites who most vehemently despise populism. If it weren’t for their failed leadership, there wouldn’t be any serious populist wave at all.

But there is—in Britain with Brexit; in America with Trump; in Hungary with Orban; in Poland with Mateusz Morawiecki; and now in Italy with an emergent populist coalition that has the distinction of being of the Left as well as of the Right. The coalition-building effort emanates from the March 4 elections, in which no party garnered the required 40 percent of the vote to qualify for leading the nation without coalition partners.

One member of the emerging coalition would be the left-wing, anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of Luigi Di Maio, which collected about 32 percent of the March 4 vote. With its political base largely in the poor south, it advocates a guaranteed income for all citizens, increased welfare and jobs spending, reduced immigration, and better treatment from the European Union. The 5-Star Movement also hews to liberal views on same-sex marriage, environmentalism, and social justice issues.

The other member would be the so-called League of Matteo Salvini, which itself is a kind of coalition of conservative parties that together captured 37 percent of the March 4 vote (17 percent for Salvini’s own party, with the rest divided among three other coalition partners). Salvini wants to spur economic growth through tax reductions, foster better relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and drastically reduce immigration and remove some 400,000 unauthorized immigrants from Italian shores. The League’s political base is the more affluent North.


What do these two parties, so disparate in terms of their positions on left and right, have in common? The answer reflects the increasing irrelevance of the left-right dichotomy in today’s Western politics, roiled as they are with ascendant populist sentiment. Both of Italy’s main populist parties are anti-establishment. Both despise the European Union and Italy’s loss of sovereignty to that bureaucratic behemoth. Both want an Italian exemption from the EU’s budget deficit cap of 3 percent of GDP. Both want out of the euro and have advocated a referendum on leaving the EU entirely if negotiations with Brussels falter. Both want better relations between Russia and the West. And both decry the mass immigration that has agitated Europe’s social and political life in recent years under the nose of EU leaders and with full support from figures such as Germany’s Angela Merkel. Though Salvini is by far the more vehement on the immigration issue, Di Maio provocatively labeled rescue efforts to help distressed migrants on the Mediterranean a “sea-taxi service.”  

Bear in mind that Italy has had some 60 governments in the 73 years since the end of World War II. The country is a mess, particularly in its promiscuous financial policies of recent decades that have generated a public debt that is 132 percent of GDP, second in the Eurozone only to the economic basket case that is Greece. Many of the economic policies advocated by these parties, particularly Di Maio’s 5-Star Movement, would exacerbate those problems far more than alleviate them.

But when large numbers of ordinary citizens conclude that their governments and the establishment figures of their societies have undermined civic stability and the common good, they turn to particularistic sentiments focused on their own needs and wants. That’s the origin of populism.

And, of all the issues roiling Europe these days, none generates more political force and energy than the immigration crisis—representing a direct threat to the very definition of the West as well as its cultural coherence and health. The globalist elites don’t get it, even now, but their days are numbered. It is noteworthy that the two political institutions seeking a coalition government in Italy represent some 69 percent of the March 4 vote. That’s a lot of populist sentiment, and the elites may be able to chip away at it if the coalition stumbles, but they won’t be able to reverse it. The country is set upon a populist course for years to come.

Bill Galston, who is no populist (his latest book is entitled Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy), nevertheless understands the wellsprings of populist movements. “Throughout Europe,” he writes, “immigration is at the core of the populist critique of the liberal democratic order.” He notes that Orban in Hungary, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, France’s Marine Le Pen, and Matteo Salvini “all have highlighted the EU’s stance on immigration, raising important questions about economic globalization, political transnationalism, and cultural liberalism.” He adds that dismissing these concerns as simply retrograde is “counterproductive.” Instead, Europe’s leaders will have to take them seriously—“while offering better answers than unscrupulous demagogues like Orban can muster.”

Just so. Italy may or may not offer such better answers as it wends it way through the thickets of coalition politics. And it may or may not manage to address successfully the civic mess that has been festering in the country for decades. But it has moved into the new era of civic contention that is emerging throughout the West.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [1].

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "Italy Sets Course for Left-Right Populist Surge"

#1 Comment By Miguel On May 17, 2018 @ 11:35 pm

“They turn away from democracy when they feel that the democratic system no longer works for them.”

That is, for me, th key concept here. I dissent with the main point of contention expressed in the article, nevertheless: I am convinced that, if the italinas -or any other europeans- had a better economy, like they did in the 80’s and 90’s, populism wouldn’t stand a chance.

Sure, there is, and always have been, xenophoby in Europe. As a matter of fact, every human group is ethnocentric. But eruropeans wouldn’t care -in a negative way- about immigrants if they felt their jobs and laboral perspectives, were great.

There is also the problem of terrorism, of course. But again, it would be lesser if the war in Syria were terminated, even if that implied to let Assad win. Nevertheless, the elites don’t want any.

In order to have better jobs for tha masses, you need to keep a proper distribution of wealth, and that compromises the option to increase the concentration of wealth. And peace in Syria means less weapins sold -including EUROPEANS weapons- and a lesser security risk, which also diminishes weapons and related “goods” and services sales.

No peace in Syria, no reduction of immigrants. According to the author, then lesser democracy in Europe. But I insist in considerin the deterioration of the laboral and welfare conditions more relevant for that. Europe cannot, any way, creates enough jobs as for europeans not to need social welfare.

On the other hand, at least for me, who has spanish as the first tongue, “populist” sound a lot like “people”. Isn’t “democracy” the government of the people? How comes that the governmet of the people is done upon denying what the people want, then?

It is impossible to maintain, democracy or anything else, if it doesn’t provide what the bulk of the masses want, or if it stand against what the bulk of the masses want. That sounds populist, but is also a fact.

#2 Comment By Tancred On May 17, 2018 @ 11:57 pm

It is odd that some people like Galston see the new populism as anti-democratic. If anything it is an explosion of democracy because it really does reflect the thinking of many ordinary people. I suspect that the elites of the center-right and center-left call election outcomes “anti-democratic” when the vote doesn’t go their way.

It should also be pointed out that for decades elites on both sides of the Atlantic have been trying to undermine democracy by putting more decision-making power in the hands of undemocratic bodies such as courts, bureaucracies and supranational organizations such as the EU. All of this elite hand-wringing about the end of democracy is therefore hypocritical in the extreme.

#3 Comment By Glaivester On May 18, 2018 @ 12:35 am

I find it odd that the government doing what the voters want rather than what the elites want is considered “anti-democratic.”

#4 Comment By polistra On May 18, 2018 @ 3:46 am

Seems like you’re missing the basic meaning of democracy. When people choose a direction that leads to their own survival, that IS democracy. When a system that leads to national and human genocide and suicide can’t be replaced or modified, that’s the OPPOSITE of democracy. USA is the OPPOSITE of democracy.

#5 Comment By Kevin On May 18, 2018 @ 6:34 am

I am not so sure these movements imply a rejection of democracy, is it not at least possible that citizens have come to the conclusion that what passes for democracy in their nation is rather just a cloak for the ruling class pursuing their own interests?

Before we conclude that citizens of a nation are rejecting democracy, I would expect to see some evidence that the government of the nation is in fact (rather than in name) democratic – that is, it prioritises the preferences of citizens when forming and implementing policy.

#6 Comment By Dan Green On May 18, 2018 @ 7:26 am

I simply don’t understand because many Europeans and north American citizens, and especially the Brits., want their identity and culture to remain in tact, equates to a rejection of elitist definition of Democracy being rejected.

#7 Comment By Anne (the other one) On May 18, 2018 @ 8:31 am

Go back the Crucifix dilemma. Italian schools have had Crucifixes in public classrooms forever. The EU ruled against the practice. There was an uproar in Italy. The matter will soon be decided in court.

Do Italians want to be ruled by Brussels? No.

#8 Comment By JonF On May 18, 2018 @ 8:40 am

Re: I find it odd that the government doing what the voters want rather than what the elites want is considered “anti-democratic.”

For once, Glaivester, you and I are on the same page. The only caution I’d add is that there is a danger of populist forces getting out of control and running roughshod over the rights of others.

#9 Comment By Michael Kenny On May 18, 2018 @ 9:53 am

I suppose this was intended as a fairly classic piece of anti-EU propaganda but just look at how weak it is! All we get is “Both want out of the euro and have advocated a referendum on leaving the EU entirely if negotiations with Brussels falter”. In fact, they put forward, but later withdrew, the idea a referendum on the euro, not EU membership, and even then only if negotiations with the other Member States failed, which, of course, never happens in the EU. In other words, they’re using the “threat” of a referendum (which they would very probably lose) to get concessions from the other Member States. They want to exceed agreed debt levels so as to re-launch the Italian economy and they want an end to the system of quotas for refugees (which American authors always misrepresent as “immigrants”). I don’t think they’ll have any real trouble in getting what they want. In fact, they’re providing the other Member States with an excuse to do what they want to do anyway. Both of the harsh monetary policy and the refugee quotas were largely forced on the other Member States by the Merkel government and Merkel is now discredited. A lovely example of the way in which the various US anti-EU scams cut across and nullify each other!
One might also ask why all this matters to Americans, particularly those who preach “non-intervention”, at least when “non-intervention” permits Vladimir Putin to inflict a humiliating defeat on the US. The errors and misperceptions are so numerous that nobody in Europe is going to take the article seriously and Americans are simply going to be misled. Where does that get anybody?

#10 Comment By furbo On May 18, 2018 @ 10:05 am

Having lived in N. Italy for two decades, I’ll offer two notes: The Center Left & Center Right have led them to a youth unemployment rate of 40% and a negative birth rate. The introduction of the Euro raised the cost of EVERYTHING by about 20%……then…IMMIGRATION

Upwards of 600K/yr sub Saharan Africans arrive every year. They used to ‘sluice’ Northward but Austria, France, and Slovenia have closed their borders tightly. Now – these young men are not violent, they’re just young men looking for a better spot. But they’re illiterate in their own languages, have no skills, and grim economic prospects in Italy – did I mention the youth unemployment rate? In 10 years, they’ll still be unemployed, in married, and angry. It’s a huge, huge issue.

#11 Comment By TJ Martin On May 18, 2018 @ 10:12 am

Those are some pretty ludicrous claims coming from someone who is at best uninformed when it comes to the reality of Italian politics that change more often than most people change their socks ( 46 governments since 1945 )

Italian Politics 101 ;

In the Italian mindset/zeitgeist when it comes to politics … the way they see it is … they ruled the world for over 400 years ( Roman Empire ) only to lose it .. then for almost another 900 years ( Holy Roman Empire ) only to lose it .. almost took it back again with Mussolini : ending up on the losing side … then dominating fashion and design from the 60’s to the 80’s … only to watch that fall by the wayside as well … yet despite it all are still the most dominant influence on world culture , style , politics and law thru out the globe ( despite the delusions of the Brits and the US ) ..

Leaving the majority of Italians when it comes to politics with the attitude … what does it matter ? Knowing full well that what ever comes their way … it’ll be gone before any real impact is felt . Which is why Italian politics can be best described as a reasonably constrained anarchy with nihilistic tendencies

That Mr Merry is the genuine reality of Italian politics .. not the fear mongering over generalizations that you’re attempting to portray

( full discloser I have deep family ties with .. as well a many family members still living in Italy so I know what of I speak )

PS; There is no ‘ civic ‘ or otherwise mess in Italy . Just the usual SNAFU since WWII which only Italians are capable of dealing with as well as they do

#12 Comment By TG On May 18, 2018 @ 10:25 am

Well said, but I think there is one thing you are missing.

No, the days of the elites are not numbered. Immigration is first and foremost about cheap labor, and cheap labor is the primary fuel of the profits and social power of the rich, and the rich will claw like scalded cats to keep the status quo. The rich know perfectly well what mass immigration is doing to Europe, and they don’t care, because all they care about is profits.

Sure, in the US Trump got elected – and he was pressured to back off, and mass immigration continues apace. Sure, there was “Brexit” – and it will change nothing, the cheap labor continues to flow. I predict that in Italy, nothing of substance will change no matter what the formal governing structure is.

#13 Comment By Lenny On May 18, 2018 @ 10:43 am

Europe’s experience with populism in the 20th century went so well they want an encore.

Terms like Populist and elites and national identity ring the same today as they did during the march on Rome or the Kristallnacht

#14 Comment By Waz On May 18, 2018 @ 11:25 am


Sure, In the competition to acquire the coveted designation of populist the most bloody ones have no chance – Bolsheviks just don’t make it. Yes, they were too democratic. So it follows that the neomarxian EU has to be democratic and anyone who does not like it is an ugly populist and secret admirer of the Fuhrer.

#15 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On May 18, 2018 @ 11:30 am

As a matter of fact, every human group is ethnocentric. But eruropeans wouldn’t care -in a negative way- about immigrants if they felt their jobs and laboral perspectives, were great.

There’s no real reason to believe this to be true. The European country with the lowest economic inequality is Denmark, the one with the lowest unemployment is the CR. Both of them have economies that are doing great right now, and both of them have had among the strongest reactions against migration of anywhere in Europe. (Czechs are the most ethnocentric nation in Europe, bar none).

Europeans want jobs and healthy welfare states, but they also want mostly ethnically homogeneous societies, and these two desires are mostly independent of each other.

I predict that in Italy, nothing of substance will change no matter what the formal governing structure is.

Lots of European countries have substantially tightened up their immigration laws over the last 2-3 years, actually. In Austria, just over the border, over 80% of resident Muslims now say they would leave the country if they had the opportunity.

#16 Comment By Furor On May 18, 2018 @ 12:00 pm

Why are Hungary’s and Poland’s government “populist”? What is populist that they’re doing?

#17 Comment By hooly On May 18, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

Anti-establishment? I’m not so sure about that, with the Northern League in power, they’re anti-Roman establishment I suppose, but they have been in power in the North for a generation now. Their goals are separatist, they want to create a mythical Padania, a pure ‘Celtic’ state that excludes southern ‘Latinos’ whom they loath just as much as the more recent migrants from the Middle East. To the League, a Sicilian is more North African than European.

#18 Comment By EarlyBird On May 18, 2018 @ 1:47 pm

TJ Martin, I am not clear how your description of the underlying attitudes of Italians about their history and influence in any way conflict with what Mr. Merry (or rather, Mr. Galston) is describing.

#19 Comment By sillyBaby On May 18, 2018 @ 2:07 pm

Quick note on the nature of Italian government.

For as inept as the Italian governing class is and has been for the past 70 years, the fact that 60 governments have been elected into power in 73 years is largely the result of its constitution.

I am not 100% clear on the mechanics, but whenever a law fails to pass with a majority of the votes in parliament (which happens often since most governments are coalition governments and therefore not in lockstep on programs and policies), the ruling coalition is up for a “confidence vote”. Failing this vote, the current Prime Minister has to fold and get the President to either extend the coalition’s mandate or have new elections.

In other words, yes the politicians may be bumbling fools, but the country doesn’t undergo a major political crisis every 8 months.

#20 Comment By Lenny On May 18, 2018 @ 3:24 pm


The neomarxian EU is a community of diverse countries that is governed in many case by unanimous consent, a very important feature of Marxist ideology as you know.

I have yet to see a “Populist” agenda anywhere, that is not based on some foreign threat to the Fatherland that must be stopped at all costs , and its enabler among the corrupt insider elites that must be stopped.

#21 Comment By Jeeves On May 18, 2018 @ 6:05 pm

I think Lenny wins this one Waz.

As for Mr. Merry’s romancing populism, I believe he’s overweight on immigration and underweight on the realities of Italian politics. I haven’t read Mr. Galston’s book nor the article he cites, but I do see him in the WSJ, where the Editorial Board has characterized hopes for the populist coalition as “magical thinking.” (And btw, the coalition doesn’t’ merely want “better relations with Moscow,” it advocates ending sanctions, period. Let’s hope no Ukrainian populists are listening.)

#22 Comment By Phil On May 19, 2018 @ 2:12 pm

It is quite bizarre to portray M5S as “anti-immigration”. They have been ambiguous on immigration at best. Like every leftist formation in Europe, they understand that politically they cannot afford to enthusiastically support a continued influx of migrant works in the current climate, but their focus is about as far from immigration as you can get given the situation. Explaining their performance by the migrant crisis is ridiculous.

Another superficially researched piece by Mr. Merry.

#23 Comment By Miguel On May 19, 2018 @ 8:52 pm


No, europeans don’t want populism because it worked “well” the former time, as you, sarcastically, claim, but because human beings, when confronted with desperate conditions, get desperate and stop thinking wisely. History cannot stop any future mayhe, if the conditions for those mayhems aren’t stopped.


On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to believe that: you ignore the fact that Denmark is also a very small country, ans all its laboral and welfare systems could be easily collapsed.

The Czesck Republic is larger, but still, those are little countries, where everything as to be calcutaled in advance if things are going to work well. They don’t have the U.S. possibilities -which seem to be shrinking, nevertheless- to create new jobs or to have more credits, because when the “resources” -in a very broad sense- are so limited, there is no room to invent, or to believe that funds will/could come from somewhere else.

#24 Comment By LouisM On May 20, 2018 @ 2:22 am

I cannot help but laugh at the ridiculousness of people like Miguel who believe that populism wouldn’t stand a chance in a better economy.

Its pure ignorance of the situation. Most of German exports are within the EU and the whole of the EU has been rigged to benefit Germany. Italy has not had any growth since it joined decades ago. Italian leftists and socialists only used govt programs to mask the reckoning. One strategy the German’s employed was that the German Deutschmark is a foundational currency and its real value has been depressed by the lack of strength and growth in other Euro currency members. Conversely, while the euro depressed naturally strong currencies it also inflated naturally weak currencies. Thus German exports are cheaper than they would be without the euro and nongerman exports are more expensive than they would be without the euro. This is one explanation why some countries had an explosion of debt from consumption (inflated currency) but found zero to low growth in productivity and investment (uncompetitive inflated currency).

That is one part of why the Italians want out of the EU.

The second is that they don’t want French and German austerity dictates to turn Italy into Greece. Italians saw what Brussels and Germany did to Greece and the Italians wont succumb as the Greeks did.

The 3rd is that Italy has a large poor southern region (which it looks down on) and supports with large transfer payments in the form of govt programs. These govt programs are going bankrupt and getting rationed as hundreds to thousands of Africans and Muslims arrive in Italian ports everyday. The Italian govt cant afford them. The native Italian population doesn’t want them and increasingly Italians are seeing increased crime, African drug gangs, muslim terrorists,…recently an Italian girl was drugged, raped, killed, partially eaten and the remaining parts stuffed in a suitcase set on the side of the road for garbage pickup. Italians are livid at the heinous crime. The Mafia is livid as Africans and muslims take over the illegal drug trade and other illegal activities.

The fourth is very sensitive to Italians (religious or not), muslims are destroying churches, stoning congregants, murdering priests, raping nuns, demanding crosses be removed from schools and govt buildings, Christmas decorations removed or destroyed…all symbols of Christianity are attacked. Recently a priest had his throat slit on the altar while he was saying mass…his throat was slit in front of the congregants.

One would not have to go back more than a few decades to know with confidence that no Italian would accept any of this from any immigrant…but they accept it because Brussels (EU) demands they accept it. A nation-state rule by Italians out of Rome would never accept an invasion of foreigners treating native Italians in such a manner.

Today, if Italy wants to close its ports and its borders to immigration then it will find strong partners in Austria, Poland, Hungary, Czeck & Slovak & Slovenian Republics.

These same countries plus Britain would support Italy in an exit from the EU as well.

Sadly, Greece should have left rather than go thru the endless dismantling and austerity demanded by Germany. I gut tells me that the resurgence of the VISEGRAD and Brexit had something to do with how Greece was treated and feeling that the EU and Germany was elitist and power hungry…given the chance they could do to any member state what they did to Greece.

#25 Comment By Janet On May 21, 2018 @ 1:29 pm

Why don’t writers ever make the connection between immigration and the regime change wars waged by the US and its hapless European “partners”? Unless the wars in the Middle East stop, Europe will continue to have an immigration problem. In fact, these wars are part of the process of globalization, which impoverishes some countries in order to benefit others. Immigration is not a discrete problem, but is enmeshed in the system of economics and politics the West presently follows.

#26 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On May 22, 2018 @ 10:01 am

TJ Martin,

Don’t want to cast shadows here – there’s indeed a hell lot of SNAFU in Italy (the fact doesn’t contradict what Mr. Merry wrote, though) – but your views as to what the Holy Roman Empire was are a little bit confused. It had very little to do with Italy. It is Germany. It had really conquered Rome during the Hohenstaufens, but that didn’t last for long, and they had wars with Italy (or rather, with Italian states, which were even more fragmented than those of Germany) ever since – capturing the North, being repeatedly defeated by Venetians etc. They indeed claimed Rome to be their nominal capital, but their actual administrative centers were Aachen (962 – 1346), Prague (1346 – 1437; 1583 – 1611), Vienna (the Emperor’s residence, 1483 – 1806) and Regensburg (the parliament’s seat, 1663 – 1806).