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Italy Sets Course for Left-Right Populist Surge

The elites' days are numbered, as the immigration crisis sweeps two anti-establishment parties to power.
italy election

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.