THE ITALIAN VOTE IS A WAKE-UP CALL TO THE DEMOCRATIC LEFT
The expected news this morning that Italy’s incoming government is its most right-wing since World War II, led by the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) which traces its roots directly to founders who came from Mussolini’s Fascist Party will lead the three party coalition should be seen as a wakeup call be believers in democracy everywhere.
More importantly, the Fratelli, the Lega and Forza Italia have much more in common with other right-leaning politicians and parties around the contemporary world than they do with the politics of the 1930s. This is something believers in democracy have to confront and understand, and then find a way to successfully oppose this movement.
Forza Italia’s SilvioBerlusconi, a media-mogul-turned-populist-politician with a blustery personality, reminds we Americans of Donald Trump, the difference being Berlusconi didn’t do major damage in his nine years as prime minister between 1994 and 2011 as Trump did in only four. His “Go Italy!” party has evolved into a pro-business (or “liberal,” in European terms) party that’s friendly to the Catholic Church, which despite all the scandals world-wide retains a strong influence in the country.
Lega and its leader Matteo Salvini are more right-populist, especially on illegal immigration/ migration, which they strongly oppose. It originated as a regionalist party - Lega Del Nord (League of the North) from Italy’s prosperous north; though its outlook has shifted, Lega remains committed to federalism and regionalism.
On foreign policy, both Forza Italia and Lega have leaned toward Atlanticism, with Lega also expressing a past desire for close ties with Russia while also supporting NATO. This certainly differentiates them from the far right in Hungary and Poland
As mentioned before in a previous post, Fratelli D’Italia won a paltry 4.4 percent of the national vote just four years ago and surged to prominence despite its genuinely radical roots. While it was once hostile to the European Union and sought to build bridges with Moscow, both positions have been reversed - or at least softened) -since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. However, Fratelli remains strongly opposed to immigration, gay marriage, and “globalism;” they collaborate with anti-abortion and anti-LGBT groups.
Bringing it all together: populist hostility to immigration, pro-business economic policy, support for federalism, and social conservatism on religion and cultural issues, the incoming coalition looks a lot like the post-Trump configuration of the Republican Party without the embrace of election-fraud conspiracies, as well as with the current governments in Hungary and Poland, the recently elected anti-immigrant government of Sweden, and Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party in France.
Adam Tooze (whose substack you should subscribe to and pay to support regardless of all of it being offered free - because it’s very useful) presented a very useful analysis of what this would mean in a post last week that utilized a lot of data from knowledgeable European sources.
As he points out, there are other ways in which the Italian situation echoes trends elsewhere. Across all the Western democracies, the technocratic center-left has declined over the past ten years from the broad-based support it enjoyed from the mid-1990s through the late 2000s, with the right wing gaining ground in replacement.
The polls Tooze used look at three measures of economic and social stratification—education, occupation, and income—and how they interact with support for the various Italian parties.
For education, a pattern visible in many modern democracies that has been highlighted by Thomas Piketty emerges: the center-Left PD received more votes ( 20 percent of the vote on Sunday) from college-educated voters than the Fratelli and the Lega combined. As with the U.S. and other Western democracies, liberal-progressive politics is the domain of better educated Italian voters. The Fratelli achieve relatively similar support across all educational levels whereas the Lega has a clear bias towards the lowest levels of education.
Looking at occupations, the PD attracts professionals, white-collar workers, and teachers, while attracting virtually no working-class voters and the unemployed. Lega does well with the working-class; once again, Fratelli’s support is spread across most occupations, with their worst performance among students.
Most support for the PD comes from those with higher incomes, while Lega does best with low-income voters and - once again - Fratelli does well across most salary levels.
Italy being Italy, religion is an important factor. Secular voters consistently favor the center-left, Lega and Forza Italia both do well with practicing Catholics, and Fratelli does “best with those who declare themselves to be religious but are not practicing, which is also the largest segment of Italian society—52 percent.”
This is an interesting point with relevance in the U.S., because while self-proclaimed evangelicals are the strongest single support for MAGA, the majority of those who identify as “evangelical” are not regular church-goers according to several surveys.
There are slight differences between women and men in party preference. Women slightly prefer the Lega and Forza Italia, while men slightly prefer the PD and the Fratelli. More importantly, more women than men declared themselves undecided or uncertain about whether they will vote at all, and early reports of the actual vote shows that the percentage of women voters did decline.
With regard to age demographics, the center-left PD does relatively well with the youngest voters and also scores particularly well with those over 65, voters whose preferences were shaped before the break of 1992, when the Cold War party system collapsed (these are also people old enough to have known people they were related to who experienced actual fascism, or to have experienced it themselves). 5Star - which did spectacularly poorly on Sunday and is a party that has both left and right policies and goals, did well with the youth vote. In contrast, Fratelli d’Italia scored poorly with both younger and older voters and concentrates its support in the middle-aged, which is even more pronounced for the Lega.
The result in Italy is a country in which the center-left is supported mainly by the educated, secular, and professional classes, while the right appeals to a cross-section of the rest of the country - the working class as well as the middle and upper-middle classes, along with the religiously pious and the large number of Italians who treat religion as an identity-marker without actually believing in or practicing it.
This situation is found in Italy, France, Hungary, Poland, Sweden. Also to greater or lesser degrees in Germany, Holland and Belgium. In each case, the center-left has gone into decline with the center-right and anti-liberal populist right rising to take its place.
Tooze predicted the center left would score 9 percent with workers against 29 percent with retirees and 34 percent with managerial and professional voters. The Lega scored twice as well with working class voters as against the electorate at large. But the Fratelli scored the largest share of Italian working-class votes. In total, the three-party right-wing coalition received 58 percent of Italian workers’s votes.
The important point of Tooze’s analysis it that the left’s relative weakness lies in the the fact it only appeals strongly to progressive-radicals, social democrats and social-christians, which tend to be older or younger which under-represents middle aged groups, and tend to be highly educated. They are united in their opposition to identitarian policies, but are split on religion. The PD’s opposition to radical reform makes it difficult for them to capture any of the popular vote opposed to the identitarian politics of the right that is attracted by the anti-systemic message offered by 5Star.
The strength of the Fratelli, by contrast, lies in their ability to mobilize support from moderate conservatives to identitarians and authoritarians (a vote the Fratelli split with the Lega). The Fratelli do not score strongly with modern radicals of the right, but do with with traditionalist conservatives. They also score heavily with anti-welfarists.
The upshot of this analysis is that the surge in support for the Fratelli does not mark a break with the pattern that was already established in 2018. What Meloni accomplished was to take votes from her right-wing rivals and to bring together a wide range of right-wing and conservative opinion that refused any compromise with Draghi’s cross-party government.
The center-left Democratic Party, whose technocratic prime minister Mario Draghi ran a competent national unity government for 18 months, lost badly and is expected to have just 78 seats in the new lower house compared to 238 for the far right.
Italian politics are famously unstable, but what caused this earthquake? The fact that Fratelli d’Italia was able to take votes from the other right wing parties was primarily due to the fact the party made no attempt to cooperate with the Draghi all-party coalition government, and thus has no “blame” for the current situation in Italy where - as elsewhere - the economy is not serving ordinary people.
While the center-left led the Italian government for most of the past decade, it was not able to deliver fundamental change. Italian per capita GDP has not grown for more than 20 years. Immigration and nationalist resentment has increased, while more recent privations caused by Russia’s energy boycott and the European Central Bank’s austerity policies pour oil on the fire.
In Sweden, where the far-right Sweden Democrats led the right-wing coalition to a very narrow victory over the center-left two weeks ago, similar dynamics were at work.
The most alarming shock waves may be felt in France, where serious observers (and my politically-engaged French friend) now believe that Marine Le Pen could win the next presidential election. That doesn’t come until 2027, but most observers don’t’s see the lot of the average French citizen improving between now and then, combined with the fact there is no viable electable left party after the inept President François Holland all but wiped out the French Socialist Party. In 2022, Le Pen made the runoff and was only defeated by Macron by 58.5 to 41.5 percent. Macron’s approval rating is running below Biden’s.
The danger lies in the far right emerging as the prime opposition to a resented status quo as the middle and working classes continue to fall behind economically and feel pressed socially. Until the center-left finds a way to win back the working- and middle-class, as well as the nominally religious, it will continue to lose political ground to the populist and nationalist right.
This applies in the United States as well as Europe.
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