Commentary Magazine

The Meaning of the Italian Election

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

News of populism’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. That’s the meaning of the weekend’s election in Italy, which saw movements from the political fringes rout the country’s mainstream establishment. More than a year since 2016’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election to the White House, the trans-Atlantic liberal consensus remains vulnerable to popular discontent. It isn’t even a “consensus” anymore.

With nearly 40 percent of the vote, the big winner overall was a four-party right-wing coalition led by Matteo Salvini of the League, whose Euroskeptic, anti-immigration politics track closely with those of France’s National Front. Former Prime Minister and “Bunga-Bunga” fan Silvio Berlusconi represents the voice of moderation in Salvini’s coalition, which also includes the Fascist-linked Brothers of Italy.

Second place went to the Five Star Movement (M5S), which garnered the single largest share of ballots (about a third). It calls for trade protectionism, massive public-works programs, welfare spending, and a slate of nutsy environmentalist ideas, including a complete phase-out of fossil fuels by 2050. Its ideology is essentially green-left, and M5S would fit in well with, say, the German Green Party and other parties of the kind. That is, except for its virulently anti-immigration stance.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left coalition came third, with 20 percent of the vote. He resigned, vowing that his Democratic Party (PD) would never work with “anti-systemic” parties. The PD’s defeat extends a losing streak for the European center left. Across the Continent, traditional Social Democratic parties have lost ground to the hard right and harder left. In Britain, the Jeremy Corbyn wing of Labour has staged a hostile takeover of a once-moderate party.

The results in Italy cast doubt on the view, lately gaining currency, that Brexit and Trumpism were historical blips or “black swan” events. It is true that, in France, Emmanuel Macron managed to block Marine Le Pen’s path to the Élysée while, next door, Angela Merkel continues to hold the line against the angry and insurgent Alternatives for Germany party. But elsewhere things don’t look so bright for the center. Perhaps it is France and Germany that are the exceptions.

The fact that opposition to immigration unites Berlusconi, the League, the Brothers of Italy, and M5S should tell Continental elites something. Even before an open-door invitation issued from Berlin brought more than a million newcomers, frontline countries like Italy had absorbed tens of thousands of migrants annually–far more than they could handle. Many of these were genuine refugees from wars in Africa and the Mideast; others were economic migrants who saw a rare opening to resettle in Europe. The consequences for social cohesion were disastrous, and those consequences were generally ignored by media and other mainstream institutions. Anxiety about losing control of the borders has now driven Italy, the European Union’s third-largest economy, into the populists’ hands. Which country is next?

Correct analysis of these events remains crucial for those of us concerned with the preservation of freedom and self-government in the West. It won’t do to play down the scale of the discontent—or to dismiss anti-systemic voters in Bologna (or Cincinnati) as rubes in thrall to politicians who play on their prejudices. Something about the liberal consensus is not working, particularly when it comes to immigration and integration in Europe. Acknowledging this basic truth is the first step to stopping the rise of the Salvinis of the world.

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