Want to Know What’s Coming Politically? Watch Italy.
A head of state who was a business tycoon with a history of chasing women and prone to making disparaging comments about them. A young leader elected as a fresh face who quickly ran afoul of internecine politics. A nationalistic populist who targets immigrants.
No, this is not the US, it is Italy. More known for art and fashion, Italy in recent years has experienced politics foreshadowing what has happened and is happening elsewhere. Perhaps we can look to them now to understand where things may go, in the US, and elsewhere.
The business tycoon leader of Italy was Silvio Berlusconi, though like Trump, his first name is seldom used in conversation. As Prime Minister, he was the head of the Italian state four separate times. His last stint ended in 2011 when he was ensnared in multiple allegations of affairs with women (the legendary bunga bunga parties) and corruption, before finally being convicted of tax evasion.
Berlusconi made a fortune in media and entertainment and controlled the largest private media outlet in Italy, Mediaset. Despite pre-election promises to divest those holdings, he continued to control his companies while Prime Minister. During his time in office, he was frequently accused of making political decisions tailored to benefiting his companies.
Berlusconi’s political agendas revolved around creating jobs, cutting taxes, reforming the political process, and making Italy strong. He frequently boasted of accomplishing all his programs, though his critics pointed out that few things were enacted or changed. While his business acumen was purported to be put into the service of invigorating the Italian economy, when he finally left office, the Italian economy was in tatters and its accumulated national debt had approached worrisome levels. While the debt problems in Greece got all the headlines, it was generally acknowledged that the most dangerous debt problems were those of Italy.
Berlusconi dominated the political right of Italy for almost two decades. The center-left was led by politicians who generally failed to stir the Italian populace. Romano Prodi lead two left of center governments; when Berlusconi was ousted in 1996 and again in 2006. A new, supposedly more vibrant alternative to Berlusconi and the right was Matteo Renzi, who became Prime Minister in 2014. While thought as being too-young and inexperienced to deal with the political infighting and large government bureaucracy, Renzi swept to power on a reform agenda, and a general feeling of trying someone not associated with the Old Guard. However, his time in office was brief after backing a major political reform that fell on deaf ears.
The Italian economy suffered greatly after the worldwide recession of 2008- 2009. As of this writing, the only European economy other than Greece that has not recovered to its pre-2008 GDP peak is Italy. Unemployment still hovers at a level, almost 11%, close to where the US peaked after the recession, and youth unemployment in Italy, ages 15 -24 is still over 30%, marginally better than the high of 40% in 2014.
With general disgust with politicians and shocked by the scale of the fallout from the economic crisis, Italians have increasingly turned to new, untried political movements. The Cinque Stella (Five-Star) Movement was started by one-time popular comedian Beppe Grillo. It won the largest number of seats in the most recent election, with just over 30% of the vote. Its populist agenda promised to reform the perceived bloat of the Italian state, clean up the corruption and old-style tactics of the existing political parties, and push-back to the dictates of the European Union (EU). Lately, it has jumped on the anti-immigration bandwagon since there is wide-spread concern about floods of immigrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. Cinque Stella in the most recent election promised a guaranteed annual income to all Italians, which won support in the economically backward south of Italy.
Cinque Stella may have crested in political support since another populist movement appears to have momentum. Lega (the League) has its roots in the north of Italy. Initially a north of Italy separatist movement, the Lega has abandoned secessionism for a platform intended to win more widespread support. Nationalism is at its core, since its leader, Matteo Salvini, endorses a strong Italy, not one beholden to the dictates of the European Union (EU). Salvini previously advocated withdrawing from the EU, a desire not backed by a majority of Italians. Standing up to the EU, however, is popular in Italy, and potentially the most potent plank of its platform. There is some resentment in the Italian public to an EU perceived to be dominated by Northern European countries. In some Italian eyes, Germany is restricting the EU by maintaining a euro that benefits German exports, rejection of increased banking union, and debt retrenchment for Southern European economies that stymies their economic development.
Besides nationalism and standing up to the hegemony of the EU, the Lega is in the forefront of the anti-immigrant movement. Since Italian news has broadcast seemingly unending segments about waves of immigrants landing on Italian shores or being picked up and deposited there by boat, that the anti-immigrant political strain has gained a foothold. Also popular are the tax cuts being promoted, since the tax load in Italy is quite high by some standards of measurement.
The Lega’s base was initially the north of Italy in reaction to the demands of the economically stressed south, but now is becoming more national. It is appealing to the well-off with the promise of tax cuts, but also wins wider support for its promises of economic stimulus, defying EU budget standards, and rejection of new waves of immigrants.
The rubber is likely to hit the road in Italy and in most of Europe next year. The populist movements of the Lega and Cinque Stella are gearing up for the European Parliament elections next May. There are discussions of uniting with populists in Hungary, Austria, and especially in France with the Le Pen factions to make major changes in the EU. Nationalism is central to all those factions, but nationalism in many respects is contrary to the whole mission and foundation of the EU. While not all countries will go over to the anti-EU, nationalistic side, the EU project is threatened any place where these movements are strengthening. As shown by the Greek debt-crisis, the EU area teeters from rejection by small numbers. A threat by Italy to leave or an impasse by Italy and the EU would be very destabilizing to all of Europe.
While there are substantial differences between an economic powerhouse like the US and Italy and significant cultural and political differences, the driving forces behind Italian politics are eerily similar to the US. Robust nationalism finds support in both places. A highly dysfunctional political landscape is ripe for new movements or unconventional leaders. Frustration seems high in both places. Concern over immigration is an issue. Most of all, there is a readiness to try something different to make things better.
Italians seem to have tried political solutions that have pre-dated those tried by Americans. While are major differences, watching what happens in Italy will be important for the European project and for new movements in the US.