By William Finlator
Giorgia on My Mind: The Italian Election and the Rise of Effective Populism.
Meloni the Neo-Fascist?
One hundred years ago this month, Mussolini marched into Rome. Once in Rome, he took control of government and consolidated power, making Italy the first fascist state.
It is rare for an anniversary to so obviously hold so much significance to contemporary politics. A century after fascism’s beginnings, Italy seems once again in the throes of something similar.
The recent election has thrown up a superficially worrying result. In all likelihood, Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the ‘Brothers of Italy’ (Fratelli d’Italia), a party with past links to various neo-fascist organisations, will be Italy’s next Prime Minister. For most liberals, this looks like a sinister development – the latest ‘far right’ political victory in European politics.
Yet, meaning is often difficult to translate from one political language to another. Although Georgia Meloni is definitively at the cutting edge of right-wing populism, it is not because she is bringing it further rightwards.
Instead, Meloni represents a change in style and strategy. Out goes the traditional, male, charisma-heavy, angry populism, and in comes something different: professional, ideologically driven and focused on delivering outcomes, Meloni’s populism is serious. Call it what you like – but it’s not fascist.
Has Italy been Toppled?
It is easy to see Italy as part of a pan-European trend of rising, increasingly far-right populism. To say so would be disingenuous. Italy is unlike most European countries in that it has been under threat of populist government for thirty years. In fact, the scale and nature of the victory for the populist right is far more a symptom of continuity than of change.
The size of the recent victory is not unprecedented. Populists on the right have had a central role in shaping Italian politics since 1994. Since then, the story of Italian politics is a tug-of-war between technocratic left-wingers and the populist right. In fact, at several points, rightist populists have been more decisive and dominant in shaping Italian politics than today.
Most obviously, Silvio Berlusconi’s success is more impressive than the recent success of Meloni. He notably won three General Elections in 1994, 2001 and 2008. In the elections he did win, he often won decisively and often had considerably higher vote shares than Meloni today. His coalition, the ‘Centre-Right’, the same coalition Meloni represents, captured 46.8% of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies in 2008, higher than the 43.8% Meloni gained in 2022.
In fact, the recent victory is a story of failure as well success. The victory of Meloni’s coalition can in part be explained by the failure of her opponents – the 5 Star Movement (MS5), Italia Viva (IV) and the Democratic Party (PD) dominated ‘Centre-Left’ – to work together.
These parties won over 49% of the vote, yet because of Italy’s complicated electoral system (a hodgepodge of first-past-the-post and proportional representation), their division was decisive. As a result, they were not able to translate a victory in the popular vote into electoral success.
The recent election victory represents an unambiguous right wing populist victory, but it is not as a result of an unprecedented right-wing surge.
Has the Right Wing Become Righter?
Italy’s right-wing populists have not become significantly more right-wing either. As in past elections, huge swathes of the country have voted for parts of the ‘Centre-Right’ coalition that espouse a socially conservative, Italy-centric ideology. But although there is superficial evidence to the contrary, it is not obvious that the constituent parts of this coalition are becoming increasingly right-wing.
The connection between Meloni’s party and the MSI, a former party founded by ex-fascists in 1946, is evidence often cited to claim the unique danger of the current moment. Meloni’s ‘Brothers of Italy’ has not done a good job of distancing itself from this past, notably using a fascist symbol, the flame, as its logo.
Some commentators also point to Meloni herself. She refuses to condemn Musssolini, even if she distances herself from past comments describing him as a ‘good politician’. For the international observer, it’s hardly reassuring.
In fact, things are a little more complicated. Italy’s populist right has long had an ambiguous relationship with Italy’s fascist past and neo-fascist right. Most notably, Berlusconi described Mussolini as ‘having done good’, on one of the more unfortunate dates he could have done so, Holocaust Memorial Day.
In a more obvious way, parties with neo-fascist roots have been involved directly in government for a long time. Although excluded from early Italian governments, they have had a sustained normalised presence in anti-Communist coalitions in the Cold War period and later in the broader ‘Centre-Right’.
Important also is the Italian right’s collective rejection of the alternative to Georgia Meloni – Matteo Salvini, whose brash rhetoric, macho social conservativism, and Russian sympathies places him in the Trump school of populism. Notably Salvini recently called for an end to sanctions on Russia, a policy that Meloni does not favour.
Salvini’s party, the Lega, was leading in the polls until August 2021. That right-wing populist voters rejected him for Meloni is telling. The more professional, pro-European populist Meloni is constructive where Salvini is destructive. Her success betrays a willingness for mainstream populist voters to act maturely about their grievances.
The Rise of Effective Populism
Instead of representing a rise of right-wing populism, Meloni represents the crest of a wave of something qualitatively new: namely, the effective populist.
Meloni is a suited, female career politician, yet she is also an anti-establishment populist. She represents the bite back of the political class – as the politicians take back control of populism from the chancers and outsiders that pioneered its development.
Across Europe, the old sort of populism is slowly giving way to this newer one. Meloni represents an early peak of what is becoming increasingly common. Pivoting away from crude and angry nativism, she embraces a more constructive, positive, and serious nostalgic ideology.
For these new populists, an attempt is made to seem serious. The vague ideological soundings of the Salvini-Trump-Berlusconi populist axis are dropped. In its place is an attempt to draw on deep traditions.
She is also far more coherent that Salvini or Berlusconi and presents a series of credible threats to the existing political establishment. Among her policies are concentrating power in the Presidency and removing a 500-euro monthly payment, a flagship policy of the outgoing Five Star Movement (MS5).
For these new populists what matters is not just rubbishing the existing status quo. Rather, policies are to be both radical and realistic. This is not just a challenge to a smug mainstream political class, but also an attempt to provide some solutions.
The Paradox of Effective Populism
Yet, there is a paradox at the heart of this new populism. Populism is a reaction to dislocation brought about through hyper-globalisation and the excesses of a haughty neoliberal consensus. Right-wing populists attempt to solve these problems through reassertion of the ties that bind us together – society, the nation, the family and sometimes religion.
Unfortunately for these political movements, it’s very hard to solder together the spread ashes of community-centric politics. The extent and strength of our ties to others is generally not determined by the state and its policies, rather many millions of individual choices.
This is what is especially strange about the promise of effective populism. It looks like the real deal – a populism that may be able to claw some agency back from faceless globalisation. But it cannot be. The causes of populism, from the stagnation in real wages, the decline in major western industries, to the atomisation of society and the decline in major religion tend to be long running and deep. Four to five years of populist government won’t change that.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St. Andrews Economist.
Image Source: Al Jazeera
 Ignazi, Piero, ‘Italy: The Faded Beacon and the Populist Surge’, Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe, Comparative Politics (Oxford, 2003; online edn, Oxford Academic, 20 Jan. 2005), https://doi.org/10.1093/0198293259.003.0004, accessed 4 Oct. 2022.