The Northern League started out as a secessionist party, advocating the breakup of Italy and independence for the northern provinces. The Five Star Movement started out as a joke — it was invented by a comedian — and then became a social media operation. Both evolved: The Northern League turned itself into a far-right party, using aggressive language about immigrants, while the Five Star Movement adopted some classic left-wing policies, calling for a universal income and high public spending. Together, they are now set to run the Italian government.
Unsurprisingly, they’ve had difficulty writing a joint program. Most of the things they agree on — conspiracy theories about vaccines; opposition to Russian sanctions; a strong rejection of austerity policies — risk creating a backlash. Still, it’s becoming clear that if they don’t share policies, they do share an attitude. They are both incoherent, angry, unrealistic and often anti-science; they are also clever users of information technology.
Between them, in other words, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement represent every powerful emotion, resentment, suspicion and anxiety that can be mobilized and weaponized by modern political parties. Above all, they reflect the disillusionment with politics — the disillusionment with everything — that inevitably sets in when populism fails.
For, despite the widespread belief that “anti-elite” rhetoric in Italy is a new phenomenon, populism has failed in Italy already. As not everybody now remembers, the Italians lived through a major anti-elite revolution not so long ago, albeit one led first by lawyers and judges. In the 1990s, they uncovered a vast corruption scandal: Tangentopoli — the name translates into something like “bribesville” — eventually engulfed the entire political class. One former prime minister, Bettino Craxi, fled to Tunisia to escape prison; about half of the members of parliament were indicted. The old party system (Christian Democrats, Socialists, Communists) eventually disappeared.
The main beneficiary of this turmoil was Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire with surgically enhanced skin who entered politics partly to evade prosecution himself. He won the prime ministership on a cloud of jokes and promises, and he held it, on and off for nine years, with the help of a new party, Forza Italia. He had a Trump-like way of offending, and a Latin American strongman’s lack of interest in anything resembling real reform. During his years in office he fought the courts that tried to indict him, held elaborate parties in Sardinia, and failed to tackle the bureaucratic and legal tangle that chokes Italian commerce.
A series of technocratic governments, as well as a center-left government that tried to blame the European Union for Italy’s local problems, followed. But the failure of populism did not, in Italy, lead the public to beg for the return of sober centrists. Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.
Of course there are many different ways that this new Italian government might fail. The coalition could quarrel and break up; the Northern League voters who want tax cuts could run up against the Five Star voters who want a huge rise in public spending. If the new government choses to do both, Italy will face a financial crisis. And if the new government behaves “responsibly,” it risks sparking yet another wave of anti-elitist, anti-political emotion — or worse.
Italy, in other words, might have some lessons for Americans. In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.