Populism is on the rise in many democratic countries globally including many European countries, such as Italy. Democracies of the Cold War era often went by the way of military coups. There are many ways that democratic erosion occurs subtly over time; however, populism seems to play a key role in modern democratic erosion.
What is Populism?
Populism is gaining traction with everyday people, who feel traditional political establishments are untrustworthy, or are lackluster in representation of their beliefs and values. Populist leaders inspire disdain and skepticism for opposing political parties among their supporters, furthering the division between those who support populist candidates and those who do not. They often prey on fears of globalization, economic despair, and immigration to appeal to their supporters. This creates an “us or them” mentality that leads to extreme polarization within government. This is particularly dangerous for democracy as populists gain enough support to dismantle democracy without the majority of people speaking out against it.
How Populism Leads to Democratic Erosion
Democratic erosion by populist leaders is a gradual process. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when a populist leader has successfully gained control over democratic institution because there is not an obvious indicator such as a hostile takeover overnight. What does happen though is a process that is as follows. First, a populist leader is elected to hold office by an election that is fair and upheld by democracy. They then use the distrust of democratic institution of their followers to undermine and go against democracy. They try to seize power over the institution by gradually dismantling or suppressing the factors of democratic societies such as freedom press, freedom of speech, or free and fair elections. Then they purposefully appoint loyalists to hold positions of power that could be a threat to their own position, such as the justice system.
How Populism is Endangering Italy’s Democracy
Populism is a longtime occurrence in the Italian political landscape. In recent years however, major populist parties have rallied surprising support among citizens. The most noteworthy is a right wing Populist Party called the Northern League, commonly referred to as simply the League, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini. The League has a heavy anti-immigration agenda and has been under criticism of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance for its racist and xenophobic views against Muslims and minority groups. The League rallies support from people with similar views of race and immigration, capitalizing on harmful stereotyping and speech. This sort of speech empowers supporters to speak and act in hateful ways while uniting themselves under the party. Salvini in particular uses anti-Muslim rhetoric and scare tactics to convince his supporters and potential supporters of a possible Islamic takeover of European countries. This contributes largely to polarization among the people of Italy.
How Populism in Italy Compares to the United States
The actions and rhetoric of the League are in direct correspondence to Matteo Salvini’s goal of taking leadership over Italy. Salvini made his intent of power over the party obvious when he changed the official slogan of the party to “Salvini premier” which translates to “Salvini for Prime Minister”. Comparisons show similarities between the behavior of the President of the United States and Matteo Salvini. Over the last four years, political scholars have increasingly labeled Donald Trump as a populist president. His subtle and consistent erosion of democracy has become increasingly more obvious to many, especially now with the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and his attempts at overturning the 2020 Presidential Election results. However, Trump started out similarly to Salvini in the way that he too united his supporters largely under xenophobic and racist views. One of Trump’s big campaign promises from the 2016 Presidential race was that he would build a wall along the southern border of the United States to prevent illegal immigration. Like Salvini, Trump also employed xenophobic rhetoric against Muslims in his campaign. Many people in United States drew concern from Trump’s rhetoric, but they did not truly understand how detrimental it would be for Americans’ views of democracy. Towards the middle and end of his term nearing the 2020 Presidential election, Trump began to attack the integrity of his opposition belligerently, demonizing anyone against him. Because he had rallied people on his side through his populist campaign strategies, they were quick to agree with him. It did not matter that political scientists and bipartisan government officials spoke out against him; Trump made his supporters believe they were all lying and out to ruin their lives if they were successful in preserving democracy. The people who support President Trump do not understand that democratic erosion is taking place because they are a part of it happening.
If Salvini is able to gain a platform as influential as Trump’s, he will likely follow the same pattern. Italy should be wary of the motives, words, and actions of the League and Matteo Salvini as they pose as a great threat to democracy in Italy. Populist leaders convince countries that they will make great of their country, however in reality; they will try to destroy democracy.
*Photo by Dominik JPW “Exploring Venice in summer” (Unsplash), Creative Commons Zero license.