Democracy can be hard sometimes. The Us Vs. Them divide deepens in democracies around the world with every populist that finds a way to magnify their voice. How did we get here? Your bran likely just flipped to scenes to the 2016 United States Presidential Election, but you would be wrong. Where did Trump get the blueprint? The answer is simple, Silvio Berlusconi. Some would say that Berlusconi was Trump before Trump. No sane person could deny the similarities between these two, both have been known to love themselves. Both leaders have a history of judicial investigations that highlighted their administrations. Berlusconi served in multiple positions in the Italian Government on three different occasions (1994, 2001-2006, and 2008-2011), which was both the result of and came with incredible political power. The Lega Nord (LN) party in Italy is what the American Republican party aspires to be: anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, pro-disinformation, and anti-immigrant. The main difference is the diversity in political parties in Italy. With so many parties and diversity in parliament, it is much different than the two-party system in the United States, which creates an opportunity for people like Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini. What is interesting about the populist landscape and the connection between Berlusconi and Salvini is that Salvini appears to be the heir apparent to the right-wing of Italian politics. Berlusconi has even said that he hopes for the right-wing to become more like the United States, where the right-wing works together with centrists. Unfortunately for his vision, the centrists of the Republican Party are not fairing so well now, just ask Liz Cheney. The question arises, do populists in power erode democracy? Have Berlusconi and Salvini contributed to the erosion of Italian democracy? I believe that they have, as do many populist leaders.
So how did Berlusconi come to power? He was able to rise to power as many political parties were affected by scandals in the early 1990’s as a media mogul who was able to create a conservative coalition under the Forza Italia party. Much like Donald Trump in 2016, he was able to activate a base of voters that supported him wholeheartedly. In many ways, Salvini is hoping to model his political fortunes in a similar fashion. Unfortunately for Salvini, he has not quite had the political success that he has hoped for thus far. The inability of the right-wing parties to consolidate their messaging has led to the rise of a technocrat like Mario Draghi. Draghi has been popular so far and has the financial experience that makes him a viable candidate in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What connects the United States Populist movement to that of the Italians would be that many of the goals of the American Republican Party are like that of Lega Nord. Both Salvini and Trump have been able to rally supporters by subtly eroding the democratic foundations of government. Salvini has used similar rhetoric to Trump by endorsing those who have xenophobic and homophobic views. The democratic erosion in Italy is slightly different to that of the United States because the Democratic Party still appears to have power (for now, pending midterm election results). In Italy, there are more than two main political parties and populism appears to be on the rise. Salvini also supports the separation of Italy from the European Union, which is like Donald Trump in that he would like his supporters to only listen to what he has to say, and no one else. The flawed democracy model that the Italian political system appears to suffer from a strained relationship among political parties and widespread corruption. This often occurs when political fortunes are valued above all else. Italy has been able to subvert a complete collapse due to general elections, like in 2018 and a failed budget vote in 2011. Comparisons could be made to that of the Republican Party in the United States but the main difference would be that many of the votes cast in the 2020 Presidential Election were more anti-trump that Pro-Biden.
So, have Berlusconi and Salvini eroded democracy? Most accounts would say yes due to populist, divisive viewpoints. Neither was able to subvert democracy directly, but by controlling aspects of the medial that Italians consume, faith in government has definitely been affected in a negative way. As with Donald Trump, Salvini has rejected democratic norms and belligerently challenged the media and those who oppose him. This is apparent in many cases but the most prevalent would be the way that Salvini has challenged judges who did not support the hardline anti-immigration policies of Lega Nord. In contrast, Trump had the opportunity to appoint 3 (!) Supreme Court Judges during his presidency, which would indicate that Trump’s influence will still be felt for years to come, regardless of the outcome of a likely 2024 presidential bid. Donald Trump has become a kingmaker within the Republican Party, and appears to continue to shout instructions to Republican members of congress from any platform that he has, except for Twitter of course. These populist leaders who place political fortunes above all else tend to have one thing in common, scandals. Salvini has been involved in several scandals, one of the most notable would be the Oil Scandal of 2018. Much like Trump, Salvini and the party leadership of Lega Nord believe that they can subvert the rule of law by using political power as a bargaining chip.
Italy, much like the United States has a choice to make. Unfortunately, the choice for Italy is much more difficult. While the two-party system has its flaws, the political fortunes of candidates tend to fall along party lines. In Italy, the political roulette is much more high stakes with more players in the game. In the United States, the two main political parties act as the gatekeepers of democracy, while in Italy, kingmakers like Berlusconi, determine who comes next and when. So far, Italy has avoided a complete democratic collapse, but the 2023 Election will be very telling for the fortunes of Italian Democracy. Mario Draghi has already made strides in unifying Italians, (which can be super helpful in helping to defeat populists!) and appears to be popular thus far, but has a lot of work to do in bringing political and economic stability to Italy in the coming years.
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You make an excellent argument for the deleterious effect of right-wing populist leaders on democracy (in this case, Italy and the U.S!). I found the comparison between Berlusconi/Salvini and Trump and the current iteration of the Republican party to be very apt. I found myself wondering if Italy may have a better chance of recovering from this surge in right-wing populism due to their multi-party political structure. I wonder if the dynamism you mentioned in terms of what future political outcomes may occur could be a tool to change course and move away from this brand of right-wing populism? The United States’ two-party system makes that extremely difficult, but in a multi-party system I wonder if there are more options.
Hello Ryan. You made good points in your analysis. I like how you compared Italy and the US. It is conducive for the American public to understand Italian politics, which is a particular case. I lived in Rome for seven years, and I had the chance to experience the dynamics of Italian politics. It is certainly not easy to understand. Two points that would make your points stronger: 1. To mention the differences between the main political parties: Movimento 5 Stelle, Lega (LSP), Partito Democratico and Forza Italia. 2. To distinguish clearly the coalitions from the parties. The reader might be confused between Berlusconi and Salvini, etc. Il Cavaliere is indeed a genius to make coalitions [and money, e.g., Mediaset]. Both leaders did ally in the 2018 elections, but they are separate characters from different parties. Recently, Berlusconi convoked Giorgia Meloni, and Salvini to a meeting at Villa Grande in Rome to create a center-right “coalition.” The goal was to let people know that center-right parties would be ready to ally in future elections. Giovanni Sartori, a professor that I admired the most and read a lot, wrote the book “Il Sultanato” (The Sultanate). That is how he described Berlusconi’s form of government. I recommend this book. It should be available in English. Sartori says that Berlusconi is a Sultan because his government was like a court: he does what he wants, obtains what he needs, and does not distinguish between the public and the private (Cf. Norberto Bobbio). Like a sultan, he liked revelries, like the infamous “Bunga Bunga” parties, attended by prime ministers and political leaders from different countries. Sartori said that Berlusconi was a 20th-century dictator. Yet, during his time, people declared to be “extremely happy with our dictator.” A sultan, a dictator, a populist, and an avid businessman, a genius to make economic and political alliances (Mediaset Group). Many thought that after his term, Il Cavaliere was going to live a tranquil life at Villa Zeffirelli in Rome… but he is ready to come back to the political realm.
Hello Ryan, this was a great read and it is very interesting as an American to read that other countries have and is going through the same political events like the United States. it put thing into perspective the large impact Donald Trump had not only in the United States but on the Global stage. For a country like Italy and it’s past it is very surprising that politicians like Salvini can rise through the political ranks. furthermore, you make a great point with the United States’ party system. Many people in the States wish that the two party system should be dissolve so more candidates and more diversity can be brought into the political system. However, as seen here a having multiple parties isn’t always a great thing because the political actors are trying their best to do what is beneficial for them and don’t have a true identity/partylines. furthermore, as you mention people like Berlusconi, who have greatly power of influence on both the media and politicians themselves make it very difficult to truly know where loyal lies versus who’s really just a lobbyist/loyalist dress as a politicians.