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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