The extreme-right party, Lega Nord has gained popularity over the last 10 years and Matteo Salvini is responsible for it. Salvini now is the leader of Lega per Salvini Premier, shortened to Lega. He is known for his extreme views on immigration, support for Panadian Independence (independence for northern Italy), and advocacy for dismantlement of EU, and of course, his selfies with the crowds at his rallies. This blog post aims to answer the question : is Matteo Salvini a threat to Italian democracy? Ultimately, Salvini is a threat to democracy because he has an extreme-right agenda and uses populist techniques, such as, polarizing rhetoric and Italian values, to gain popularity while undermining the democratic process.
Firstly, his extreme-right agenda is a threat to the Italian democracy. Salvini holds an extreme stance on minorities, especially immigrants. These extremist values are used to mirror people’s feelings and illegitimatize the incumbent and the opposition because they aren’t sufficiently addressing the problem. Sociologist Hochschild explains this phenomenon when she travelled around Louisiana to understand why middle class white people were voting against their own economic self-interest in the US . She found that it was a combination of fear and anger. Fear of the minority population becoming bigger and becoming a priority in the governments view. Anger towards the government because they do not feel represented or advocated for. This combination of feelings makes them susceptible to extremist rhetoric, which is often based on emotions and values. Extremist views are a threat to democracy because they are polarizing in nature. Extremist politicians disregard political norms and undermine the importance of democratic processes.
When the former leader of Lega Nord, Bossi, was in power, his agenda was to blame southern Italians for their problems. However, after a party funding scandal which forced Bossi to resign, Salvini climbed the ranks and replaced the enemy, which used to be southern Italians to immigrants. Italians wanted someone to blame for their stagnation, therefore, the extreme party started pointing fingers at immigrants, who can visibly be distinguished in the population. An example of the extent of Salvini’s views on immigration include when he was pushing for a census of Rome to be made so ‘illegal immigrants’ could be deported, even though many of them were born in Italy. Salvini has also previously called for the need of “deportation centers” upon the immigrants coming to Sicily. Using immigrants as a scapegoat increased popularity, which at the point of the scandal was at about 4%, now the party is estimated to have 33% of the voting intentions. Salvini’s rise to power is similar to previous extremist populists, such as The increased popularity can be explained by the Italian working class feeling heard and represented by Salvini.
The second factor that makes Matteo Salvini a threat to democracy is the fact that he is a populist. The aforementioned technique of pointing fingers and using scapegoats is also a common populist technique. It is also a technique used by former President Trump, who blamed minorities and immigrants, who has also been labelled a populist. Moreover, Salvini uses populist rhetoric to engage and satisfy the voters. Merceica argues that lack of accountability can be used to distinguish between dangerous demagoguery and heroic demagoguery . Lack of accountability could come in the form of rhetoric focused on present emotions and values, rather than being founded in the reason and future interest. Salvini reaches out to his followers by sharing a common enemy: immigrants, and shares their frustrations. However, he doesn’t provide reasonable opportunities to improve it. Rather, the actions he takes are to exclude people from being ‘Italian’ to secure more votes, such as the deportation of minorities, as per the census of Rome. Another example of this is his motto ‘Prima gli Italiani”, which translates to ‘Italians first”, much like Trump’s phrase “America first!”.
Merceica argues that there is a common technique used by dangerous demagogues, or populists, which she calls: “weaponized communication”, rhetoric used to fuel anger and incapacitate the opposition rather than to educate and inform . One form of weaponized communication could be ‘fake news’, Trump used it to label the election as ‘stolen’, as an attempt to overturn it and remain in office. Salvini has been accused by politicians of using fake news to decrease the popularity of the opposition. By avoiding political accountability, Salvini is a threat to democracy because, Merceica argues, political power can be easily abused . Levitsky and Ziblatt also argue that democracies that have been overturned by unaccountable leaders before have shown weak commitment to democratic processes, illegitimated opponents, encouraged violence, and devalued media’s reliability. Hochschild, Arlie Russel. Strangers In Their Own Land : Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York ; London : New Press, 2016.  Merceica, J:ennifer R. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 2019  Merceica, Jennifer R. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 2019  Merceica, Jennifer R. “Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 2019