This is an election year, and for most American voters the November midterm races for the House and the Senate are of paramount concern. But Americans should also pay close attention to elections happening abroad, particularly those in Italy, because they highlight important global trends which have wide-reaching ramifications.
Italy’s geographic location means that it is often the first destination for refugees fleeing from Africa. And its economy, although struggling, is still the eighth largest in the world and the third largest within the Eurozone. For those reasons alone, it is important to pay attention to the nation’s politics.
On Sunday, a majority of Italians voted for populist, anti-establishment and anti-European Union parties in their national election. In doing so, they rejected the status quo in exchange for the promise of radical change.
About one third of the vote went to Movimento Cinque Stelle, or the Five Star Movement (M5S), an anti-establishment populist party. The center-right coalition, made up of Lega Nord (Northern League), Forza Italia (Go Italy) and Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) together gained around 37 percent.
Both M5S and Lega Nord have espoused views that should not only concern Italians but also members of the international community. M5S, an internet-based party, has promised a minimum monthly income and reduction in unemployment rates without details on how it will do so. Lega Nord, a far-right party, is known for its racist, Islamophobic and xenophobic rhetoric. Both seek to restrict migration; Lega Nord advocates for mass deportation.
Following Sunday’s election, Italy is now faced with the challenge of forming a coalition government, since none of the parties won a majority of seats in the Parliament. Which parties will join together, and what that government will look like, remains unclear at this time.
What is clear from this election, however, is that populists know how to win. When Donald Trump was elected the 45th President of the United States, many issued a warning that populism was on the rise in America. Now people are saying the same thing about Italy, including Steve Bannon, Trump's former White House strategist, who was in Italy to support right-wing parties last week.
Populism is a neat catchall word with a vague definition. The dictionary simply states that populism is “support for the concerns of ordinary people.” Populists, thus, have a unique advantage: They are able to advocate for the needs of “the people,” without clearly establishing who those individuals are.
Populist parties run varying campaigns and champion different platforms, but they share many similarities. They mobilize against an established elite, which includes the wealthy, the educated and those in government, while simultaneously fighting against an “other” group.
In Italy, and in America, this “other” group is typically scapegoated for society’s problems, allowing “the people” to target their resentment towards ethnic minorities, immigrants, the corrupt elite and anyone else deemed an enemy of “the people.”
Many fear that technological advancement, increasingly diverse populations and a global economy will threaten their jobs and their security. They are scared that they will be left behind in this changing society and that they will become the victims of violent terrorists. Populist parties seize those fears and promise to prioritize the true people, by supporting a strong nationalist agenda. They say “Americans first” or “Italians first.”
By echoing these fears, populist parties accomplish what mainstream parties often fail to do: listen to the anger and resentment of people who feel neglected. So many of us were shocked when Hillary Clinton did not become president. But if we had taken the concerns of those who voted for Trump seriously — working class, white and/or less educated individuals — perhaps we would not have been so surprised.
Populist parties do not create fear or resentment: They simply feed off of and exacerbate existing feelings. Understanding that populist parties prey on the fears of “the people” but do not propose concrete, realistic policies to address those fears, is the key to defeating them.
Treating anti-establishment, populist parties as jokes is naïve and dangerous. In order to combat the current wave of populism, we must commit to fighting prejudice both at home and abroad.
We need a strong, watchdog media to hold parties and individuals accountable for their actions. When parties fail to follow through on their promises or enact policies that are harmful, the media must be there, reporting diligently. In addition, we must fact check and scrutinize false rhetoric that demonizes asylum seekers and migrants, instead of letting these ideals flourish in public discourse.
We need governments and organizations committed to preserving human rights. We need to create a better educated public, one that has the ability to discern and distinguish between candidates and elect those who are capable of ensuring progress for all.
Opposition is effective in elections but does little to address the conditions of voters. Instead, proposing pragmatic solutions and fighting positive campaigns must be the way forward. It is not enough to be against M5S or Lega Nord, against Trump or against populism. We must stand for human rights, democracy and equality everywhere, not just within our own borders.
Morgan Ome is a junior Writing Seminars and Italian double major from Hillsborough, Calif. She is a News & Features Editor.