What If Di Maio And Salvini Had Read Tocqueville?

An explanation of the success of populism in Italy.

Tocqueville Salvini Di Maio Populism
Photo: US Public Domain

An explanation of the success of populism in Italy

By Fabio Seferi

In recent years, political and public debate in Italy has condensed into one crucial concept. Populism has been the leitmotiv of Italian politics between those who urged citizens to be aware and dam its rise, and those who tried to underrate its spread. The array of general misconceptions about the phenomenon is second only to its various applications to different political realities. Luigi Di Maio (Five Star Movement) and Matteo Salvini (League) are two of the most prominent figures of Italian populism. Their rise, alongside the electoral successes of their respective parties, are expressions of the same ideology but with slightly different features. But what has been key to their political formula? Can we find the seeds of their success in the thought of a 19th century French political philosopher?

First of all, it is necessary to explain what populism is, and which of its components pertain to the Five Star Movement and the League’s ideologies. A starting point of its analysis is to adopt Cas Mudde’s definition: populism is a thin ideology, thus meaning that it can be adapted to various societies, with different cultural and historical backgrounds. Indeed, populism does not have deep roots and a carefully thought-out value-system. It simply (and simplifying) internally separates society into two antagonistic and homogenous groups: the “pure people” opposed to the “corrupt elite”. In this sense the “corrupt elite” prospers and enriches itself at the expense of the (larger group of) people, deemed “pure”, since it is the keeper of the true values and traditions of that political community.

Moreover, it is this corrupt elite that hinders the accomplishment of the will of the people, thus undermining overall social development and better living conditions. Therefore, the elite becomes a true enemy of the people and the people must be vying for its replacement. It is this specific form of populism that has characterized the Five Star Movement (FSM) since its early “V-days” — i.e. “Vaffa days”, Italian for “f**k-you days” — giving shape to a coagulation of accumulated social hatred towards the ruling class, considered corrupt and alien to the daily needs of common people. The aim was to kick every well-established politician out of office. The opposition of FSM (since its embryonic shapes) was not directed to a specific political party, but to the whole political system as such, guilty of building an unequal society, impoverishing the poor and enriching the already rich and powerful.

A slightly different version of populism partially substitutes its focus from the “corrupt elite” to a minority of foreigners or, more specifically, (legally illegal) migrants and/or refugees. A minority that is considered (likewise the elite-related version) as a privileged group that takes advantage of the Italian welfare system, a system that they do not help to produce (foremost, they live by spending Italian citizens’ taxes). In this case, migrants also would undermine ethnic homogeneity, national cohesion, cultural orthodoxy and public orthopraxy. Moreover, they are also widely considered as a menace for a fair job-seeking competition, accused of lowering wages.

It was Salvini’s League that intercepted the growing unease for a changing population it its origin and connotations. Salvini thus condemns both the global migratory flows, but even more so the politicians that care more about the migrants’ status than that of millions of “honest citizens”, a former middle-class that is now expropriated from its wealth just to create a better environment for foreigners that do not contribute to the state’s development. This second type of populist rhetoric is even trickier and more dangerous than the first one, since it is not only directed towards a powerful group, but to an emarginated and vulnerable one.

So how do Di Maio and Salvini link with Alexis de Tocqueville? In its Democracy in America the French political philosopher and historian lays down a phenomenon that has been since known as the “Tocqueville effect”. According to the “Tocqueville effect”, the most powerful and violent riots against central power do not happen when there is deep economic underdevelopment and political inequality, but when overall conditions are improving. This happens when social progress and economic improvement has not been accomplished with the expected speed. When backwardness and abuse is the rule, all disparities look permissible and no distinct inequality can catch the human eye. However, when things start to improve any unfairness and discrimination is considered as unbearable. Saying it with Tocqueville himself: “When all conditions are unequal, no inequality is so great as to offend the eye, whereas the slightest dissimilarity is odious in the midst of general uniformity; the more complete this uniformity is, the more insupportable the sight of such a difference becomes.

Therefore, a general sentiment of protest and disapproval (at best) with respect to the established political class explodes more fiercely when it fails to ferry society quickly enough from a deeply critical situation to a more prosperous and equal one. That is precisely what we have witnessed in Italy after the economic crisis of the late 2000s. In the last decade Italy closed with a negative annual GDP growth percentage in four distinct years: -1.05% in 2008; -5.45% in 2009; -2.82% in 2012; and -1.73% in 2013. Moreover, it has been since 2000 that GDP growth does not go significantly above 2% per year. Thus, following one of the greatest global economic slump since the 1929 Wall Street crisis, Italian politicians have not been able to find the right recipe for a sound recovery.

The “Tocqueville effect” gives the perfect hummus to populist parties. Amid growing inequalities and a slow progress, the recalcitrant people feel as robbed as possible: they had to bear the most part of the costs and consequences of the crisis, yet still they have not gathered any significant fruit from the recovery. This can also explain how FSM and the League have head steady growth in popular consent in recent years – more marked over time for the former – and why only now, 10 years after the crisis, an anti-authority and anti-establishment sentiment has become the reigning one in the population.

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