The leaders of Italy’s two largest right-wing populist parties, Matteo Salvini (L) and Georgia Meloni (File)

In an interview published on Wednesday, I spoke with the Illiberalism Studies Program about radical-right populism in Italy and Switzerland, Silvio Berlusconi, the effect of Coronavirus on populist politics, and the meaning of “illiberalism”:

Daniele, you have been working on Italian populist and radical right movements and recently co-authored Populism in Europe: Lessons from Umberto Bossi’s Northern League. Can we begin by discussing what role does the memory of fascism play into the Lega Nord political outreach and more globally in today’s Italian political life?

First, it is important to keep in mind that there has always been an electoral market in Italy for parties openly inspired by fascism. These cannot call themselves “fascist” as the Constitution prohibits it, but can of course be inspired by that tradition, while maintaining that they are something else. Hence the Italian Social Movement – created by people who had fought alongside Mussolini until the bitter end – gained representation in Parliament at the very first free elections held in the country in 1948. Today there are various extra-parliamentary organizations drawing heavily from fascism, including Forza Nuova and CasaPound, and there is no doubt that several representatives of Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy come from that milieu and are known to have expressed views that are in line with that tradition.

The League (previously: Northern League) is something else. Under its founder and long-time leader Umberto Bossi, the similarities with fascism had to do with the very harsh language used against immigrants; in other words, with the party’s nativism. However, the roots of this party were not in the fascist tradition and in fact, in many respects, the League was far from fascism in ideological terms. Firstly, under Bossi the Northern League was attempting to represent only one part of the country, the north, hoping it may even break away from the rest of Italy. This would be anathema to fascists who always ridiculed Bossi’s claim that the north of Italy should itself be treated as “a nation”. In other words, in the 1990s fascists and leghisti were what the Catalan nationalists and VOX are today in Spain: polar opposites.

See also Why Italy’s League is The World’s Modern Mass Party

Secondly, and importantly, Bossi’s conception of the people and of the role of the state was very different from those of fascists. To summarise this in a few words: fascists argue that all is owed to the state and, when in power, aimed to “remake” Italians, striving to forge the ‘new man’ and ‘new woman’. For populists like Bossi, “the people” is already perfect as it is, it does not need re-educating or re-making, it just needs representing through the party and leader. For them, the people’s ‘common sense’ is all that is needed for the community to thrive. Moreover, at the time the League was very suspicious of the idea of giving more power to state institutions and was also much less authoritarian than it has become under its new leader, Matteo Salvini. One reason is that it was suspicious of political, military, and civil elites, while fascism places great faith in society’s hierarchies.

With Salvini, the League has moved into much more traditional nationalist territory. It is true that it has been able to attract new members coming from the extreme right, but even that has happened before Brothers of Italy looked like a serious contender for power. Now, the latter is the natural destination for people attracted by the neo-fascist tradition when they also wish to join a party that has influence and is present in the institutions. Hence, I do not think Salvini’s League is “fascist” either despite being authoritarian and – if possible – even more anti-immigrant than Bossi’s League. However, its conception of the state, proposals about the economy, and conception of “the people” all set them apart from fascism even today.

Literature on populism often discusses the role of social media as echo chambers, but Italy shows that even before social media, television – and radio before it – played a key role in mainstreaming some ideological narratives. How should we revisit Silvio Berlusconi’s legacy today in the business/politics/media mixing of genres?

It is interesting how we have been talking about “Berlusconi’s legacy” for many years, when he could in fact turn out to be the kingmaker in the next election. He is not out of the picture yet. It is indeed unlikely we will see Salvini or Meloni as prime minister without Berlusconi’s say-so (they will probably need his 7-8% of votes to gain a majority).

But if we want to start talking about his legacy, I’d say that he has left a profound imprint on the country in political terms for two reasons. Firstly, Berlusconi played an important role in ushering in a duo-polar system in Italy, whereby left- and right-wing alliances would compete for government. Secondly, throughout the last three decades Berlusconi and some of his many media have been major forces blowing on the flames of populism, heightening suspicion for the political elites and the justice system and attacking the rules and conventions that allow a liberal democracy to function. When I see journalists buying into Berlusconi’s recent narrative that he is now become some sort of father-figure for the nation, someone who is above the clashes between left and right and only cares about democracy, I do not know whether to laugh or cry.

But as far as the media are concerned, Berlusconi is a man of the past. Yes, he still controls various television channels, and yes these are still influential, particularly among older cohorts of voters. However, he has always been the master of a top-down, “from-one-to-many” model of communication that truly belongs to the past in a world of social media and interactions “on the go.” Of course, it has worked perfectly well for him, and I suspect that he is now the most seasoned political leader in Europe. Not bad for someone who, back in 1994, argued to be a businessman reluctantly lent to politics on a temporary basis.

Daniele, you have also worked on Switzerland. Could you explain how, given the nature of Swiss direct democracy, does the Swiss People’s Party mobilize grievance in its favor and create issue salience?

The means provided by direct democracy have been expertly used by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in recent decades, but they are not only suitable to the populist right. They can be successfully deployed by the left, too, and indeed, in the Swiss context, also by pressure groups and private businesses. As long as you have the manpower and/or enough funds to collect signatures to launch a referendum, you can do so. The political culture is as such that nobody bats an eyelid if a party launches an initiative (i.e., a referendum requested by voters) against the advice of the same government this party is a member of.

See also Leaders vs. Members: Can the Swiss People’s Party Deal with the Tension?

In the specific case of the SVP, in recent decades they have tended to mobilize on controversial themes, such as the country’s relationship with the EU and issues having to do with identity, such as religion and immigration. When the SVP sides against all other major parties on issues such as whether the construction of minarets should be allowed in the country, or whether freedom of movement between Switzerland and the EU should continue, it puts itself in a win-win situation. If the vote goes in the party’s favor, the SVP can say that this is vindication for its claim that it speaks on behalf of the ‘silent majority’ ignored by the ‘political elites’. If they lose, they will still have forced the country to talk about an issue they ‘own’, hence strengthening their position as the party that voters can trust to bring up difficult topics, such as religion and asylum seeking. Not to mention that, for a party that gets below 30%, to be defeated in a referendum after attracting, say, 45% of the vote (as it has usually been the case in recent years) means having been able to side with a very large number of voters from other parties, too.

In other words, if you have the means to organize canvassers and street stands to push your proposals before a vote takes place, and pick topics carefully so that your image as the owner of those topics is reinforced even in case of an honorable defeat, you have everything to gain from beating the drum of direct democracy and very little to lose.

Would you say that the pandemic reshuffled the cards for populist movements in Europe? Some elements seem to play in their favor, some others seem not. How do you disentangle the COVID-19 impact on European — or just Italian — populist landscape?

Of course, it is always very difficult to generalize but, overall, we can say that the pandemic has not been particularly good to populist parties in Europe. One reason is that the scare caused by the pandemic has revitalized the role of ‘experts’, especially after scientists came up with several vaccines in a matter of months. Let’s keep in mind that opposition to vaccination (or even just vaccine hesitancy) are typical of only a minority of voters, if perhaps at times a vocal one. A second reason is that – although the media never seem to take notice – several populist parties, left and right, are in fact insiders, not ‘challengers’, they are parties of government in Europe. Hence, they have had to walk the tightrope of trying to show some understanding for those who did not want to get vaccinated, while making sure that countries could come out of this endless cycle of lockdowns and re-openings.

My home country of Italy – a true populist paradise – is actually a very good case study in this sense, as Salvini tries to pacify the vocal no-vax minority by paying lip-service to their concerns, while having to listen to the wealthy northern areas of diffuse industrialization that provide the backbone of his party’s support and want to be able to work, produce and move forward.

See also Has the Pandemic Changed Populism in Italy?

And a last, conceptual, question. Our Program is called Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you see the term illiberalism, where does it overlap with populism, where does it bring some new elements into the discussion?

In the last two interviews that you have published, with Emmy Eklundh and Anna Grzymala-Busse, you have discussed what populism is at some length. I subscribe to the understanding of this phenomenon that sees it as inherently at odds with fundamental principles of liberal democracy, such as the importance of checks and balances, the primacy of constitutions and the sacredness of minority rights. Populists simply cannot accept the idea that the power ‘of the people’ (which liberal democrats would call: the majority) must be kept in check and must be constrained. For them, the will of the people can be identified, after which it needs to be implemented without delay. Anything deviating from this is framed as tricks played by various elites that want to keep sure their will ultimately prevails, not that of ‘the people’.

But of course, while populists are illiberal, not all illiberals are populists, as the latter category includes a longer list of parties and movements, including those fascists we started our discussion from. The real tragedy today is that illiberalism has become mainstream, as the acts of the Hungarian, Polish and UK governments, as well as the years of Donald Trump, have clearly shown.