Don’t worry, it’s still safe to visit us

When I was 18 I was shipped off to my grandmother and aunt in Sicily. I didn’t have a summer job, it was in the middle of a bad recession, and my parents didn’t want me hanging around. It was terrific; my Italian cousin and I spent a good part of that summer hitchhiking around Palermo, going to the beach, getting a good buzz on in the local bars, and going to parties. Even as a 17-year-old, he was an excellent tour guide, and I got to know my father’s city.

Why am I telling you this? Back in 1975, Italy’s communist party typically got about a third of the vote in national elections, and the American press was sounding the alarm that the country “would go communist.” As I got ready to leave for Italy, people kept asking me if it was safe to go to a place that was really about to turn, you know, communist. I was a smarmy college kid then and dismissed all the talk. And when I got to Italy, I saw that things hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d been there, except that the developers’ rape of Palermo continued apace. And that was definitely not a commie plot.

In other words, after this last election, which will bring the right to power, don’t sweat it too much. I am not dismissing its importance, however. I am not a fan of Giorgia Meloni and her fascist-descended Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party. The tone of Italy will change. But life will go on, as it did a couple of years ago when the Matteo Salvini’s Lega right wing party dominated the news with its hostility toward refugees sailing across from Libya. The tone of the country will change in ways that matter most to foreigners in government and media, and locals who pay attention to government machinations. But you’ll be able to visit the Vatican, have an Aperol spritz at aperitivo time, and do the things that most people do when they visit Italy.

I’m not trying to trivialize things. But at my age, I’m trying to be less hysterical about everything, and definitely less hysterical than Americans tend to be. And I’ll try to explain why 40 percent of Italian voters (about a third didn’t bother to vote) chose the right wing coalition.

First of all, you can argue that the outgoing government headed by “SuperMario” Mario Draghi (left) was illegitimate—it’s a fact that he wasn’t elected. The outgoing parliament, elected in 2018, had two leading parties, the 5 Stelle (5 Star) rebel party and the right wing Lega. The first government (in parliamentary systems, the term “government” means administration featuring one or more parties) was a coalition between those uneasy partners. 5 Star is a weird, populist group composed of disaffected people, techies, environmentalists and libertarians that tries to evade the usual left-right definition. (When it comes down to it, it’s a volatile sort of left-ish party that doesn’t know how to effectively govern.) The Lega’s Salvini, who was interior minister in that administration, decided that he’d rather be prime minister and spent the summer playing DJ and flirting with the ladies on the beach. Campaigning, in other words.

Salvini brought down that coalition of convenience, but got fucked: The Democratic Party (PD) and 5 Stelle got together and did an end run around him. He and his party were cast out of government, while the previous losers (the PD) became part of a governing coalition. (When I say cast out of government, I mean the ruling coalition. They stay on as members of parliament.) After a PD-5 Stelle coalition fell, Italy’s president during the Covid pandemia got most major parties to play nice and unite under Draghi; Meloni kept her party out of it.

SO, WAS “DEMOCRACY” SERVED by this? The end run pissed a lot of people off—a lot of conservatives, but also people who thought that the will of the people, as expressed in the election, had been subverted. And it wasn’t the first time; back about 10 years ago during the Euro crisis, investor speculation led to the fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s regime and the installation of a technocratic administration. And the dissatisfaction wasn’t just among people on the right. A lot of people who might have voted for the center-left felt that the PD left them out in the cold, that, basically, the PD and its allies were basically supporting governments that were more anxious to satisfy institutional investors rather than people. (This all begs a bigger question: What does the left stand for anyway? That’s another blog post. Or ten,)

So where are we now? First of all there’s none of the weird histrionics that characterized American transitions of late. The winning coalition partners are jockeying for position. Meloni and her male partners are negotiating and probably arguing over cabinet posts. Given the bad showing of Salivini’s Lega, you can probably bet that he isn’t going to call the shots in her government.

What won’t and will change? Unfortunately, they’ll be restrictions on immigration and probably more rhetoric directed at preserving the traditional family. A lot of the latter will fall on deaf ears. Lots of Italian couples don’t bother to get married, even after they’ve had kids. Unlike what happens in the U.S., I don’t think the incoming government will dismantle Italy’s terrific public healthcare system and other features of this fairly modern welfare state. We’ll still have fast trains, a decent amount of public transit and most of what makes Italy’s quality of life so good. We’ll also probably see more demonstrations as unpopular programs are introduced. Meloni now owns whatever happens and won’t be able to stand in opposition.

A word about the democratic process. Much of the press coverage of the election asked, through an American filter, whether Meloni and her crew are “a danger to democracy.” It’s really too early to tell but I have a couple of thoughts on that score: First of all, Hitler was elected. Both George W Bush, first term, and Trump were “elected” despite having lost the popular vote. And both U.S. presidents ruled as though they’d been given a mandate. I think we as Americans confuse procedure with substance. There’s more to governments and nations than whether people voted or not—there’s substantive issues, and whether governments are responsive to what their citizens need.

The U.S., even before this recent crisis of democracy, has pretty much screwed its populace for the past 40 years. Workers lost most protections, healthcare still remains a pay as you play game, as does most of politics. Millions of jobs were shipped overseas, and Americans aren’t guaranteed paid time off, as are Italians and citizens of the European Union. So ask yourself whether Americans can really say that before the advent of a wannabe strongman like Trump, that their democracy was really working anyway.

Image credit for chart at the top: CC-by-SA 4.0 (Wikicommons)

Meloni photo: Vox España, CCO, via Wikimedia Commons

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