Cappuccino politics: Italy’s new coalition and the lessons of populism


To understand Italian politics today, look no further than Cappuccino. Originally a Viennese invention based on the exotic beans of the coffee plant, Italians adapted the beverage by adding hot milk and a layer of milk foam to a double espresso base. Made in Italy, it spread across the globe. Just like in the case of cappuccino, Italy has just put another layer on its adoption of another foreign invention – the country is about to offer a new blend of modern Western populism.

The new Italian governing coalition mixes right-wing extremist and left-wing elements in a way unimaginable for a traditional party. Some worry that the coalition amounts to Italy opening the door to ‘the modern Barbarians’: The ‘odd couple’ is considered an unprecedented formation of ‘magical thinking’, whose implications for Italy, Europe, and the larger international order are expected to be dramatic. In this post, I explain how the ideological nucleus of populism serves as the common foundation of the coalition. Besides fighting economic stagnation and pushing back on immigration, the plans to overhaul a morally corrupt establishment in Italy and Europe form a key part of the new coalition’s programme and appeal.

Che fai? Italian coalition confusion

On May 18th, Italy’s two election-winning parties have announced a common governing contract. It paves the way for a joint government of the ‘Five Star Movement’ (M5S), headed by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, and the ‘League’, a xenophobic party formerly known as Lega Nord and focused on ensuring secession of Italy’s rich Northern region. On Wednesday, May 23rd, political novice and law professor Giuseppe Conte was announced as the new prime minister.

One would be forgiven for thinking the coalition agreement of the ‘5-Star/League’ is ideologically all over the place. They simultaneously pledge a flat income tax benefiting disproportionately the rich and a universal income for the poor and pensioners. There are also proposals for repealing a child vaccine requirement law and a ban on freemasons taking ministerial posts, which seem to come straight out of conspiracy theories.

Looking beyond the peculiar, there is a strong and disturbing far-right bent, particularly to the coalition’s immigration and security plans. Plans include camps for illegal migrants with up to 18 months of detention, speeding up expulsions, registering imams, closing unauthorised mosques, and a crackdown on illegal Sinti and Roma camps. A US-style right to shoot in self-defence on one’s own property, large investments in the police and prison system, and stricter punishments for sexual and under-age crimes also feature in the new law-and-order agenda.

On the other hand, there are several proposals that are traditionally associated with more left-wing political parties. Higher spending and its expected effects on GDP growth instead of austerity and tax hikes are promoted as the way of dealing with Italy’s public debt. A rollback of the 2011 pension reform is called for, reversing the increase of the retirement age. An unspecified minimum wage, a national investment bank, stricter private banking regulations, and investments in the green economy are another set of such agreements.

Ma come è possibile? Making sense of Italy’s populist government

According to research in political science, populist parties differ from traditional ones in that they are not defined by a clear set of ideological policy stances. However, even very diverse populists share a common nucleus of ideas, which scholars have termed a ‘thin ideology’. In the populist view, society is separated into a morally corrupt elite and a morally pure, homogeneous people, whose general will is prevented from being enacted by the former.

This ideological ‘core’ is highly flexible in manifestation and does not stand on its own. Indeed, the precise reasons for why and how each element of this thin ideology is defined depend on the ‘host ideology’, which accompanies the particular flavour of populists: Who are the people, who is the elite, and how do they suppress the general will of the former?

As a result, populism possesses a chameleonic quality and depends on the context in which it arises. Due to this malleability, traditional understanding of political parties seems to fail with regard to populism: There are right-wing populists, who understand the people as an ethnically or culturally defined group. These see foreigners and allied cosmopolitan elites as the ones oppressing the people’s general will. Strong nationalism and anti-pluralism are associated with this variant, challenging modern liberal democracy. However, the core idea is also compatible with left-wing populists, who define the people with regard to their social class and decry the subversion of the average citizen’s interests by a national and transnational business elite and its allies in mainstream politics. Here, nationalist and transnationalist versions exist, and the relation to liberal democracy is not necessarily negative.

In contrast, for all populists, barriers to following a supposed majority will in politics are the prime enemy. Such barriers may be basic civic and minority rights or economic freedoms limiting government rule. Similarly, a gridlocked or corrupt representative political system, technocratic bureaucracies or the media may be accused of preventing politics according to majority interests. International treaty commitments and non-majoritarian institutions may be perceived as imposing policy against domestic democratic preferences. In the populist understanding, these undermine the exercise of popular sovereignty, a key – but controversial – part of democratic systems in the West.

Turning back to the new Italian coalition, this populist core ideology serves as the gel uniting the 5-Star and League. The common and distinctive thread running through the agreement is its opposition to a morally corrupt elite establishment domestically – and in Europe – which is blamed for preventing the general will of the people from being enacted politically.

Examples abound: Political corruption is targeted by various proposals such as strengthening judicial independence from politics, increasing jail penalties for corruption in public administration, regulating conflicts of interest in politics, and preventing individuals under criminal investigation from entering government. Both houses of parliament are supposed to be drastically cut down in size. Changing political parties once in government – a long-standing corruption tool in Italian politics – shall be outlawed. Direct democratic decision making through referenda shall be promoted. Class-action suits are planned to increase legal leverage of citizens over large company misdeeds.

Beyond the domestic political elites, a key target for the new government is European institutions, in line with other modern European populists (see Greece since 2015). Seeing that EU institutions are seen to have pushed out a democratically-elected politician in favour of the technocratic government of Mario Monti, which pushed through painful austerity policies since 2011, the populist message is easy to place.

Importantly, the coalition refrains from calling for an exit from either the EU or the Euro, as well as from cancelling national debt and introducing a parallel currency. However, fiscal and economic policies are likely to ignore the EU deficit rules, and the parties to call for renegotiating key EU economic policy arrangements. The coalition also calls for the Dublin System of migration to be replaced such that migrants are no longer legally required to demand asylum in their countries of arrival but distributed automatically across Europe. In contrast, the European Parliament is perceived as the only democratically legitimate EU institution and it shall be strengthened.

These aspects represent the core of populist ideology and unite the new coalition. If these parties were to win the general elections, it is likely because of this part of their platform. Diagnosing the unfairness and lack of democracy in Italian and EU politics is thus part of the populist appeal.

Fatto in Italia: The invention of modern Western populist government

From the scholarly literature on populism, the new government appears not only less confusing but also less surprising than at first sight. Italy’s own Berlusconi already ran the first populist government against the Italian establishment in 1994, drawing on the playbook of populism first seen in late 19th century America. After Mainstream parties had been exposed in a massive corruption scandal in the early 90s, he offered voters the alternative of a business-savvy outsider circumventing representatives by implementing simple, economically liberal, and pro-EU policies.

Of course, and quite ironically, Berlusconi did not end – but possibly worsened – political corruption in Italy, adding to the parallels with the current Trump administration. Populism may be quite effective at diagnosing problems of liberal democracies, but it is by no means a trustworthy remedy. It remains to be seen whether the new coalition is any different in this regard.

Cappuccino politics

In sum, the 5-Star/League coalition appears to conform well to the expectations of populism research as ideologically diverse but united in a common criticism of elite corruption and a strengthening of popular means of determining policy. Far from a new phenomenon, Italy’s new government is the latest local adaptation of the populist brew: Using ingredients from exotic America, it was brought to European governments by Italy’s Berlusconi, and has since been exported across the West, now in flavours targeting also the EU alongside domestic elites.

In this sense, the new Italian coalition is not unlike Cappuccino: a double Espresso of economically left-wing and culturally right-wing ideological elements, infused with a dose of core populist ideology, which also shows as a distinctive top layer of Euroscepticism.

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