Nationalism or populism in Italy?

By Leif Olson

Discussions of nationalism and populism in Europe are currently in vogue, and fear of their rise is pervasive in international news media. Fears of this sort are not unfounded: “Brexit” in the UK, Alternativ Für Deutschland in Germany and Matteo Salvini in Italy represent a large rightward-shift in European politics. 

However, in August the Italian government ousted the right-wing Lega party along with Salvini in favor of a Democrat-Five Star coalition. While the change is considered by many to be a step in a positive direction, this development raises significant questions about politics in Italy specifically. Analyzing these political developments may help clarify larger trends seen across the European political environment.

Italy was forged by nationalism. However, not all forms of nationalism are the same. “Nationalism is a creative and homogenizing force as well as a destructive and divisive one,” Erik Jones, Director of European and Eurasian Studies at SAIS said. “Without nationalists, Italy would not exist. I think that is an important starting point.” Indeed, Italy was not a formal unified state until Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi invaded the south of Italy in 1859, supported by then-King of Sardinia Victor Emmanuel II. After driving out the Austrian Empire, the country was unified under a constitutional monarchy. Without nationalist fervor, such an operation would have been nearly impossible.

When asked if a destructive or divisive form of nationalism is on the rise in Italy today, Jones said, “I am not sure that nationalism is on the rise, but you can get a clear sense of identity politics operating in many different ways.” Stefano Zamagni, Senior Adjunct Professor of International Economics at SAIS Bologna agreed, saying, “what we are confronted with today is populism, not nationalism.”

When considering the rise of populism, International Law concentrator and Italian citizen Dafne Carletti said, “I think populism is noticeable in daily life. Demonstrations from right-wing parties are growing and becoming more and more violent.” Riccardo Vinci, a second-year Conflict Management concentrator from Italy, echoed this sentiment, stating, “The discourse has been getting increasingly violent, and frustration at an external group has found its natural outlet in verbal violence.” Riccardo attributed this violence to the division between “us and them” commonly seen in populist rhetoric.

Students concentrating in European and Eurasian Studies, or those interested in Italy, can find a rich topic of study in the case of Italian nationalism. “An EES student should know that nationalism made Italy,” Jones said.  “We can explore the abuses of nationalism – or maybe better, the abuses of the ‘nation’ in appeals to identity-based political mobilization – but only once we recognize how important nationalism is to the Italian experience.”

International media often fails to capture the depth or technical precision required to explore the complex topic of nationalism. The dynamics within Italy, like any political context, requires nuanced understanding. Those interested in Italian politics should perhaps look not at the rise in nationalist fervor, but at increasing populist and racist rhetoric in the country, and the use of identity politics aimed at social divisionism. 

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