A post-democratic scenario needing careful attention

A month ago Italians elected a new parliament. In this article, Brunella Casalini, associate professor of Political Philosophy at the School of Political Science (University of Florence, Italy), argues that Italy’s post-democratic scenario needs careful attention.

Results of March 4, 2018 election

A month after elections, Italy is without a government and clear scenarios for the future. No one can say at the moment if and when it will have a new government any time soon. The road for negotiations will be long and uphill.

The first, most voted Italian party today is the 5 Stars Movement (5SM), with 32% of the votes. The larger political coalition, the center-right, made up of Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s party), the Northern League (Lega Nord) led by Matteo Salvini, and the right-wing Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) under Georgia Meloni, has 37% of the votes. The Democratic Party (PD), led by Matteo Renzi before the election, now has only 18% of the votes, having lost half of its constituency since the previous European elections.

The results of the March 4, 2018 Italian political elections were foreseeable, at least as far as the defeat of the Democratic Party was concerned. What had not been predicted were the extent of that defeat and the shift of such a large sector of the PD’s electorate to the 5 Stars Movement, as well as the Northern League’s growth within the Center-Right coalition.

The crisis of the Left and the need for a democracy of proximity

Matteo Renzi, with the help of the technique of mass communications and his privileging a direct, asymmetrical, vertical dialogue with public opinion, has created over time an ever wider distance between his party and its traditional popular basis. Now the PD is forced to confront the almost complete abandonment by the electorate of southern Italy and a reduction of its comfort zone to a single region, Renzi’s home region of Tuscany. In this situation, the next months will be decisive, not only for the future of the Italian government, but also for the Democratic Party, which, after Renzi’s resignation, is now called on to devise an internal renewal strategy towards a more democratic leadership.

Besides the hemorrhage of votes toward the 5 Stars Movement, further proof that the Democratic party needs to restore a dialogue with its popular base, if it does not want to face total extinction, is the sudden appearance on the political scene of a new political formation, the so-called People Power (Potere al popolo) coalition. This latest political phenomenon, made up of a group of leftist forces, is a citizens’ movement that in just a few months (it was only launched in December 2017) has convinced almost 1.1% of the electorate, presenting itself as an alternative to the neoliberal forces of both the center-right and the center-left, which have governed Italy in the recent past. In light of all this, two important indications emerge from the Italian election results: on the one hand, the crisis of the traditional party system and the advent of a so-called ‘grass-roots democracy’ or ‘post-party democracy’; and on the other hand the need to rediscover and re-evaluate the role of a democracy of proximity, capable of reaching the most disadvantaged areas of the country and the troubled outskirts of the big cities. The democratic deficit of the European institutions is also something that has hurt all the parties that have maintained an unwavering loyalty to the EU.

A few days after the election a major Italian Newspaper reported that Elena Boschi, one of Renzi’s closest collaborators, wept before the election results. She was distraught not so much because of the loss of her party – so the article explained -, but because, according to her, it was the end of an era: “the end of a world made of reading and good manners, civility and civilization”. (“[…] perché finisce un mondo che è fatto di letture e buone maniere, di educazione e di civiltà“).[1]
Boschi seems to think that there is only one way to interpret the will of the people in this election, i.e., that the victory of the Northern League and the 5 Stars Movement expresses a populism capable of mobilizing the most backward and reactionary part of the country. Civility was the purview of the left, incivility that of all the rest. This unfortunate statement goes far to revealing the intellectual standoffishness of the younger generation (all around forty years of age) of Renzi’s followers, their loss of touch with reality. Significantly, just the opposite is true of the 5 Stars Movement: it has brought to the Italian Parliament the largest number of people who are forty or under and have university degrees. During the entire electoral campaign, the leftist media harped on the grammatical errors of Luigi di Maio, the 5 Stars Movement’s leader, in an attempt to discredit his competence and preparedness to govern.
The Left must now profoundly rethink why people have preferred less experienced and less intellectual politicians, why they have thought that a leap in the dark would be better than entrusting power once again to a political class that had all the appearance of an élite much too cozy with the financial and economic establishment.

The Italian Right and its all-redeeming slogan: security and family

The rapid changes brought about by globalization, the rise in unemployment (Italy has a youth unemployment rate of 35.1%), immigration, and the growing economic crisis and financial uncertainties evoke responses of fear and anxiety in the general population. These fears and anxieties have been easily manipulated by the center-right coalition and especially by Matteo Salvini’s far right Northern League. The two words the center-right most speculated on during the election were ‘security’ and ‘family’.

The center-right wants to promote security through a stop on immigration (often without any distinction between immigration and asylum), which is seen in some parts of the country and by a part of the population as the primary cause of many of Italy’s ills. Immigration is the catch-all scapegoat to blame for unemployment, crime or the threat to Italy’s cultural and ethnic identity (Italy has a very low fertility rate)[2], even when the facts say the exact opposite. Xenophobia and racism are becoming widespread in Italy, a country that has never seriously dealt with its colonial past and the historical roots of its racism. It is worth recalling here that these latest Italian elections were marked by two serious episodes of racism and violence. At the start of the electoral campaign six African migrants were shot to death in the city of Macerata by a far-right perpetrator who described his act as revenge for the murder of an Italian woman by a Nigerian migrant. The day after the election another African migrant, legally resident in Italy, was shot to death in Florence by a passerby.
The right-wing political forces seldom mention the extent to which most Italian families depend on migrant care workers to assist the fragile elderly or disabled, in a welfare state that is bereft of any serious social welfare system. They also seldom remind the Italian people of the extent to which migrants are helping to save our economy and our pension system.

The second magic word constantly used by the right, ‘family’, means a heterosexual family with the mother at its center. In the last few years the rhetoric of family has been strenghtened in Italy thanks to the so-called war against ‘gender ideology’. During the electoral campaign both Salvini and Meloni used this rethoric, as in their odd polemic against the Disney cartoon Frozen, in the sequence where Elsa, the main character, is supposed to engage in a same-sex relationship. Both Salvini and Meloni declared their enmity toward Disney because of its presumed intent to turn the world upside down. Salvini’s anti-gender rhetoric featured an overtly sexist language and attacks on women politicians, especially the former President of the House of Commons, Laura Boldrini.
In the last election there was even a center-right party called ‘Family People’ (Il popolo della famiglia), which insisted on an anti-genderist rhetoric that had as its symbol a cartoon showing a heterosexual family with two children and the slogan “No gender in our schools” (No gender nelle scuole).


Abandonment of a caring democracy in the name of a false security

As in many other European and Western democracies, Italy is going through a phase of crisis and insecurity. Fears and uncertainties are encouraging hostile feelings towards the Other and violence is spreading, in cyberspace as well as in public and private spaces, towards migrants, women, transexuals, homosexuals and disabled people. Traditional male identities and their ideal of protection are gaining ground and eroding the important advances in democratic and human rights of recent decades. Even a fascist lexicon (part of which is the motto “Me ne frego! I don’t give a damn!”), which was thought to pertain to a dead-and-buried past has been resurrected. In the name of security (a word that Fiona Robinson reminds us derives from the Latin ‘sine cura’)[3], securitarian measures that limit our liberties and imperil the lives of vulnerable migrants are being invoked, and violence is spreading, in the silence of democratic politics.
The possibility of turning the tide of Italian and European politics is linked to learning once again to exercise caring with (Tronto 2013), which implies learning the virtues of solidarity, trust, respect for pluralism and recognition of our interdependency, which are necessary for integrating the other four phases of care: caring about, recognizing existing needs and the necessity of giving them a response; taking care or assuming responsibility for realizing the solutions to these needs; giving care and receiving care.

J. Tronto, Caring Democracy. Market, Equality, and Justice, New York University Press 2013.


[1] Francesco Merlo, “Nel labirinto del Nazareno: le lacrime di Boschi, i sospiri di Minniti”, La Repubblica, March 5, 2018:
[2] In 2016, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin even tried to introduce a ‘Fertility Day’ campaign in response to fears over a decline in fertility that has been described as “catastrophic” and “apocaliptic”.
[3] Fiona Robinson, The Ethics of care. A Feminist Approach to Human Security, Temple University Press, Philadelphia 2011, p. 7. Robinson rightly points out the “paradox inherent to the idea of security”: “While achieving a state of freedom from anxiety or worry, or being carefree, may appear desirable, a superficial understanding of security as a condition achieved by an individual actor may mask networks of social relations […] In other words, a feeling of security is most often the product of feeling attached and included – a feeling that others are “here” with you to provide support. Furthermore, to speak of security as a carefree existence that may ultimately be achieved and sustained bears no resemblance to the realities of most people’s lives […]” (ibidem).

Brunella Casalini is associate professor of Political Philosophy at the School of Political Science, University of Florence, Italy. Some of her recent publications are: Il femminismo e le sfide del neoliberismo. Postfemminismo, sessismo, politiche della cura. Roma: IF Pres 2018; (ed by with Maria Giulia Bernardini, Orsetta Giolo e Lucia Re), Vulnerabilità. Etica, politica, diritto, Pisa: IF Press, 2018, pp. 7-350; The market, social justice and elderly care. A reflection starting from the Italian case, “Notizie di politeia”, vol. XXXIII, 2017, pp. 123-137.


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