Is the Far-Right Really So Far?
The rise of the Brothers of Italy tells us something about the wisdom of crowds.
Wither the far-right? Apparently not. The fact that the far-right is doing better than anyone might have imagined—in Italy and Sweden no less—suggests that such parties may not, in fact, be on the “far-right.” They are increasingly mainstream and popular, which suggests that they can no longer be considered on the fringes of the ideological or political spectrum. Or, to put it differently, if one still wishes to locate them on the far-right of a traditional left-right plot, it indicates something perhaps more troubling—that a growing number of voters have moved in their direction, rather than the other way around. The “center” has veered sharply to the right.
If the center insists on being this volatile, then it calls into question the wisdom of crowds. This is the animating question of my new book on the “problem of democracy”: what do we do when democracy produces “bad” outcomes? The thing about not only the wisdom of crowds but just plain-old wisdom is that it’s supposed to accumulate over time and in light of experience. This is why we associate wisdom with old people and gray hair. Of course, there are counter-examples. Take Morrisey, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, or Kingsley Amis, each of whom settled into irascible reactionary poses as the decades passed. (Or maybe it’s just an old British person thing?).
Similarly, in the case of Italy, the weight of experience has not had as much of a chastening effect as observers might have hoped.
It is difficult to overstate just how remarkable the results of Italy’s September 25th elections happened to be. The Brothers of Italy—it seems reasonable to assume that any group with “brothers” or “brotherhood” in its name is not on the left—won a clear plurality, with 26 percent of the popular vote. Just four years ago, they were an afterthought, having won only around 4 percent. For the first time in the postwar era, Italy is likely to have a far-right prime minister, as part of a coalition government that includes yet another far-right party, The League, which came in third. It is also worth noting that, despite being the leader of the Brothers of Italy, Georgia Meloni is not herself technically a “brother,” which means she would be Italy’s first ever female prime minister to boot.
Italy has had a rather vigorous right-wing party scene for some time now, with The League having been part of an “all-populist” government from 2018 to 2019, after it came second in the 2018 elections. (And that’s even before mentioning Forza Italia led by the quite Trump-y Sylvio Berlusconi). During its brief time in government, the League performed unimpressively—it seems hard to govern impressively almost anywhere these days. This, in turn, reminded Italians of the utility of having a non-partisan, technocratic prime minister with expertise in managing the economy. As economists tell it, that somewhat colorless technocrat—Mario Draghi, also known as “Super Mario”—performed admirably, but apparently not admirably enough for voters to remain content.
Italy’s devastating experience with COVID probably impressed upon voters the importance of having a steady, if unexciting hand guiding the affairs of state. I remember thinking something similar at the start of the pandemic. In times of crisis, stability seems all the more appealing. I’m not the biggest Joe Biden fan, but I thank the lord that Biden’s in charge while a war in Ukraine rages and confrontation intensifies with China. There is something to be said for the idea (if not necessarily the reality) of competence. But this is clearly not a universal inclination. However entertaining it might be, I generally find politics exhausting, so I’m not sure I’d have much tolerance for far-right leadership, no matter how bad a Biden or Draghi happen to be. Many Americans and Italians differ, however. For them, crisis means opportunity, including the opportunity for something new and even radical.
The thing about new things is that they don’t stay new. I’m not sure about Americans, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Italians start missing a certain super Mario.