Populism and the (Italian) crisis: The voters and the context

Date01 August 2021
Published date01 August 2021
2021, Vol. 41(3) 334 –350
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0263395720952627
Populism and the (Italian) crisis:
The voters and the context
Manuela Caiani and Enrico Padoan
Scuola Normale Superiore, Italy
This article, focusing on Italy, aims to broaden our understanding of the recent striking electoral
fortunes of (differing types of) populism in the country, by locating them within multiple crises
(political, economic, migration) that have shocked Europe in the last two decades. By combining
individual-level survey data on voters with organizational-level interviews conducted with national
and local representatives and activists of the Five Star Movement and the League, the role played
by these crises in the two different Italian populisms will be disentangled from ‘demand’ and
‘supply’ perspectives – which are usually treated in isolation. The findings indicate a coherence
between the political parties’ message and their respective potential voters’ orientations and
attitudes (with regard to the three crises), underlining the ability of different varieties of populism
to intercept (and mobilize) different grievances: whereas the economic crisis of representation is a
key ingredient of both the populists’ success, the cultural crisis is more salient for the exclusionary
populist League, while the political crisis is more salient for the inclusionary 5SM. For both the
mobilization and representation of those citizens unsatisfied with traditional politics seems crucial.
These different causes of success appear to be a useful lens through which to examine the failure
of an attempt to govern by combining two differing types of populism.
causes of populism, frames, Italian crisis, varieties of populism
Received: 6th October 2019; Revised version received: 3rd March 2020; Accepted: 17th July 2020
Europe has been rocked by multiple crises over the past decade. First, the economic and
financial crises, then, the inflow of migrants and asylum seekers to Europe from 2015
called into question the legitimacy of national and European elites, and their ability to
respond to important political matters. These crises not only contributed to party system
de-alignment in many European countries, but also provided a ‘window of opportunity’ for
the emergence and consolidation of populist actors, both old and new (Caiani and Graziano,
2019a, 2019b; Kriesi and Pappas, 2015; Pirro and Van Kessel, 2018). Populist parties and
leaders successfully mobilized citizens who – in the shadow of a persistent economic
crisis, with political parties suffering from a deficit of legitimacy, and a revival of cultural
Corresponding author:
Manuela Caiani, Faculty of Social and Political Studies, Scuola Normale Superiore, Piazza degli Strozzi, 50123
Florence, Italy.
Email: Manuela.caiani@sns.it
952627POL0010.1177/0263395720952627PoliticsCaiani and Padoan
Caiani and Padoan 335
conservatism fuelled by the issue of migration – felt threatened and unsatisfied with the
current (political) situation (Kriesi and Pappas, 2015; Kriesi and Schulte-Cloos, 2020).
Italy can be considered a paradigmatic case: In the 2018 national elections, its party
system was disrupted by the striking and simultaneous success of two different populist
parties: the ‘hybrid’1 (Pirro, 2018). Five Star Movement, which – after its astonishing elec-
toral debut in 2013 (with 27%of votes) – reached 32% of votes, and the right-wing League
(since 2017, no longer the ‘Northern League’), renewed in its core-ideology and leadership,
which achieved an unprecedented 17% (and 34% in the recent 2019 European elections).
Together, they formed an ‘all populist government’ (Pirro, 2018). This article aims to
explore the striking simultaneous success of these different types of populism in Italy, look-
ing at both ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ sides (which are usually treated in isolation, Muis and
Immerzeel, 2017) linked to the multiple crises. More specifically, by combining individual-
level survey data on voters with in-depth interviews conducted with national and local
political representatives and activists of the two Italian populist parties, this article focuses
on three different, but not mutually exclusive (Van Der Brug and Fennema, 2007), sets of
explanations for populism: a crisis of political representation (Mény and Surel, 2002;
Taggart, 2000), an economic crisis (Kriesi and Pappas, 2015), and a ‘cultural clash’ crisis
linked with immigration processes (Inglehart and Norris, 2016; for an overview, see Caiani
and Graziano, 2019a), both from the perspective of voters’ attitudes and orientations and
from the perspective of the party organizations as political ‘entrepreneurs’ (of the crisis)
(Caiani and Della Porta, 2011). In fact, as noted, these parties could have not maintained
such a high level of electoral and activist support and if they had not been perceived as
actors able to express grievances that were otherwise unrepresented (Biorcio and Natale,
2018; Corbetta and Gualmini, 2013). What are the socio-economic profiles and the cultural
and political orientations of these two populist parties’ potential voters? What kinds of crisis
(economic, cultural or political?) have been ‘used’ (i.e. constructed in the political dis-
course) by the two different populisms, and to what extent has each kind been deployed?
In this article, we shall address these issues, trying to disentangle the respective role of
these three crises in the success of the two Italian ‘varieties’ of populism (Caiani and
Graziano, 2019b).
Although these causal factors are often quoted to explain the recent wave of European
populism, they are sometimes treated as competing hypotheses, or used within approaches
that focus, separately on the demand and supply side related to these crises (Akkerman
et al., 2016; Corbetta et al., 2018; Heinisch and Mazzoleni, 2016; Brils et al., 2020). In
addition, comparative empirical studies comparing ‘varieties of populism’ remain rare
(for exceptions, see Kriesi, 2014; Lisi et al., 2019; Roberts, 2017). This article aims to
make an empirical contribution in this regard.
The article first introduces the three sets of crisis-related theoretical explanations of pop-
ulism’s success. After a section on methodology, the ‘demand side’ expectations linked to the
three approaches are assessed, looking at the socio-economic, political, and cultural attitudes
and orientations of (potential) 5SM and League voters. Second, interviews with local and
national representatives, as well as activists, of the two organizations, accompanied by a docu-
ment analysis, will shed light on the role of the three crises on the emergence and rise of these
parties. In the conclusion, the centrality of the process of discursive reproduction of the crises
(see also Caiani and Padoan, 2020) in explaining the ongoing ‘populist moment’ in Italy is
emphasized, as is the intrinsic contradiction contained within it: different populisms contribute
to the construction of ‘different crises’ and this can have (negative) consequences on populism
itself (in the Italian case, jeopardizing the stability of the governmental alliance and success).

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