After voters from the snowy peaks of the Alps to the sunny shores of Sicily delivered a verdict so fractured and mysterious it could take months to sort out, the banner headline Monday in the venerable daily La Stampa captured the state of a nation that’s left no one in charge: “Ungovernable Italy.” … Sunday’s vote appeared to knock the foundation out of the current political system — more than half of voters opted for anti-establishment, euroskeptic parties — without offering a clear alternative.
E.U. bigwigs in Brussels and a section of Italy’s elite had hoped there would be a fallback option of a super-establishment coalition of the willing. That would entail a tie-up between ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, or Forward Italy, and the ruling center-left Democratic Party. That type of alliance worked in Germany after months of haggling.
But in Italy, the two mainstream parties together barely managed to exceed the vote share of the populist Five Star Movement — an Internet-based movement founded by a comedian that pulls voters from either end of the political spectrum and didn’t even exist a decade ago. Other votes were sprinkled across a range of far-left and far-right forces.

The more extreme Five Star Movement and the far-right League party “rushed to claim victory as the results rolled in on Monday.” Since the League (“whose leader once advocated segregated buses in Milan”) out-polled Berlusconi’s party, a coalition of the right and far right would likely mean that “Italy’s prime minister would be a member of the far-right, a first for a Western European country since 1945.”

Yascha Mounk, a specialist on the populist assault on Western democracies, tells me: “The Italian election is a watershed in the rise of populism around the world. Because of Donald Trump and Brexit, it has long been clear that populist candidates and causes can sometimes cobble together narrow majorities.” He continues: “Yesterday’s election shows that they can come to dominate a whole electoral system, commanding about two-thirds of the vote.” Moreover, “The election also shows how difficult it is to get rid of populists once they have established a foothold in the system. In 2011, Silvio Berlusconi was hounded from office in ignominy. Now, he’s back–and the populist cancer has metastasized.” He warns, “That should be sobering news for anybody who thinks that it will be enough to beat Trump in 2020 to vanquish populism in America.”

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If there is a silver lining to the results in Italy, it is that no one party appeared to reach the threshold of 40 percent to form a government. Sorting this out will take time, and it is unclear which, if any, parties are willing to form a unity government with the far right.

As we saw in the Brexit vote, Germany’s elections (Angela Merkel survived, but by a much smaller margin) and Poland, the center-left is in retreat all over Europe. France’s Emmanuel Macron is the exception who proves the rule. Unable to bring about both prosperity and national cohesion, traditional parties in the West have fractured. In their place, making an appeal to anti-immigrant fears, the far right again and again has seized opportunities (in some cases with assistance of Russia). With the decline of the center-left and comparisons to the fascist movements of the 1930s, the post-World War II vision of a free, unified Europe may disintegrate. An era of authoritarians, trade barriers, and racial and ethnic bigotry looms unless traditional parties can address the fears and anger that far-right parties adeptly cultivate.

If you are experiencing a spell of deja vu, you’re not alone. America’s election of its own version of Berlusconi (a billionaire nationalist) — President Trump — is not an isolated phenomenon. The good news/bad news is that Trump has proved to be entirely incapable of governing. The populist experiment in the United States is not faring well. The underlying problem for the United States and other Western democracies, however, remains — providing voters with a reason to support liberal (small “l”) democracy with all its faults in a time of immense economic and demographic change. Unfortunately, wise moderate leaders are in short supply these days.

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