Is Italy a Foretaste of What's to Come For European Populism?

Is Italy a Foretaste of What's to Come For European Populism?
Massimo Percossi/ANSA via AP

Nativism, not economic concern, appears to be the defining attribute of the Continent's populist backlash.

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Support for many populist parties is on the rise in Europe. Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) is now the third largest political party in Germany, with seats in the German Bundestag for the first time. Italy’s anti-immigrant Leagueis the country’s third-largest party and became co-leader of the government after this spring’s national election. And in last year’s presidential election, France’s National Front (since renamed National Rally) won a third of the vote, nearly double its results in 2002, the last time a National Front candidate reached the second round of voting.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center document the nativist attributes of this populist upsurge. The findings underscore that such views are still in the minority in most European nations, with one key exception: Italy.

In Italy, those with a favorable view of the League hold nationalist, ethnocentric, and economic sentiments that closely track beliefs held by those with a negative opinion of the party, suggesting that right-wing populist views may not remain confined to the fringes of European politics.

Nationalist populism has long been thought to have its roots largely in economic anxiety. But roughly three-quarters of those who have a positive view of the AfD (77 percent) and the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats (75 percent) say their country’s economic situation is good. Their enthusiasm for their nation’s economy is only slightly less intense than that of other Germans (87 percent) and Swedes (91 percent). And while only 15 percent of the populist League supporters give the Italian economy a thumbs up, that’s in line with the 18 percent of other Italians who hold that view.

Those who favor populist parties, however, are much more nostalgic than their counterparts. Roughly six-in-ten French with a positive view of the National Front (62 percent) say life in our country today is worse than it was 50 years ago for people like me. Just around four-in-ten (41 percent) of other French adults have that negative perspective. In Germany, 44 percent of AfD supporters say life today is worse, but only 16 percent of other Germans agree. Those who favor populist parties in Sweden, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom similarly lament the passing of better times in the past.

Nationalist sentiment is clearly evident in modern European populism.

Asked if it is important to have been born in our country to be truly one of us, 74 percent of National Front adherents say yes, compared with 42 percent of other French adults. A similar divide exists in Germany, where those who have a favorable view of AfD (75 percent) say one has to be born here to be one of us, while only 44 percent of other Germans voice such views.

Family ties are also given primacy by many right-wing European populists. Roughly three-quarters of AfD backers (78 percent) and National Front supporters (73 percent) and more than half of PVV adherents (55 percent) in the Netherlands believe it is important people have family from their country to be truly German, French, or Dutch. Roughly half or fewer of other French, German, and Dutch adults agree.

But such nationalistic sentiment does not divide all European publics. In Italy, roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of League supporters, but also two-thirds (66 percent) of other Italians say being born in Italy is important to being truly Italian. Similarly, while 86 percent of those with a positive view of the League believe it is important to have family from Italy to be truly Italian, 72 percent of other Italians also voice this belief.

Ethnocentrism also plays a role in the current European political landscape.

Roughly six-in-ten AfD supporters (61 percent), a majority of National Front backers (56 percent) and nearly half of PVV adherents (47 percent) believe their culture is superior to others. This sense of cultural superiority is far less prevalent among those with negative views of these parties.

There is also strong sentiment among right-wing European populists that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with their country’s culture and values: Seventy-five percent of those with a positive view of AfD, 66 percent of PVV supporters, and 63 percent of National Front backers hold this view. Roughly four-in-ten or fewer among other adults in their countries agree.

Again, however, Italy is the outlier. The ethnocentric views of League supporters on these two issues are no different than the sentiment of those who do not voice a favorable view of the League.

There is no way to know if Italians’ broadly shared nationalist, ethnocentric, populist sentiment is a product of recent Italian history or a foretaste of what is to come in the politics of other European nations.

For this reason, populist sentiment in Italy, as well as Germany, France, Sweden, and the Netherlands bears watching. If current views from the far right of these nations become more widely shared, European politics could be entering a new era.

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. The views expressed are the author's own.



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