Italy’s Referendum: You Call it Populism, I Call it Democracy

The “no” vote in Italy’s referendum was not unexpected, economically meaningful, or against globalization. In these regards, it was not like Brexit or Trump. Yet in all three cases, the winner succeeded in spite of overwhelming support from elites and the media for the other side.



Luigi Zingales
Luigi Zingales

The media all over the world are classifying the No victory in the Italian constitutional referendum as the third populist shoe to drop in 2016. There are more differences than similarities to the two previous major electoral events of 2016, yet the few similarities contain an important lesson. 


The first difference is that this event was not unexpected. No had been leading by a healthy margin in all polls since September. If some people were surprised, it is only because they were listening to their friends and family rather than the pollsters (possibly because they lost confidence in the pollsters after the past two major debacles). 


The second difference is that the choice in front of voters was not as momentous from an economic point of view as the two previous ones. Brexit will have large economic effects in the long term, as will the election of Donald Trump. Whether one liked the defeated constitutional reform or not, it was not a revolution. Maybe it could have sped up the approval of laws a bit and provided some political stability (Italy has had 63 governments in 70 years), but it is hard to imagine that this could really make or break the country, even if that was how the Renzi government sold the reform.


The third (important) difference is that this is not a vote against globalization, so much so that the British magazine The Economist, a fervent supporter of globalization, sided with No. And there are no elements of racism or xenophobia in the No vote, contrary to the Brexit and Trump vote. To be sure, the Le Pen-like Northern League campaigned for No, but it made up a small part of the overall support of No and there were no racist overtones in the campaign.  


Last but not least, the No victory was not obtained on low turnout, building on the votes of elderly people scared by immigration and globalization, as it was for Brexit and Trump. The No vote won in spite of (or because of) an extraordinarily high turnout. More importantly, it won by getting a disproportionate majority of support among the youth. In this referendum, the old, scared people voted Yes, terrified that the banks might collapse and they might lose their savings and their jobs. This blackmail did not work with younger people, because they have no savings and no jobs. 


Yet, there are a couple of commonalities. The first is that in all three votes, the winner succeeded in spite of the media having an almost unanimous support for the other side. In Italy, all major TV stations and all major newspapers supported Yes, even more so than they supported Clinton in the United States. This lack of influence by the media is the result of two factors: the growing mistrust ordinary citizens have towards  traditional media and the growing power of social media. This revolution is here to stay. 


The second point of commonality is the juxtaposition between elites and everyone else. Just as it was difficult for elites to find Trump supporters among their usual acquaintances, it was equally difficult to find “No” supporters in the Italian elite. All of the “poteri forti” (i.e., the Italian business establishment) were in favor of Yes, just as their U.S. and British counterparts were in favor of Clinton and of Remain. Confindustria (the Italian equivalent of the  U.S. Chamber of Commerce) not only endorsed, but actively campaigned for Yes. Yes was much better financed than No, as Clinton and Remain were better financed than Trump and Brexit.


In spite of this (or possibly because of this), No won. It is as much a protest vote as the Trump and Brexit votes. Areas with high unemployment were much more pro-No than the rest of the country. Once more, Clinton’s “deplorables” rose up to stop what the establishment had decided for them. You can call it populism, I call it democracy. Possibly a democracy we were not used any more. The world has to take notice.


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  1. There are many people calling it populism when they refer to the big picture, not to the result of the referendum.

    It might be populism for, at least, 3 symptom:
    1. The leader has been above all, everybody and everything. In fact, there has been the perverse practice to identify everybody and everything with Renzi (I can make many example);
    2. Communication has been a drug both for the members of the government and for people;
    3. Adversity against the élite (the élite is defined as people with power, that is with culture and ideas!)

    Among the 3, I think the most important sign is the first. As regarding communication, we can learn to communicate and correct our way to intimate. As regarding culture and ideas: people are not stupid, sooner or later they realize that the person with culture and good ideas will help the society as a Whole!!! The real problem is the leader: when people identify with the leader…this is a good when they love you, but it is a bad when they hate you; this is serius, grave, and fatal (in the sense that the leader can even be killed!) 🙂

    This is a very general consideration, which can also be used to analize the Italian case. I do not express any personal view on Renzi or the Italian referendum.

    Finally, a general comment on democracy in Italy in this case of the referendum. You call it democracy. Firstly, the affluence was not bad and not good: 1 over 4 did not vote. Secondly, I don’t think that voting people expressed their vote to democratically partecipate; instead, I think that they (at least the majority) where just moved by the usual habit of shooting the jacket of the politician they know. I would be very happy to see Italians say that I am wrong, that they think indipendently and act in autonomy. It’s a dream…I guess that what you call populism is in this direction: to empower people making them free. Again, it’s a guess, I do not express any personal view on Trump or May.


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