Imagine if overall unemployment in the country was more than three times its current rate. Imagine if youth unemployment in the U.S. was at 35 percent. And imagine if hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people from sub-Saharan Africa were constantly landing on the shores and coming into the country. A U.S. election in such circumstances might have a certain piquancy. And American voters might feel justifiably angry if every way they turned in their voting options, they were told that they were fascists.
But that is how much of the international press has once again responded to the Italian elections. The “Italy is turning fascist” stories have been run in almost all the international media. CNN’s Ruth Ben-Ghiat is currently going with a “The fascists did scarily well” headline. In fact, it is the bizarre Five Star Movement (a party which almost defies conventional definition), which came out best, with 32 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the coalition of right-wing parties, which includes the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, looks able to cobble together some type of a government.
The reaction to this is fascinating, because it is the same as the reaction whenever the people respond sharply to sharp events which are happening to their country. Such interpretation betrays a woefully ignorant and simplistic perspective on a complex situation.
There was a time when the Italian public voting “incorrectly” might draw unending disdain from the governments as well as media in allied countries. There was a time when people might have shrugged and said, “Well, that’s Italy.” But what is striking after Sunday’s result is that such a shrug may not be able to work for much longer. In Germany, Angela Merkel has only just managed, after almost half a year, to put together a governing coalition. The official opposition party in the German Parliament is now the only five-year-old Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Everywhere the people are trying to voice their concerns about a set of issues, which in Europe are dominated by concerns about immigration. And everywhere they are told that their routes to express these concerns are illegitimate or fascist.
Perhaps Germany will turn out to be the wake-up that European politics so badly needs. At most, the results of the Italian elections will nudge that wake-up call on its way. But at some point, there has to be a realization, from Rome, Brussels, and — most crucially — Berlin that the public is voicing concerns which are legitimate. The spotlight focused on what genuinely far-right, fascist parties as exist can and must be kept up. But it is becoming increasingly untenable to pretend that the concerns that the people keep expressing should not at some point become concerns that their elected representatives respond to.