Italy’s Democrats Are the Party for the End of History

Italy’s Democratic Party refuses to break with the neoliberal status quo. This political conservatism will only further open the door to the populist right, which has massively increased its support in recent years.

Italian Democratic Party secretary Enrico Letta appears on the television program Porta a Porta, April 27, 2022. (Massimo Di Vita / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

“Europe will be forged in crises,” wrote Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, in 1976, “and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” Less than fifty years later, the first part of Monnet’s prophecy has certainly been fulfilled. Excessive fiscal austerity and the long stagnation of the 2010s, the tragic spectacle of the refugee crisis, and the insurgencies of far-right populist parties across Europe seemed more than enough to test the bloc’s crisis management skills and political unity throughout the last decade. Then came COVID-19, which is still tormenting the public health systems of Europe’s member states, and Vladimir Putin’s imperialist war, which has provided the bloc with yet another stress test.

Amid general skepticism, many would argue that Europe displayed remarkable unity at the outbreak of the conflict. The public condemnation of Putin’s aggression and support for the Ukrainian struggle led many leading European governments to send military aid to the Eastern European nation and to call for a full gas embargo against Russia. Two months into the conflict, however, with no real progress on the Ukrainian front, and no negotiations on the horizon, economic rationality and divergent national interests have divided European countries on matters of strategy and political positioning. Today, the bloc’s plan to deal with the Ukrainian crisis and its economic consequences remains painfully unclear.

Technocratic Solutions

Unperturbed by the series of existential crises facing the bloc in recent months, Enrico Letta, the secretary of Italy’s Democratic Party, has remained optimistic. Making reference to Monnet’s prediction, in a recent interview he boldly asserted that “Europe will find its unity through this crisis.” After fleeing the Italian political scene in 2014, a victim of Matteo Renzi’s rise in the Democratic Party, Letta came back to Italy in 2021 to accompany former European Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi in another technocratic experiment à la italienne. Like the previous government of national unity, Draghi’s latest came together with the aim of “saving” Italy from yet another crisis.

Led by Draghi, who in 2012 famously guaranteed that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to save the euro during the height of the financial crisis, Italy’s political leaders have, across the political spectrum, shown a rejuvenated passion for European values and fiscal responsibility. With the largest stimulus package in the history of the EU ready to be spent, politicians formerly at war with each other have suddenly overcome their differences. Nothing like the recipes of a central banker — and former Goldman Sachs employee — to bridge the old divides of Left and Right.

And yet among the parties that make up the government of national unity, Letta’s is the only one that can claim impeccable credentials with regard to the EU and Russia. The Democratic politician, unlike his opponents, has no Euroskeptic skeletons in his closet. While his rivals on the Right have histories of murky personal ties with figures such as Putin and Viktor Órban, Letta not only considers himself a staunch pro-European but is also a longtime ally of the United States. Just a few days after Germany’s decision to dramatically increase its defense spending, a previously unthinkable development in Europe’s recent history, Letta became an advocate for increasing Italy’s spending on its own war chest to 2 percent of its GDP, as required by NATO membership.

Rescuing Liberalism

This move is motivated by a wider belief at the center of Letta’s recently published manifesto, in which he sets out his vision for “a new European order.” Published, curiously, on a right-wing media platform, Letta’s manifesto can be summarized in the slogan he uses in his appeal to other center-left parties in Europe: “When in trouble, go big.” In a watershed moment such as this one, extraordinary measures are required, and Europe should live up to its expectations — economically, morally, and militarily. Of course, the EU has always shown a greater harmony on security matters than on issues regarding fiscal policies and welfare, yet this degree of cohesion on the old continent has been missing for a long time. For some, it is cause for optimism.

This is not just because the Russian aggression in Ukraine has triggered a revival of Cold War nostalgia, polarizing the debate over issues that seemed gone for good. A lot has been said about the state of health of liberal democracy, and there is no doubt that it is not doing well. Europe has been going through roughly two decades of political, economic, and existential turbulence, with liberal democracy faltering everywhere, threatened by far-right parties, resurgent authoritarianism, and many other thorns in its side. It is by looking at this juncture that Letta sees an opportunity that cannot be wasted: this is the moment to make liberal values hegemonic again, and to deploy them against Euroskeptics, populists, and the Russian-backed far right — in other words, with the political forces he is currently governing with under Draghi’s leadership.

The irony cannot be overstated. Ever since the beginning of Draghi’s reign, Letta has been the most adamant supporter of the present government, using his party’s growing political clout to defend it from internal disagreements. In the name of national unity, Letta is effectively governing with the 5 Star Movement, until recently the populist party par excellence; Silvio Berlusconi, who described Putin as the world’s greatest leader; and Matteo Salvini, who famously visited the European Parliament in 2015 with a picture of Putin on his T-shirt, and who has never hidden his desire to pull Italy out of the EU, only to change his mind when he saw an opportunity to sit next to Draghi.

Such an unholy alliance on the part of Letta’s Democratic Party may be explained by a pragmatic consideration of electoral prospects: if Italians were to vote today, a coalition of right-wing parties would put an end to its ambitions. However, this explanation is insufficient. Letta’s support for Draghi and his program is not merely strategic but political.

Enrico Letta embodies a political alignment common to many center-left party leaders, proposing a mix of diluted social and civil rights, half-hearted environmentalism and liberal economic policies that favor market flexibility, regressive fiscality, delocalization, and, in the latest development, relocation of resources to military spending — not exactly the greenest sector of the economy.

A Bourgeois Bloc

In Italy as elsewhere, social democratic parties have never really stopped promoting third-way politics: despite cosmetic changes to their narratives with regard to inequality and its perils, they remain unwilling to accept their responsibility for the present situation and are thus unable to offer any alternative.

Instead of seeking a way to enhance the power of labor over capital, Italy’s main center-left party has unhinged itself from its reliance on working-class voters, allowing it to move rightward on its positions on economic issues. The political scientist Nicola Melloni has argued that Italy’s Democrats represent the only true class-based party: its electorate is mostly composed of highly educated, affluent people living in central urban areas, what Stefano Palombarini and Bruno Amable call the bloc bourgeois. Only a rough 10 percent of votes come from the working class, the precariat, and the unemployed.

This doesn’t mean that there is no discussion about the fundamental issues of our time within the Democratic Party. It might seem logical, as scholars of conflict theory teach us, that left-wing parties would benefit electorally from making redistributive concerns more salient in times of economic hardship. From inequality to climate change, Letta has been careful to present himself and his party as progressive, and within the party and its electorate, there is space for certain left-wing ideas to be debated and, occasionally, advocated.

What this pluralist facade hides, however, is a post-ideological core, rooted in the ’90s, of the “end of history,” the last chance for a ruling class that has long run out of ideas to show that allowing the market to manage our lives can still work, if only we can convince elites to share the spoils. In search of an identity that can hide their inaction on much-needed reforms, Letta and the Democrats are thus left with no other strategy than to portray themselves as the last stalwarts against a rising sea of populism and far-right nationalism, the last defenders, in Letta’s own words, of a “unique European lifestyle and growth model” threatened by a new wave of authoritarianism.

Post-Historical Politics

Of course, which authoritarian leaders he feels threatened by is very much open to historical contingencies: in a recent interview, Letta stated that the EU should “resume its relationship” with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose bombings of Kurdish civilians and domestic human rights violations are no secret.

It is no wonder then that Emmanuel Macron’s victory in France has been portrayed by many on the Italian center left as a victory against Putin, nationalism, and Euroskepticism, a success story which demonstrates the viability of its political strategy. By tracing a clear line in the sand between us and them, those who believe in the European project and the Russophiles who clamor behind nationalistic banners, Letta not only manages to hide the disconcerting absence of real economic and social solutions to the present crisis but is also creating a strong bind between what he considers progressive “European” values and support for the European Union.

Never mind that Macron has delivered the economic sphere to market forces while extending the state’s authoritarian arm to discipline any discontent, that he has mimicked the far right by co-opting some of its stances on migrants and Islamophobia, and that this political strategy has allowed Marine Le Pen to add three million votes to her tally, making for the greatest success of the far right since the World War II. “A victory for the whole of Europe,” wrote a relieved Letta.

As the growth of the French far right demonstrates, this narrative is deeply problematic, though, on a purely tactical level, it has guaranteed eight years of power for Macron’s neoliberal project to consolidate. In Italy, however, it is unviable. Compared to the French two-round runoff system, Italy’s electoral law never really pits two candidates one against the other. As people are allowed to choose between a wider array of political parties, they are less encouraged to vote against a particular candidate, limiting the influence of a section of the electorate responsible for Macron’s victory. To govern, a party that refuses to widen its base by tackling the grievances of vast swathes of the population is left with supporting technocratic governments, as the Democrats did with Mario Monti in 2011 and Draghi in 2021, or directly governing with right-wing parties and ambiguous populist experiments, as it did over four different legislatures in the last nine years.

Ultimately, what really matters is to cultivate an image of economic and fiscal responsibility in order not to lose seats in Parliament while supporting reforms aimed at modernizing Italian capitalism. In 2011, these structural reforms were presented to avoid the explosion of Italian debt; in 2021, they became essential to receive the EU’s not-so-enormous stimulus package. Looking beyond the media spin that for months attempted to present Draghi’s tenure as some return to a Keynesian golden age, we are left staring incredulously at a reiteration of the ideology that is at the heart of the present social crisis: the conviction that, if we truly manage to remove the strings that hamper private initiative and the selective mechanisms of the market, growth will inevitably follow, to the advantage of all.

Enrico Letta is supporting this program in the name of European values, and perhaps the only real mistake is for anyone to be surprised by it. His party’s loyalty to the bloc bourgeois and the ideological ground on which it relies to explain this world leave little room for proposing any real alternative. What is important to understand for an international audience, however, is the risk of grounding one’s electoral success on a shrinking and increasingly disaffected middle class while abandoning working-class people to their destiny. For while many will simply stop voting, a number will go in search of a leader who will give them an explanation for a seemingly unsolvable crisis. Across the world, disenchanted voters have turned to those who offer a blend of racist, nationalist, and antiestablishment rhetoric to point a finger at those responsible. In Italy, this voice is represented by the Brothers of Italy party, rewarded for its decision not to take part in Draghi’s government with becoming the largest party in the country. At its latest convention, a jubilant crowd laughed and clapped when Vittorio Feltri, a right-wing journalist, expressed his joy that they were reunited in the birthplace of fascism.

As voters become increasingly unable to see any differences between the economic policies of mainstream parties, the terms of the political debate have moved to sociocultural issues. On this terrain, the Left, or what is left of it, has been thus far incapable of opposing right-wing narratives, leading to the electoral growth of the far right, unimpeded by the rhetoric on European values and invocations of the specter of Russian-backed enemies.

There is, of course, an alternative. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left-wing program won 22 percent of the vote in the first round of the French election — much to the chagrin of those who had already written the Left’s epitaph — demonstrating a demand for such ideas, especially among younger voters and the worst-off. From a minimum wage to investments in education and health care, from tackling inequalities to an unambiguous plan to fight the climate crisis, those same ideas are clearly shared by many in Italy. Yet with no change of pace on the part of Letta’s Democrats, nor any contenders able to represent left-wing positions, the coming elections of March 2023 will either see the Democrats lead yet another centrist government with right-wing allies or the long-postponed victory of the far right. Either way, the crisis is here to stay.