How the Democrats Became Italy’s Establishment Party

Italy’s Democrats have often posed as a guarantor of institutional stability and Rome’s Atlanticist line. Current leader Elly Schlein has tacked left, but it’s done little to change the party’s identity as a force for steadying Italian capitalism.

Then Florence mayor Matteo Renzi (R) appears onstage with Democratic Party candidate for prime minister Pier Luigi Bersani at a political rally on February 1, 2013 in Florence, Italy. (Laura Lezza / Getty Images)

Ahead of June’s elections to the European Union’s parliament, Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni is troubling the sleep of progressive public opinion, not only at home but throughout the Old Continent. So strong is her domestic position that the postfascist leader Meloni is now a leading light for European conservative forces in general.

Yet Meloni’s political force also owes to the weakness of the opposition. The simple truth is that the Italian right would not enjoy such a commanding position if it were not for the many self-defeating moves by the main force on the center left, the Democratic Party. This is true even under new segretaria (party leader) Elly Schlein, who raised many hopes when she was elected to this post in March 2023.

But this also tells us something wider about the Democrats and their current position. The Italian center left’s many damaging choices were not individual follies or even outbreaks of collective madness. Rather, they are rooted in this party’s recent history and political culture — and its particular social base.

Out of Time

The Democratic Party may have only a short history, but it has already passed through several sometimes strikingly contradictory phases. The party was founded in 2007 as a result of the convergence of the Democrats of the Left (direct heirs of the Italian Communist Party) and the Margherita (heir to part of Christian Democracy). But under Walter Veltroni’s leadership, the new party was characterized less by an attempt to synthesize the post-Communist and post–Christian Democratic traditions, than by a bid to move away from Italy’s existing political cultures. The model — explicitly referenced even in the party’s name — was that of the US Democrats, and the Third Way championed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

However, Veltroni’s leadership was short-lived. He was dragged down by a severe electoral defeat at the hands of Silvio Berlusconi in 2008 and the impossibility of fencing the entire center-left political space within a single party. But more fundamentally, Veltroni’s efforts came to nought because the framework within which the party had been conceived — the mission of stable neoliberal governance — itself failed.

The Democratic Party’s original sin was not that it added together different (and already by that point greatly diluted) political cultures, but that it was conceived for an already surpassed political moment. It was founded in an era in which it was still imagined that “actually existing globalization” was — and would continue to be — a factor of progress for all of society, and especially for a certain middle class that the Democrats considered central to national life. This promise was especially bound up with the creative sectors of finance and culture, seen as structurally best able to profit from the opportunities of an increasingly open world market.

The Democratic Party thus presented itself to citizens as a postideological, postnational, and postclass party that would effectively guide Italy’s insertion into the “global village,” while ensuring the working classes welfare levels that would allow them to withstand increasing job precarity. In this regard, the Democrats’ commitment to the EU (in Italy called europeismo) was not so much aimed at the creation of a European political structure with a strong social identity and autonomy from US geopolitical interests. Rather, they considered it the best means to insert Italy into the web of global interdependencies, breaking the various conservatisms that hampered this operation.

The financial crisis and its fallout devastated both this approach and the one adopted by Pier Luigi Bersani, who succeeded Veltroni as leader. Bersani promised a more classically social democratic approach, drawing on the example of the French Socialists under François Hollande (whose presidency from 2012–17 will surely leave few traces in the annals of European socialism).

In theory, then, this was meant to be a turn to the left. But, paradoxically, it was under Bersani’s leadership that the Democrats headed in the opposite direction. For his leadership began the era of support for variously technocratic, austerian, or at any rate totally pro-business governments under Mario Monti (2011–13) and Mario Draghi (2021–22). Between these two technocrat-led cabinets — both uncritically supported by the Democrats, and both resulting in ruinous electoral defeat — the leaderships of Matteo Renzi and Nicola Zingaretti did not break from the pattern that had begun with the Monti government. The government formed by the center left in alliance with the Five Star Movement (2019–21), under prime minister Giuseppe Conte, was more suffered than really supported by the Democrats. The popular prime minister Conte (a promoter of pro-labor policies, who was intolerant of austerity and open to a multipolar vision of international politics) was dumped at the earliest opportunity, to return to the safe haven of technocracy and untrammeled Atlanticism under former central bank chief Draghi.

A crucial feature of this long phase was the ceding of the Democratic Party’s de facto leadership to the president — a figure who is neither head of government nor directly elected by voters. Still, the party did this at a time when the presidency (under first Giorgio Napolitano and then Sergio Mattarella) was undergoing a considerable twist, as the occupiers of this office turned from their historic role as guarantors of the constitution of 1948 to — sometimes explicit — guarantors of the external economic and geopolitical constraints on Italian politics. In particular, the use of the presidential veto ring-fenced government choices and ministerial appointments, ruling out all but the fullest obedience to an EU and Atlanticist framework, euphemistically known as Italy’s collocazione.

The political suicide of Bersani, who championed a turn “to the left” but ended up mired in support for Monti’s cabinet of technocrats — despite its alleged political neutrality the most blatantly classist and even most genuinely “right-wing” government in the republic’s history — cannot be explained without considering this change in the president’s role.


Here, we should also consider an element of the Democrats’ political culture that often gets glossed over. Discussions of this party almost always see it in terms of its derivation from the Italian Communist Party. The Left has a well-known mania for writing its own history, and, given its inability to make a real political impact, it has appointed itself as the guardian of the historical memory of the post-Communist diaspora. In Italy’s newspapers and TV debates, the “story” about the twists and turns that gave birth to the Democratic Party is one told by figures from Communist backgrounds. But completely absent from this self-representation is the contribution to its political culture coming from the former Christian Democratic party, which also produced a massive, if not majority, part of the Democrats’ leadership group.

This Christian Democratic contribution matters. An analysis of its role would have to start from two angles. First is that this party considered itself “indispensable” and identified its own hegemony (it led the government from 1945 to 1981 and remained part of it till 1994) with the salvation of democracy in Italy. In other words, it made itself, more than a party of government, a party-state. The other, connected element is the Christian Democrats’ role as guarantor of the “external constraints” on Italian government action, and its quiescence to NATO diktats. In this view, it was not only essential that the Christian Democrats stay in government: more than that, without this one party in the control room, Italy’s liberal institutions would have faltered; a crisis of this party would go hand in hand with a crisis of the republic itself. The alternative would have been chaos and the Communists seizing power.

This element in Christian Democratic political culture strongly colored the Democratic Party upon its foundation in 2007. Yet Democratic leaders’ view of their party as the linchpin of Italian democracy also appeals to a part of progressive public opinion. Whenever primaries are held to elect a new Democratic leader, many on the Left participate in this ritual despite not being from the party, having never voted for it, and — depending on the outcome and in some cases even regardless of the outcome — having no intention of voting for it in the future. Many Italians vote in the Democratic primaries out of fear of the abyss. Oh God — the Democratic Party might disappear, whatever will become of us? And what about poor old Italy?

For many, it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the Democratic Party. This only fuels this party’s characteristic self-perception, inherited from the Christian Democrats, of thinking of itself as indispensable. It’s like a cat biting its own tail: the Democratic Party identifies itself with the neoliberal state; it regularly betrays its own electorate in order to prop up this order; the electorate punishes the Democratic Party for self-immolating in the name of the neoliberal rationale; and then the same electorate that just punished it joyfully rushes to save it, to avoid losing the party indispensable to the salvation of the neoliberal state, as if forgetting why it punished it to begin with.

Here, I will only briefly outline an additional consideration, which is that from the mid-1970s a significant part of the Communist Party leadership group — not coincidentally, the same one of which 2006–15 president Napolitano had himself been a leading figure — had also adopted this vision. It developed this idea both from an institutional point of view (the Communist Party “had to” be in government, for democracy depended on it) and from a socioeconomic point of view (reformism not as a gradual conquest of power by the working class, but as a call for “emergency” reforms. The word “reform” was here understood as any measure that may help provide the ideal conditions for kick-starting the troubled mechanisms of capitalist accumulation).

In 2014, when the party leadership was won by Renzi — a character totally divorced from the history and reasoning of the Left — the (self-)justification given by party leaders and activists for the huge vote for the former mayor of Florence was that he was “a winner.” That is, the Democratic Party must win, must be able to go into government, regardless of the contents of the government action itself, in order to safeguard Italy’s democratic institutions, otherwise destined to end up at the mercy of “populism.”

For the Democratic Party, then, the experience of Monti’s technocratic cabinet — substantially confirmed by the 2021–22 Draghi government — meant the transition from a “party of government” to a party-state model. This also gives a certain rational character to the political suicide of then Democratic leader Enrico Letta when Draghi’s government headed into crisis in summer 2022. He broke off the Democrats’ alliance with the Five Star Movement — resulting in an electoral disaster for the center left and a landslide victory for Meloni’s right-wing coalition.

So, what was Letta doing? For one thing, he wanted to distance the Democrats from an ally (Five Star) deemed “unreliable” in terms of obeying the “external constraints” on Italy and its institutions. This was especially important in a moment when the government resulting from the election would be called upon to vote on the reform of the EU’s Growth and Stability Pact (meaning, a fresh wave of austerity) and to include the country in the anti-Russian war coalition. Moreover, in Letta’s reading, a right-wing government would not have withstood these demands, and the Democratic Party would again have been called back into government under pressure from international institutions, with the EU and NATO in the lead. Letta did not understand that Meloni’s right-wing coalition was — and remains — perfectly capable of serving as guarantor of the external constraints on Italy. As soon as Meloni’s government had a chance to prove its “reliability” to its international partners, Letta proclaimed that she had proven “better than expected.”

After this umpteenth political suicide, the disastrous legacy fell into the hands of Elly Schlein, a young politician trained in the US presidential campaigns for Barack Obama, and without a historical background in either the Communist or Christian Democratic traditions. In Schlein’s party, we see the difficult coexistence of two models: Veltroni’s original vision, even if in a somehow more leftist way — the basis of the push from nonmembers that led Schlein to win the 2023 primary — and the model of support for technocratic governments, which remains utterly dominant in the party apparatus.


Such a combination would in any case present objective difficulties. But more recently a controversy has exploded over accusations of clientelism, after scandals over alleged vote buying and ties between Democratic officials and shady business interests. This controversy is worth focusing on more closely, because even apart from the moral or judicial issues involved, it can be an interesting litmus test of the Democratic Party’s function in Italian society and in its institutions.

Clientelism surely has a long history in Italian public life. Both the liberal-elitist order following national unification and fascism were (also) clientelist regimes. As for the republic founded in 1946, clientelism was the response of the second generation of Christian Democratic leaders to the failure of Alcide De Gasperi’s liberista (free-marketeer) economic policy model in the immediate postwar period. This clientelism was not the product — as we are usually told — of the state’s excesses, but rather of the state’s excessive retreat.

It was impossible to rally mass consensus around the liberista model of the immediate postwar period, and the Christian Democratic leadership group’s realization of this fact occurred at the same time as advancing secularization and the onset of international détente. The militarized consensus of the anti-communist crusade, so on display in the pivotal 1948 general election, also failed the Catholic party. While the labor movement stood on the terrain of mass democracy, seeking to build the relationship between social conflict and institutional power, the Christian Democrats organized a vertical type of consensus, artificially building up the middle classes through public spending and permissiveness in taxation. This vertical organization of power also explains, among other things, the particularistic character of Italian welfare, in which social benefits are not a universal right, but a favor bestowed by the ruling party.

So, before we express our amazement that the Democratic Party is embroiled in charges of clientelism, we ought to consider 1) the failure of the neoliberal model of the 1990s–2000s, which was even more aggressive in undermining labor than the governments of the 1940s–50s, and 2) the massive injection of Christian Democratic political culture into the formation of the Democratic Party.

So, what is really being demanded of the Democrats, when calls are made for it to break with clientelism? Given this party’s structure, it is in effect being asked to give up posing itself the problem of mass support. In theory, it would be a good thing if there were a party that “purely” represented the progressive urban middle class and what little remains of a protected working class with strong guarantees. Such a party would constitute (as it has always done, since the popular fronts in the 1930s) a crucial element of any progressive coalition. But, in the post–2008 crisis West, this form of representation hardly ensures any great electoral success, notwithstanding the general overrepresentation of the urban, highly educated middle classes. Votes are either earned by representing partial but potentially majority interests — what were once called class interests — or else bought (not necessarily illegally!) by building a vertical, cross-class consensus using bureaucratic power and public spending, plus the distribution of directly political jobs.

Ideally, in the years to come, building an alliance between the world of precarious labor and the urban middle classes would be a great thing. But this would require a first, and for many unpalatable, step — an at least temporary move to break up the weight of support historically amassed behind the Democratic Party.