A Reflection on the Defeat of the Italian League in the Recent Regional Elections.

The right-wing League has been defeated in the regional elections of yesterday in the “Emilia-Romagna” in Italy. It was a key region, traditionally held by the left. The leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, had made an all-out effort to win there in the wake of the weakening of the traditional political parties, but he failed. It was not just a local event, it shows the weakness of a whole propaganda system and it opens up the question of how social media affect democracy. It is just the beginning of a long story that we’ll see unraveling in the future. (BTW, note in the image the Catholic rosary held by Mr. Salvini, part of a hodgepodge of modern and ancient ideas he used for his electoral propaganda).

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian League, had focused his electoral efforts on Emilia-Romagna, the Center-North region that was a traditional stronghold of the Italian left. In the wake of the crisis of the left-wing parties in Italy, it seemed possible, even easy, for the League to win there. That would have been a big blow for the central government and would probably have forced new national elections. Then, the League would have won hands-down.

It was as good as any battle plan. But the best plans of mice and men (and of Mr. Salvini) tend to gang agley. Mr. Salvini turned out to be an amateur in the role of the local Napoleon: he overstretched his forces and he was defeated. Now he is facing an uncertain retreat that he won’t probably survive, politically.

Of course, the vagaries of local politics in Italy are only of modest interest for the rest of the world (and even for Italy). Yet, I think we all can learn something from the recent Italian elections. What we have seen was an unexpected failure of the recently developed propaganda techniques that brought right-wing parties to victory almost everywhere in the world.

In terms of electoral propaganda, Matteo Salvini had done everything “by the book” to prepare for the elections. His propaganda machine goes under the name of “La Bestia” (The Beast) and it has been operating for a few years in the way pioneered earlier on by Silvio Berlusconi and that brought Donald Trump to the presidency in the US.

The idea is to target the lowest cultural level of the population. Use scare tactics, find enemies of all sorts, demonize them, then promise safety in the hands of a right-wing government. As “ministro degli interni” (ministry of the interior) at the national level, Mr. Salvini had waged a feverish hate campaign against immigrants, communists, leftists, intellectuals, etc. Then, La Bestia used technologies of targeted propaganda on social media, the same pioneered earlier on by Cambridge Analytics. Again, all done in a very aggressive manner, targeting the most sensible fraction of social media users.

It didn’t work. The resistance of the left was remarkable: it was the same surprise that Napoleon must have experienced when he found that he couldn’t beat the Russians at Borodino. The left in Italy is commonly seen as a spent force but, evidently, it is not, not completely, at least. But, possibly, Mr. Salvini has undone himself by exaggerating with his electoral tactics. Too much screaming, too much hate, too many threats. Mr. Salvini surely has a certain capability of endearing himself with the least cultured fraction of the population but as a leader, well, you could say he looks more like a bus driver. He never had a job, never worked for a living, failed to obtain a university degree. People perceived that the leader of the League really had no plan other than taking power and then, probably, screaming even louder.

One specific mistake that Mr. Salvini may have done was to play down the climate-environmental problem. He did his best to avoid the subject and when he was forced to face it, he tended to slip away using jokes or sneers. He also failed to comment on the general tendency of his supporters to take an aggressive anti-science position, to say nothing about the barrage of insults they directed at Greta Thunberg. Also here, Salvini gave the impression of having no ideas and no plans. He didn’t realize that it is no more possible for a politician to ignore climate change.

So, we saw the first defeat of a set of propaganda techniques that seemed to be invincible with Trump, Bolsonaro, and the others. At the same time, we saw the complete defeat and the disappearance of the “5-star” movement (M4S). The M5S was the result of another attempt to use the Internet in the political process. It was based on the use of a platform called “Russeau” that tried to create a shared decisional process — in some respects. it was the opposite approach of “The Beast.” Like a giant Rube Goldberg machine, the M5S decisional system worked well until it ceased to work.

Surely, the Beast, the Russeau, and other electoral methods will evolve and change on the basis of the experience gained in this and other elections. But, if the Internet is generating a remarkable revolution on the methods used to win elections, it doesn’t seem to help much in what is to be done afterward. This problem is what doomed the M5S and would probably doom the League, in case they were to take power in Italy. With all our powerful communication technologies and models, all politics is still based on 4-5 word slogans: “Make America (or Italy) Great Again.” A fine idea, but how exactly?

Photo: Conservative-right politicial figures (L to R) Giorgia Meloni, Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi (2018).  Source: Presidenza della Republica via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Meloni_Salvini_Berlusconi.jpg