The Upcoming Elections in Italy

by Miriam Ronzoni on August 4, 2022

Orbán: "Non mescoliamoci con altre razze". Così l'alleato di Salvini e Meloni evoca la Teoria della grande sostituzione - la Repubblica

DISCLAIMER: I am on holiday so will not be able to moderate comments assiduously. Apologies in advance for that.

On September 25th, Italians will vote at yet another snap election. This is the first ever Italian national election following a Summer electoral campaign – Italians are quite homogeneous and consistent in taking their holidays in August, a month over which politics usually retreats to the back stage. This Summer, instead, beach parties, open-air clubs and sagre (village fêtes, often taking place during the tourist season) will be the stage of campaigning and canvassing.

The fall of the Draghi government was typical and atypical at the same time. Large coalition-style, “technical” governments are a feature of Italian politics, but they are also as recurrent as they are, taken individually, short-lived. They are usually appointed with a self-contained agenda, often one with an “emergency” and exceptional character to it (I know, the irony…), and they are supported by very large and diverse majorities which are naturally unstable and prone to becoming impatient after a certain time – especially after the official rationale for the technical government appears to be expired or accomplished. Yet Draghi’s fall was somewhat unusual in two respects. First, it was simultaneously provoked by the right and, in a sense, the left of the coalition. The former, represented by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the sovereignist Lega, had a bunch of credible and less credible substantive complaints, but many would argue that the prospect of a dazzling electoral success was the driving force behind the decision to withdraw their support to the government. The latter is a trickier issue. Technically speaking, the Democratic Party and a small coalition of parties and civil society actors to its left (which includes the Greens) constitute the left of the coalition. Yet, the Democratic Party has been pushing a decidedly centrist agenda – even by contemporary standards for left-of-centre parties – and has been proactively supporting both an increase in the defence budget and the sending of weapons to Ukraine,  ina clean break from the traditional pacifist  stance of the Italian left. The 5 Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle), which – as is probably well known – officially refuses to be defined by the Right/Left axis, has actually been the political actor most clearly following both pacifist and social welfare agendas. Notably, it is the 5 Star Movement-led previous government which managed to introduce the first ever universal system of social welfare Italy has ever had: the reddito di cittadinanza or citizen’s income. Previous welfare measures were extremely piecemeal and excluded several social groups. And it is indeed the 5 Star Movement which sorta kinda joined the Forza Italia and the League in withdrawing its support to Draghi, due to disagreements over the Italian Ukraine policy as well as the concern that Draghi might target the reddito di cittadinanza itself (there were plans to cut it and reduce its scope – they were abandoned for the time being, but that was clearly only a temporary decision). I qualified my previous claim with “sorta kinda” because Draghi decided to hold a confidence vote, and the 5 Star Movement opted for a specific form of abstaining which effectively lowers the quorum needed to reach a majority. Thus, Draghi officially survived the confidence vote, but decided to resign nevertheless, because it was apparent that he could no longer count on a functioning majority.

What will happen next? Well, the quickly formed right wing coalition formed by Forza Italia, the League and the far right party Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) is on course to win comfortably, although some pundits still doubt the real results will be as dazzling for them as polls currently suggest. What is more, the party on course the get the largest electoral share –within that coalition and overall – is the extreme right Brothers of Italy itself, which is quite meaningful and, of course, worrying. The Democratic Party, though, is following Brothers of Italy pretty closely, with some wondering whether it might come out as the main party on Election Day after all. What is most striking, however, is the absence of any relevance for the traditional Right/Left political axis, even compared to the pale versions of that axis which the last few decades got us used to. The Democratic Party appears to be on a clear trajectory to form, and lead, a squarely Centrist coalition, which will certainly exclude the 5 Star Movement (expect Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi di Maio and his followers, who have left the movement in an act of loyalty to Draghi and its government’s agenda); probably exclude the Left/Green conglomerate which constituted the only left wing element in the large coalition supporting Draghi; and probably include some moderate MPs who left Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as they disagreed with the decision to let Draghi fall. Thee is no meaningful sense n which this will be even a left-of-centre coalition. Some centrist actors (such as former mayor of Florence and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi) will not join this company, but not for ideological disagreements recognisable on the left/right axis: their declared intention is to create the conditions for yet another Draghi government, by undermining the possibility of a clear parliamentary majority (I know, the mind boggles). A new left wing political actor is coalescing around the charismatic former mayor of Naples Luigi de Magistris – but although the hope is to follow the French example of Melonchon, it is doubtful that this will lead to difference-making electoral results (although it might lead to a non-negligible comeback of the radical Left in the Italian Parliament).

What does this mean? Some might see it as just an extreme example of the shift to the right of European party politics, with not even a clear left-of-centre actor constituting a credible candidate to govern. A different, not fully competing but somewhat more worrying, reading is that this is the beginning of a shift towards a new axis altogether. My friend Silja Häusermann, a brilliant political scientist working at the University of Zurich, has been arguing for some time that the Populist/Liberal-democratic axis is to replace the Right/Left one (even in its pale form), for the decades to come in Europe. It’s probably a bit early to say whether she is right, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Italy anticipates broader trends in Western democracies: remember the 90s when it was the West’s laughing stock because of Berlusconi?


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }


MisterMr 08.05.22 at 1:17 pm

I think your friend is correct. The problem for the left proper is that it is too small, so that it cannot really force the centrist parties to go left, and if it doesn’t ally with the center they are blamed for putting the right into power.
In practice this means that the left has to mostly follow what the center wants, but then people who dislike the status quo will be pulled toward the populist right.
I think this is happening in the USA and UK too, not just in the EU.
I don’t know why this is happening on the left and not on the right, perhaps it is just the consequence of the turn to left neoliberalism in the 90s.
Perhaps there will be a change in direction, but I don’t see it yet.


MisterMr 08.05.22 at 1:32 pm

I’ll add that Meloni/FdI is not really much further to the right than Salvini/Lega (who was part of the technical government up to now): these are two rigt wing populist parties with a different history, originally FdI was the heir party of the fascist party whereas the Lega was a secessionist party from northern Italy. But recently Salvini, Lega’s leader, managed to repackage the Lega into being racist against foreigners (instead of being racist against southern italians), so there is no more real difference between the two parties.
Since FdI was outside the government while Lega was inside, FdI will just get the votes that previously went to Lega, but that’s it.


nastywoman 08.05.22 at 9:35 pm

it’s such a mess BUT at least we have Damiano Tommasi and if a city which once was the center of the utmost spregevole Right-Wingers can have a Damiano –
there is hope for every other place which is NOT la citta of LOVE.


Alex SL 08.06.22 at 1:20 am

I find it difficult to believe that the left will disappear entirely, given that the core insights of human equality and the ultra-rich not deserving their wealth and power over everybody else are time-less and somewhat self-evident, but I can believe that at least in countries with two-party-systems this may well be what we are looking at.

After all, right-wing-populist versus liberal-centrist “we will leave things largely as they are, even in the face of massive crises that make such myopia completely untenable, but we will be a more competent and less corrupt management than the other lot” is how Republicans and Democrats, Tories and Labour, Le Pen and Macron have already positioned themselves.

My greatest worry is that while the left may never entirely disappear, it being a significant force in politics may turn out to have been a unique and fleeting moment in history.


J-D 08.07.22 at 8:24 am

My friend Silja Häusermann, a brilliant political scientist working at the University of Zurich, has been arguing for some time that the Populist/Liberal-democratic axis is to replace the Right/Left one (even in its pale form), for the decades to come in Europe.

I know what I mean when** I talk about the right-left axis, but I don’t know whether your friend means the same thing. Any light you can shed on what your friend means when talking about the right-left axis would be much appreciated.

** I don’t talk about it much, but when I do I know what I mean.


Felix 08.08.22 at 9:07 am

I cannot speak to the circumstance in Italy. But I have so far listened to one thing from Silja Häusermann, and if I understand it correctly some of the (global) problem could be the fact that the left has become associated with investment – long time horizons with difficulty assessing who the eventual winners and losers will be – rather than addressing immediate needs and concerns.

And I think that’s the crux of the problem. The left has become associated with long time frames, process and procedure, and the general public feels things are urgent. I think there was a measure of surprise in the political establishment in Australia when the Labor party focused on now, now and now and downplayed questions of how, but it got them into government. It wasn’t thought of as “properly left” but it was entirely about the traditional concerns of Australian Labor.

Maybe populism just means “now” and liberal democracy means “how”, and different national left parties need to focus a little more on bringing about the now without entirely discarding the how.


TM 08.08.22 at 10:23 am

“the Populist/Liberal-democratic axis”

I really wish political scientists would stop using the term “populist” when they mean fascist or just nativist. This usage has become commonplace but it has stripped the term of any actual political sunstance and is simply misleading. Nativism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and illiberalism should be called what they are and not verharmlost as “populism”.

And btw these positions are not particularly popular in most of Europe and North America, as actual election and referendum results consistently show, and they are promoted by powerful elite players, so what is “populist” about them?


TM 08.08.22 at 10:44 am

And in case this even needs to be pointed out, almost all the parties that currently go by that “populist” label (there are exceptions but they are few) are funded by and are working hard for the plutocracy. Peter Thiel populism. Good job political scientists!


TM 08.08.22 at 12:33 pm

“Silja Häusermann, a brilliant political scientist working at the University of Zurich”

Why not take Switzerland as a case study then? I find it very instructive. In Switzerland, the party most identified with classical liberalism is the FDP (in Swiss “Freisinn”, in French – some may be surprised – Les Libéraux-Radicaux). The party most identified with “populism” is the SVP, the “Volkspartei”, the strongest party by vote share (close to 30%). The SVP was a party of farmers and small business until it was transformed to a successful modern right wing extremist movement by Christoph Blocher, an industrialist billionaire who may be the original “billionaire populist”, even before Berlusconi and long before Trump (again, “populism” is the label used by the media because they don’t want to call racism racism).

Now to the “liberal-populist” axis. What is so neat about this case study is that FDP and SVP almost always vote together, I would guess at least 80% of the time, and generally support each other electorally (*). It is true, there are important issues where they disagree, namely along the isolationism-economic openness axis, and the FDP also sometimes (by no means always) remembers its classical liberal commitment to human rights, while the SVP recently – I kid you not – tried to get the country to abandon the European Human Rights Convention (they lost the vote by 2:1).

But this doesn’t change the fact that almost all controversial issues fall along the left-right axis, with FDP and SVP on the same side and Social Democrats and Greens on the other, with the so’called center parties sometimes joining the left but more frequently the right. Further, when FDP and SVP are on different sides, the left and the liberals are usually on the same side so there is still a clear left-right division.

Given these easily observable facts, which are similarly verified in many other countries, I really wonder what evidence Häuselmann is basing her thesis on.

(*) Swiss states and cities directly elect their executive bodies, which consist of 5 or more members. Left and right parties generally negotiate electoral blocks to enhance their chances. SVP and FDP almost always run in the same block. When issues are decided by referendum, as most controversial issues are, the parties publicly state which side of the issue they are on, and this way it can be easily verified that FDP and SVP almost always are on the same side.


MisterMr 08.08.22 at 7:12 pm

@TM 7

I think that what makes these right wing populist parties “populist” is that, in their worldview, there is an elite, this elite is made of politicians or cultural elites, and they represent “the people” against this supposed elite. I think this would also apply to historical fascist parties.

The fact that they see the government as an elite and, generally, as a caste of politicians, is due IMO to the fact that they are small owners parties, who see tax and spend policies as a menace, and tend to see all government spending as caused by corruption.

Unfortunately though a large part of working class people fall for this.

It is technically true that they are “populist” though in the sense that they have a strong anti-government view.


MisterMr 08.08.22 at 7:56 pm

As a side note, the main italian center left party brike an alliance with a centrist minor party to keep the one with a more leftish (leftish green) one, so nothing is still certain.

I suspect that the italian center left will have a lot of changes of alliances between now and election day.


J-D 08.08.22 at 11:20 pm

… some of the (global) problem could be the fact that the left has become associated with investment – long time horizons with difficulty assessing who the eventual winners and losers will be – rather than addressing immediate needs and concerns.

… The left has become associated with long time frames, process and procedure, … there was a measure of surprise in the political establishment in Australia when the Labor party focused on now, now and now and downplayed questions of how, … It wasn’t thought of as “properly left” …

I don’t believe any of these things have happened. None of them have come to my attention, and I can’t figure any way they could have happened without coming to my attention.* I would be interested (but mildly surprised) if anybody could produce adequate evidence to establish that any of these things have happened.

There are lots and lots of things that could easily happen without my ever noticing them. But there are some things that couldn’t possibly happen without my noticing them.


nastywoman 08.09.22 at 6:24 am

On the other hand:
In the last major test of the strength of political parties before general elections next year –
the most significant result was in Verona, where Damiano Tommasi, who played for AS Roma and Italy’s national side in the 1990s and early 2000s, snatched victory over the incumbent mayor, Federico Sboarina, who was a member of the League before switching to the rival Brothers of Italy.

Verona was declared a an anti-abortion city under Sboarina’s five-year leadership, with measures introduced to fund anti-choice groups. The city, often considered a laboratory for the extreme right, also hosted a conference of the World Congress of Families (WCF), a US Christian-right supported global coalition, in 2019.

“It’s a historic result for Verona,” said Tommasi, who has pledged to celebrate by cycling the Stelvio Pass, the second-highest paved mountain pass in Europe. “We put ourselves in the game and we won, demonstrating that politics can be done without insults or responding to provocations.

His victory stood out on a night in which the centre-left also won in other important towns like Parma and Piacenza.

Tommasi, 48, was born near the city and began his playing career at Verona, making it as a professional there in 1993 before being sold to Roma three years later.

He played 351 times over a decade at the capital club, winning their most recent Scudetto as part of a star-studded team which included Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta at the peak of their powers.

In other words: ‘calcio e non politica’


TM 08.09.22 at 7:47 am

MisterMr 10: “in their worldview, there is an elite, this elite is made of politicians or cultural elites, and they represent “the people” against this supposed elite.”

I’m aware that fascists (both historical and contemporary) always claim to represent “the people” against whatever cosmopolitan/globalist/Jewish conspiracy they claim to be fighting against. But the fact that they make these claims doesn’t mean that political scientists should take them at face value and mainstream media should repeat them – quite the opposite I think.


Felix 08.09.22 at 8:10 am

J-D, I don’t want to defend the Australian Labor issue in this thread because it’s about Italian politics, and therefore I won’t. I will only say that I am surprised if you didn’t notice a radical shortening in timescale between the focus of Labor’s 2019 and 2022 mechanisms for wealth redistribution (that is, assuming the mechanisms were implemented, how long does it take before they redistribute wealth?). To me, it was the obvious and salient difference between Shorten’s campaign and Albanese’s, so much so that I am sure I have failed to express what I observed, and you think I am describing something different from what I want to describe, rather than that you didn’t see what I saw.

As to the generic question, that of stereotypical understanding of mainstream left parties, maybe I am wrong, and at least you are right that we need evidence instead of a competition between competing anecdotes. I think Silja Häusermann alluded to some evidence along the lines of what I refer to, but it was not a main point of hers and I may have misinterpreted it.


John Quiggin 08.10.22 at 12:32 am

Felix @15 Like J-D, I have no idea what you are talking about in relation to Australia. Albanese dumped the 2019 Labor platform almost entirely, took the policies of the conservative government as his starting point (notably including high-end tax cuts) and added some minor tweaks. That got Labor a narrow majority, despite losing a lot of votes and some seats to the Greens. What does this have to do with timescales for redistribution?


Alex SL 08.10.22 at 3:09 am

Indeed, the Australian experience is arguably that Labor currently tries to grab the centrist position on the right-wing-populist versus liberal-centrist axis that the OP outlined. If Labor’s current approach is “the left” then the Overton Window has been shifted very far to the right.

As, of course, it has, given that anybody who promotes economic policies, labour rights, welfare arrangements, and tax rates that were Western politics mainstream in the 1950s-1970s and enable previously unseen shared prosperity is, at best, today treated as completely non-serious, and frequently as the second coming of Pol Pot.

One of the most hilarious experiences of the recent election campaign was certain social media discourse just after the ABC Vote Compass came out. For those who don’t know, it is a web interface where the user answers a bunch of policy questions, and then the site does an ordination analysis showing where the user sits on the economic liberalism – statism and social liberalism – conservatism axes relative to the official election platforms of the Coalition, Labor, and Greens.

The problem was that enormous numbers of rusted-on Labor supporters found themselves right next to the Greens and significantly left of the Labor platform, which was dead centre in the diagram. They then spammed social media with claims that the Vote Compass must be biased or flawed, because they found the idea that the Greens would best represent their interests somewhere between inconceivable and offensive.


TM 08.10.22 at 9:16 am

Curiously, in Australia, the vote shares of both Labor and Greens hardly changed (-.8% and +1.8%) but Morrison lost 5.7%, mostly to “Independents”. It doesn’t look like Labor attracted many “centrists”. Of course in the important TPP result, Labor won 3.7%.


TM 08.10.22 at 9:17 am

… Labor won 3.7% to get a TPP majority of 52%


nastywoman 08.10.22 at 9:22 am

OR in other –
and perhaps easier to understand words:
All of this ‘Comedia non L’Arte’ is just the usual chaotic Italian Interlude leading to the next Government of –
‘Draghi’ –
a dude most Italians -(and even Germans) like to like?


steven t johnson 08.10.22 at 3:24 pm

It seems to me that MisterMr@10 is likely correct that the small owners (aka “petty bourgeoisie”) are the core of the so-called “populist.” Almost all of the purported left, especially the center-left, shares the rejection of class analysis by the small owners-dominated parties. It’s hardly surprising that the bona fides of the populists to be the people is so prevalent, no one really wants to argue against it. The mainstream media will never say things like, rural districts tend to be one-party regimes basically controlled by a small oligarchy of property-owning families, much less that an anti-Communist labor movement is subordinated to capital.

It seems to me in Anglo-Saxon history it’s the old Court vs. Country ideology slightly updated. Taxes are theft, spending is vote buying, nefarious conspiracies swindle the people to make courtiers rich while good sound hard working land owners and mine operators and lawyers and physicians get robbed, I tell you, robbed!

But then, maybe I’m too partial to this Italian analysis because it seems to me to describe much of US Republican Party politics. It’s not an accident that the petty bourgeois find it much easier to rule rural districts in small states that are easier to buy. The states are laboratories of corruption, hence the love for states’ rights, I think. The populists do of course also have their big rich friends, especially those big rich who want a powerful government of some people, by some people and against other people. This was true for the original populists, though, wasn’t it, in the late Roman Republic?

Alex SL@17 is correct about the shift to the right, though I would add the shift is largely on the part of the small minority of property owners. That’s why the amusing results of the analysis of official election programs. The only thing I wonder is why even the ABC Vote Compass assumes that the official election programs matter? It seems to me that in practice most voters are deeply confused between the difference between a vote for and a vote against. The thing is, there is no voting against, all votes are for something.

Thus, for many people, “voting” means a symbolic rejection of Bad Things. I suspect many imagine “Green” means firing all the coal miners, taking away your car, taking the meat off your table, etc. If so, I can’t see why this sort of thing would get many votes.


MisterMr 08.10.22 at 5:48 pm

@nastywoman 20

It is possible that this is just the prelude to another centrist government, but I personally would not be a fan of it, and while in the immediate it would clearly be better than a rightist government, in the long term it would mean that “leftish” parties would continue to disappear (or being confused with centrist ones), so in my view long term this is a problem.

Basically every time one of these centrist, “technocratic” (in their own opinion) governments go up, the “populist” right gains fuel for their narrative, as they can cast themselves as the ones who protect italians from evil international capital / the EU / evil technocratic elites.

About the “technocratic elites” thing, I will note that I think everybody here has at least a degree, but the mayority of the people do not have a degree, and likely had an high school experience that made them feel somewhat not completely accepted.
So for a large part of the people the idea that they are somehow shut out of the public conversation by “cultural elites” is something that has a large potential emotive impact, for a definition of “cultural elite” that is not what would be used here in CT.


nastywoman 08.10.22 at 8:29 pm

AND I understand why you guys didn’t post my comment(s)
Can you limit yourself to one comment per thread from now on please


Alex SL 08.10.22 at 11:31 pm

steven t johnson,

I’d add two points:

First, election platforms matter more than most people want to admit. The cliche is that “all politicians lie anyway”, but unless you are dealing with a complete personality cult where the leader can just do whatever they want, and the cult members follow blindly, everyday politics demonstrate that politicians overall feel bound to at least try and implement their promises.

They may have to compromise, certainly they can sometimes be lobbied to water rules down to mere symbolism, and they generally also feel free to do bad things that they at leat don’t have a mandate AGAINST (e.g., privatise and deregulate after having won an election on the promise reducing immigration) but if somebody gets elected on the platform to build a wall, improve health care, or leave the EU, they want to be seen at least trying to build a wall, improve health care, or leave the EU, and ideally succeed.

That is why it is so silly of people to be rusted onto a party even as that party shifts kilometers to the right of where they are. I am convinced that even a lot of Republican and Tory voters are in denial about how extreme the parties they continue to vote for really have become. Lots of retirees who only vaguely follow the news and certainly don’t read policy papers think they are voting for good economic management (not that that was ever true), lower taxes, and less foreigners coming in and don’t notice what is happening, say, in terms of deregulation of financial markets or water quality.

The flip side of that is the voter who isn’t rusted on but doesn’t think beyond “I will vote for this guy because he is different, to shake up the establishment”, and then is surprised that bringing in somebody who promises to break everything results in important and beneficial things being broken. (Who would have thought?)

Second, the media matter. The vote compass incident demonstrates that perhaps as much as the majority Labor voters would actually want the election program of the Greens to be implemented. But they still mostly vote Labor. Why? Partly, habit and loyalty. But also, and that came across quite clearly in those social media conversations, because they see the Greens as non-serious, as merely making big promises that could never be kept or would not be kept.

Because that is how they are depicted in the media, as unserious populists and extremists, when in reality their proposals are objectively mainstream and exactly what those voters want implemented right now. The problem here – although, of course, from the perspective of the media owners it is a feature, not a bug – is the horse race aspect of politics reporting. Instead of saying, “the Greens will do X, Labor will do Y”, prompting the voters to pick what they want to happen, most of reporting is “what does this mean for Labor’s chances of winning?”, or “this politician is serious, this other one isn’t because he isn’t projecting the right image”, prompting the voters to treat it as a game or popularity contest.


J-D 08.11.22 at 12:24 am

About the “technocratic elites” thing, I will note that I think everybody here has at least a degree, but the mayority of the people do not have a degree, and likely had an high school experience that made them feel somewhat not completely accepted.
So for a large part of the people the idea that they are somehow shut out of the public conversation by “cultural elites” is something that has a large potential emotive impact …

Have you really thought about this? It doesn’t make sense, apart from the part about the majority of people not having degrees, which I don’t dispute.

‘We are in the majority, therefore we are not completely accepted.’ That doesn’t make sense. ‘We are in the majority, therefore we have been shut out.’ That doesn’t make sense, either.

In my own family, my nephew not only doesn’t have a university degree, he didn’t even finish high school, and in our family that puts him in the minority: but the result is not that he feels shut out or not completely accepted. There’s no reason why that should happen.

What is true is that having a university degree offers some advantages over people who don’t have university degrees. However, when other people have an advantage that I don’t have, that’s not the same thing as my being shut out, or not completely accepted.

Something else that is true is that when some people have an advantage which other people don’t have, it can result in the people who don’t have the advantage resenting the people who do have the advantage. However, this is only something which sometimes happens, not something which always happens or even something which generally happens. I don’t know whether it’s true that resentment of people with university degrees by people without them is much more common than it is in the case of other kinds of advantage, but it if is true then there must be some more specific explanation.


TM 08.11.22 at 8:14 am

“So for a large part of the people the idea that they are somehow shut out of the public conversation by “cultural elites” is something that has a large potential emotive impact, for a definition of “cultural elite” that is not what would be used here in CT.”

Somebody needs to explain why right-wingers with low education status feel threatened by “educated elites” but have no problem whatsoever with right wing elites most of whom are rich and many are educated at elite institutions (GW Bush Harvard, Trump Wharton, Hawley and Vance Yale, BoJo Eton and Oxford, to name just a few famous “populists” (*)). There are virtually no right-wing politicians without degrees. So why is it a problem for liberals that liberal politicians also have degrees?

(*) Remember too that the concept of elite education isn’t applicable everywhere. In the anglo world and France yes, Italy not sure, Germany no. Nobody knows what university Olaf Scholz attended, and it doesn’t matter.


TM 08.11.22 at 12:39 pm

j-D: “I don’t know whether it’s true that resentment of people with university degrees by people without them is much more common than it is in the case of other kinds of advantage”

The story that I keep hearing here at CT is that the “lower classes” resent the educated (i. e. the “liberal elite”) but don’t resent the rich and powerful (whom they admire and vote for) because in their imagination, they might still become millionaires but will never become members of the intellgientsia. This claim was made for example by none less than David Graeber and quoted approvingly here on CT with the example of “the NYT drama critic”. The story has so many logical and empirical problems it’s hard to know where to start. Empirically, it is a lot easier to get educated than to become rich, and empirically, most people with higher education (in many advanced countries close to 50% of the young generation; note that in this kind of discussion, education often gets conflated with elite education) are neither rich nor powerful not do they constitute any kind of “elite”. And if the resentment is aimed at the material advantages conferred by education (the usually overestimated college premium), it begs the question why the resentment isn’t aimed at wealthy people rather than educated people.

Then there’s the problem mentioned above that the same people who are said to resent educated people have no problem with elite educated right wing politicians. Perhaps then the resentment is really aimed not at class privileges but at education as an immaterial value, and elite educated right wingers like GWBush and Trump are ok because while they enjoy the privileges conferred by elite education, they publicly denigrate, or even express hate for, education as an immaterial value. But then stop pretending that this is a class issue.


John Quiggin 08.11.22 at 8:44 pm

TM: I didn’t recollect any discussion of NYT drama critics. On checking, the only mention (except from you) was in the comments thread to this post from 2012.

and the discussion was rather more nuanced than you suggest.


J-D 08.11.22 at 11:22 pm

I don’t know whether it’s true that resentment of people with university degrees by people without them is much more common than it is in the case of other kinds of advantage, but if it is true then there must be some more specific explanation.

The appropriate response if a lot of people with university degrees are actually doing something which has actual negative effects on a lot of people without university degrees is different from the appropriate response if this is not actually true but a lot of people without university degrees believe that it is true.


steven t johnson 08.12.22 at 12:19 am

Alex SL@24 Perhaps the US is further advanced towards a system where all campaigns are pretty much independent businesses aimed at the election of the owner of said business, and party affiliation is pretty much nothing more than a brand name. In most districts, there is a de facto one party regime and all politics is pretty much reduced to faction fights between interest groups, sometimes very petty ones. All campaigns are political adventures and none are politics organizing to carry out a partisan platform. When there is a real program it is sold to the big money donors. The plan to do away with popular vote for president is not an official platform, which is why it’s so bipartisan.

A handful of slogans is not a program in any meaningful sense of the term. The mailings from the American Legislative Exchange Council or the “debates” of the Federalist Society are much closer to a program. The collective input from a relatively small number of policy institutes are also close to what serves for a party program in the US. But it should be easy to ask if that doesn’t mean there isn’t a near-monopoly by the big donors who pay for these entities. It’s no accident they are usually nonpartisan officially. Often they are even bipartisan in practice.

The real outsiders tend to be the other party that has a guaranteed spot on the ballot (even if that “party” can’t even field a full slate of candidates!) National elections here do tend to be much more contentious because the local big shots can’t control the political machinery and there’s much less corruption because it’s too big to be bought cheaply. (Local politics tends I think to be much more corrupt, especially in my opinion the police. The role of corrupt police in suppressing the lower strata in rural districts is I suspect very underrated.)

But no, I don’t think programs matter much. Obama ran on a program of something or other but signed on to Shrub’s TARP even before the election. Trump ran against the Swamp and MAGA and the Swamp is still with us stealing the election and “America” still isn’t great. Biden’s official program was a kind of mashup of Warren and Buttigieg as I recall but supposedly Manchin put the kibosh on that, even though if there was a vote that could be bought, Manchin’s is the one.

Fundamental economic policy has a continuity that steadfastly ignores party platforms. People in Florida once voted in a referendum as I recall to do away with life time removal of the franchise from felons but the legislature simply required fines and the disenfranchisement continues. People in Kansas just voted not deny all abortion rights but they also elected a guy named Kobach as Attorney General who will ensure that means nothing.

As to the role of the media, yes, but media sell advertising and the bucks in advertising are not spent by the common people, they come from the owners of the country. The background assumptions, what is commonly called the “narrative” nowadays, is bought by them. That’s why Trump got billions in free publicity and Bernie Sanders got squat, because it’s not about the horse race and it’s not about the ratings.


TM 08.12.22 at 7:55 am

JQ 28: Yes, this is the thread I was referring to. Here’s the Graeber quote which was quoted approvingly:

“Bush voters, I would suggest, tend to resent intellectuals as a class more than [they resent] rich people, largely because they can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich, but cannot possibly imagine one in which they or any of their children would become a member of the liberal intelligentsia. If you think about it that’s not an unreasonable assessment. A truck driver’s son from Wyoming might not have very much chance of becoming a millionaire, but it could happen. Certainly, it’s much more likely than his ever becoming an international human rights lawyer, or drama critic for the New York Times. Such jobs go almost exclusively to children of privilege.”

He says that it’s a “reasonable assessment” that it’s easier to become rich than a member of the “intelligentsia”, that the latter (exemplified by the “drama critic”, as if anybody knew or cared about who’s currently writing about theater) is more likely to be a “child of privilege”. And this kind of argument has been made many times here on CT and of course elsewhere. There has been pushback of course but most commenters have been in agreement with Graeber’s claim. This is easy to verify, sorry.


MisterMr 08.12.22 at 10:16 am

@TM and J-D about higer education

The relationship between education and voting patterns is an empirical one: it was reported empirically by Piketty some years ago with a study in France, USA and UK (the title of the study was something like “merchants and mandarins” IIRC).

In said study there was a weak relationship between income and voting patterns, but the relationship between high personal wealth and voting Rep was much stronger, and the relationship between high personal education and voting Dem was also very strong, although since people with high education also tend to have high wealth the study had to disentangle the two.

To put it simply, rich wealth owners with low educational credentials are the core of the populist right, but they play the low educational credentials card to look more like men of the people, so they can pull a large fraction of the working class with them.

On the resentment of people with low educational credentials, consider that the school system is literally 13+ years of teachers telling you what to think and judging you, it is natural that a lot of people might have a negative memory of it.

So this kind of cultural belonging is used by some groups (the small capitalists mostly) to hide the difference in class interests, but on the other side is also used as a claim to technocracy were politicians apparently don’t have a specific constituency they are working for.

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