Now that it looks like Italy is going to have a government ruled by a coalition between populists of the left (Five Star Movement) and populists of the right (the League) -- as though Bernie Sanders and Steve Bannon had formed a government -- we need to evaluate its prospects in the long-term party dynamics.
Just like the US and other countries, Italy has a political cycle that lasts roughly 40 years, during which one party is dominant and the other is opposition. At the beginning of the cycle comes a trailblazing founder who keeps the coalition in power for a relatively long time (e.g., three or more consecutive terms for an American president), followed by the occasional win for the opposition, then extenders of the original dominant vision, and ending with a disjunctive phase where the coalition is torn between the old way and the new way. After this disjunctive phase, the old dominant party gets dethroned by the old opposition, who go on to rule during their own 40-year cycle. Stephen Skowronek developed this model for the US, but it applies broadly.
Before we get too ecstatic about the new Italian coalition -- or too horrified, if they're not in favor -- we need to see if we're in the trailblazing phase, when all sorts of bold new projects are completed in record time. That would imply a changing of the parties, where the old dominant party has been dethroned and the old opposition party has risen to take its place as the agenda-setter for the next several decades.
As it turns out, this does not look like a whole new world. Five Star got 33% of the vote, far ahead of any other single party. The League was part of a larger coalition with the center-right, whose senior member has been Berlusconi's Forza Italia -- and that entire coalition got 37%, putting the League itself below Five Star. And the Prime Minister, Conte, is aligned with Five Star rather than the League.
Five Star hails from the left side of the spectrum, as revealed by its behavior early after the 2018 election results showed that a coalition government would be necessary. They refused to enter a coalition government with the center-right coalition that the League is a part of, and they attempted to get the center-left Democratic Party to join them instead. Prime Minister Conte is from the left. Their overall platform focuses on improving the material welfare of ordinary people, a left program.
Unlike the US, Italy's dominant coalition for the past 35 years has been left rather than right. See this list of prime ministers of Italy. (This is also true for France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece -- unlike the UK and Germany, where the dominant coalitions have been from the right, like the Americans.)
Beginning in 1983, a prime minister from the left, Craxi, took office for the first time since the founding of the Second Republic in 1946. He lasted four years in office -- and an Italian ruler who lasts four years is like an American who lasts fourteen, making Craxi the trailblazing founder of this current cycle. Despite interruptions by the opposition right (mainly Berlusconi), the left has remained the dominant coalition right up through the previous prime minister, Gentiloni -- and now continuing that trend with Conte.
So if anything, this is likely to be a disjunctive period -- as the dominant left tries to re-invent itself, but ultimately does not get very far with the new vision because it has so much inertia and sclerosis from having been the dominant force for so many decades.
Typical for disjunctive periods, the dominant group has reached out to the other side in a way that looks totally unorthodox, and the gesture is accepted. That is like Trump winning long-time blue states in the de-industrialized region of America, or Jimmy Carter winning over the Deep South after it had been drifting away from the New Deal Democrats for awhile, or Hoover winning Texas when it had traditionally belonged to the Solid South for the Democrats.
In Italy, it means Five Star forming a coalition with populists from the right. It's not a standard "grand coalition" where the orthodoxy of the right and the orthodoxy of the left join to form the most generic program possible. It feels like both sides are shaking things up, and don't mind shaking things up with each other -- it's a carnivalesque, topsy-turvy phase in between two coherent periods. There's the moribund neoliberal Eurocentric period, and the upcoming populist Euroskeptic period -- right now is the twilight phase in between them, rather than the start of the next period, which will be driven by the old opposition side.
But it's not just the old opposition running on its old vision -- it will be a re-alignment, to make a solid break with the past represented by the old dominant coalition. This is like the Bernie group who will take the US out of the Reaganite period. In Italy, it will be groups like the League who are on the right, but with a whole new vision for society -- populism rather than neoliberalism, and Euroskepticism rather than Eurocentrism.
That suggests that the way forward lies more with groups like the League, rather than groups like Five Star. Both will play a role in Italy's future, but since the left has been dominant for the past cycle, it will go into the opposition role in the next cycle, as the right takes over the dominant role. The next cycle will still be populist and Euroskeptic, no matter which coalition is in power at the moment -- just like the past cycle has been neoliberal and Eurocentric, no matter which coalition was in power at the moment.
The most recent parallel to this phase of Italian politics was the Historic Compromise during the second half of the 1970s, between the Christian Democrats (center/left) and the Communists (more-left). Also called the terza fase, or third phase -- and indeed a disjunctive phase is the third and final one of a beginning / middle / end cycle.
In the Postwar era, from 1946 through the '70s, the center/left was the dominant coalition -- including every prime minister of this period -- while the more-left was the opposition. Despite being relatively more on the right, the dominant Christian Democrats delivered the same kind of policies that we got here under the New Deal, whose dominant coalition was relatively more on the left. The zeitgeist matters more than left vs. right.
By the mid-'70s, the Communists had turned away from the Soviet Union as a beacon, and re-aligned themselves under the banner of Eurocommunism -- less emphasis on class struggle, revolution, and internationalism, and more emphasis on peaceful democratic control of government, social issues in addition to class, and adapting the model to the West rather than the East ("Euro" rather than "Soviet"). This re-alignment made the opposition more-left palatable to the dominant center/left, and both agreed to a kind of coalition. The center/left would rule, but with the external support of the Communists, who would get something in return.
Ultimately, the opposition did not get enough, and the compromise fell apart in 1979. But that did not mean the return of Christian Democrat dominance -- they continued to rule for only a few years longer, until they were dethroned completely in 1983. The Socialist Party that the trailblazing Craxi belonged to, grew out of the Eurocommunist re-alignment of the old opposition. It was not focused on working class struggle, or revolution, or the Soviet Union -- in fact, it would carry out the neoliberal revolution, Eurozone integration, and rely electorally more on professionals and managers.
By analogy, today's Five Star party is like the Christian Democrats of the mid-'70s -- not in their policies, but in their dominant status, and in their late placement in the cycle. The League is like the Eurocommunist re-alignment -- not in their policies, of course, but in their opposition status, and late placement in the cycle, as they seek to re-invent what the opposition stands for.
They have already formed a new Historic Compromise, although if history is any guide, the League won't get as much in return as they had been hoping, and the already tenuous coalition will fall apart within a few years. Remember that the two groups were opposed to a coalition when the election results were fresh, and the dominant side (Five Star) wanted to join the other dominant left group (Democratic Party), refusing to join the opposition right (including Forza Italia). Perhaps the left will last for a few years after that break-up.
Before long, though -- 5 to 10 years -- the old dominant party will have failed to deliver the goods on their own re-alignment. The asymmetry is that the dominant party has so much invested in maintaining the status quo of the past several decades -- they were the principal architects of that work -- whereas the opposition party has less to lose by going all-in on a total re-invention of themselves. By that point, the left will fade into opposition status, and the right will rise to take their place, under a re-aligned vision of populism and Euroskepticism.
The League has already begun this re-alignment by radically altering their own program. They used to be a separatist group for the wealthier northern region. Now they have focused on being a part of all of Italy -- as a contrast to belonging to the even larger entity of Europe. And in exchange, they must do what's best for the poorer regions of Italy, rather than try to break apart the wealthy North from the poor South.
By analogy, today's leader of the League, Salvini, may not be the trailblazer when things really start to change. Salvini might be more like Berlinguer from the Communists of the late '70s, who took the first major steps toward changing his party. Someone else might become the trailblazer, just as it was Craxi rather than Berlinguer who became the first Prime Minister of the left.
No matter which individual it is, the future appears to lie with the right rather than the left in Italy -- as presumably it does in the other countries where the left has been dominant for the past 35 years, like France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. And yet, they will still resemble the overall vision of the US and UK, who will come under the influence of the left, as the long reign of the right comes to an end.
It is not so much about left or right, but about the overall vision -- neoliberalism has been implemented by dominant parties from the left (in the Mediterranean) as well as the right (Anglo countries, Germany, Japan). As the cycle completes a full turning, populism and globoskepticism will be implemented by new dominant parties from the left (in the Anglo countries) as well as the right (in the Mediterranean).
So don't get overly excited just yet -- no more excited than we should be about the disappointing Trump administration that we all thought was going to re-write the playbook. At the same time, look at it as the final countdown -- this kind of disjunctive, topsy-turvy phase does not last long, and it means we are finally getting close to the end.