Italian Left Doubles Down on Failed Identity Politics

Democrats lost the election campaigning for social justice, so they push more of it.

Elly Schlein
Elly Schlein, a member of the European Parliament for Italy, answers questions from reporters in Strasbourg, December 12, 2018 (European Parliament/Fred Marvaux)

When Italy’s Democratic Party lost the election in September, I told Newsweek they had made a mistake running on abortion, LGBT and immigration rights:

That helped the right more than it helped the left. Social justice resonates with university-educated Italians in big cities like Bologna and Florence. It doesn’t convince the garbage collector in Naples or the unemployed single mother in Palermo that the left has their interests at heart.

So of course they doubled down on it.

Obama volunteer defeats former communist

In an open primary (non-party member could vote), the radically-left, Bologna-educated Elly Schlein defeated the governor of Emilia-Romagna, Stefano Bonaccini, for the party leadership with 54 to his 46 percent support.

Foreign media describe Bonaccini as a “moderate”, but he was a communist before he became a social democrat. His mother worked in a factory. His father was a truck driver. During his first term as governor, Bonaccini made a deal with businesses and labor that cut unemployment in half and he expanded access to primary care. He won reelection in 2020 on a promise to publicly fund child care.

Schlein’s parents are academics. She volunteered for the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns of Barack Obama before being elected to the European Parliament in 2014. When Matteo Renzi, an actual moderate, took over the Democratic Party, Schlein quit and joined the far-left Possible, which merged into the Greens and Left Alliance in 2022. Schlein rejoined the Democratic Party later that year.

The anti-Meloni

Schlein claims her priorities are climate change, tackling poverty and precarious work, and preventing the privatization of health care (which nobody is arguing for).

She will more likely be defined by her support for abortion, gay and immigration rights.

Italy allows abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, a Roman Catholic, is personally opposed to abortion altogether, but she has made no proposals to change the law.

Nor will she change the law in favor of gay marriage and adoption by gay couples. Italy allows civil unions for same-sex couples and no adoption. Schlein, who is in a relationship with a woman, supports marriage and adoption equality.

13,000 migrants have arrived in Italy by sea this year, more than twice as many as in January and February of 2022. At least 62 were killed when a boat sunk off the coast of Calabria on Sunday. 519,000 people are believed to reside in Italy illegally, which would be 1 percent of the population.

Meloni wants to expand EU naval patrols in the Mediterranean, to stop illegal immigration, and set up asylum application centers in North Africa, so refugees would no longer need to travel to Italy before requesting asylum. Schlein calls those plans “xenophobic”.

Democrats need working-class support

Most migrants arrive in the south of Italy, which is the poorer half. Incomes are below the EU average. Unemployment is more than double the rate in the north. The region is more agricultural, less industrialized and less urbanized. Add an influx of one thousand asylum seekers per week and it becomes fertile ground for populists: the Five Star Movement on the left, which got most of its 15 percent support in the last election in the south, and Meloni’s Brothers of Italy on the right, who are polling at 28 to 31 percent nationally.

If the Democrats are to return to power, they must win back at least some working and welfare-dependent voters in the south.

They have the policies for it: cutting taxes for the lowest incomes, investing in child and health care, raising the minimum wage, raising salaries for teachers and nurses, protecting social security.

Schlein looks farther left

By emphasizing climate change and identity politics, Schlein is instead taking the fight to the radical left. She told Time magazine Italy has too many left-wing parties. But whatever gains she makes there will not give Democrats a majority.

The Democratic Party got 19 percent support in the last election, the Greens and Left Alliance 3.6 percent, and the left-liberal More Europe 2.8 percent.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy alone received more votes. The combined right, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s League, won 44 percent.

By lurching to the left, Democrats enable a government of the right.