The world’s populists aren’t finished yet. Although the cocktail of discontent is different in every country, the pattern of political earthquakes across the Western world has continued in Italy.
There, voters rejected Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reform and triggered his resignation.
The lesson? Money matters — but not as much as the West’s elites might think.
A clue to the problem is found in how closely Renzi’s departure resembled British Prime Minister David Cameron’s. Both leaders tied their leadership to popular votes. Both expected they could count on their citizens to keep them in office with a clear mandate. But Britain voted out of the EU, Italy voted for more uncertainty, and elites wonder what’s next.
On the surface, the answer is clear: more rejection of centralized, bureaucratic government, and more of a call for accountable, accessible and localized government structure.
Of course, from an elite standpoint, voters don’t have the luxury of making these kinds of choices. Italy’s democracy has long been chaotic: 41 prime ministers have held office since the end of World War II. In the last bout of instability to hit the country, during its post-2008 borrowing crisis, only the installation of former EU commissioner Mario Monti, along with a cabinet of technocrats, saved Italy from the economic abyss. But, remarkably, Monti himself — still unpopular from his tight clampdown on profligate government — came out against the Renzi reforms.
While fiscal hawks in the United State are largely anti-bureaucratic, in Europe it’s a different story. Leading technocrats are struggling to keep the economy afloat along with their bureaucracy. Monti’s step away from alarmism suggested an awareness that many European voters are finished putting economic prognostications first.
It’s more than a matter of simple frustration or distrust — although both those attitudes continue to power populist insurgencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, a powerful and growing bloc of voters refuses to let economic policymaking trump political decision-making at every turn, even if that means more risk or even pain up front. They’ve seen elites warn, for instance, that Brexit would crash the world economy, and they’ve seen similar claims go up in smoke. Analysts and markets even wrongly determined that Donald Trump would certainly not be elected president.
With the elite risk analysis so badly off, why not take a chance on a messy transition to something better? Sure, the line of reasoning runs, it might be costly — but the status quo’s own intolerable costs are baked into the future as today’s elites would have it.
The force of that logic, and the suddenness with which it has played out on the global stage this year, make it easy to draw too close a comparison between American and European populists. Some of the differences matter more than some of the similarities. But the West’s global economic elites are in for more rough sledding if they fail to accept that voters have turned against rule by precautionary accounting.