“If the League wins these elections, it won’t change much from our perspective, because somehow we have already won our cultural battle,” said Mattia Santori, the 32-year-old spokesperson of the anti-populist grassroots movement known as the Sardines, as people gathered for a big rally in Bologna, Italy, on Jan. 19.
Later that day, an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 people were packed like, well, sardines in a square that brought together many sensibilities within the progressive arc under the common purpose of defeating Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League party in the Jan. 26 elections in the Emilia-Romagna region, a long-standing leftist stronghold.
The socialist tradition is so deeply rooted in the area that Soviet-style statues and paraphernalia can be still spotted here and there. In the village of Cavriago, near the city of Reggio Emilia, a bust of Vladimir Lenin still stands in one of the main squares. It’s a gift from the Soviet Union honoring the local comrades who wholeheartedly supported the Bolsheviks in 1918. Given this political background, even the reelection of the incumbent governor by a modest margin would be a severe setback for the left.
In virtually every town in the region, at least one street is named after Antonio Gramsci, one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Italy and a prominent Marxist philosopher who is best known for his theory of “cultural hegemony,” according to which the struggle for power depends on an intellectual class imposing a worldview that in time becomes the cultural norm.
The current fight between far-right populists and the Sardines is taking place on a distinctly Gramscian battlefield. One side has pledged to force a radical change in the region’s mindset—“Let’s free Emilia-Romagna,” is the slogan of the League’s campaign—while the Sardines defend the existing system by portraying their own acts of resistance as a defense of common sense.
The upcoming local vote in the well-to-do region is also a crucial test for the national government, whose majority in Parliament depends on a flimsy coalition between the Democratic Party (PD) and the Five Star Movement, which has recently been weakened by the resignation of its political leader, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, as a result of internal strife.
The “cultural battle” Santori referred to is the struggle for civility, common sense, and sober eloquence that the movement has been injecting in a debate otherwise tainted by hateful rhetoric and authoritarian instincts. Two months ago, “the political and social climate in Italy was very different from what it is now,” said the curly-haired economist, the most recognizable of the four founders of the Sardines movement. The group adopted the slogan “no insults, no violence, no flags,” they speak of “sustainable democracy,” and as the official website notes, the Sardines’ language “is based on scientific data, packaged with art, beauty, nonviolence, creativity, and listening.”
As Italians wonder what’s next for the semi-spontaneous campaign that has rocked Italian politics since early December 2019, the Sardines insist their chief goal is not even political; it’s a moral struggle. Their aim is to restore politeness and truthfulness to counter nasty populist leaders whom they frame not merely as political adversaries, but as morally abject hatemongers and promoters of fake news. In short, the Sardines say they stand for good against evil.
In mid-December, when the Sardines packed their largest square yet, gathering about 100,000 people in Rome, they announced a six-point platform. Only one proposal was strictly political: the abolition of the security decree pushed by Salvini during the previous government, which gave the government new powers to restrict immigration by prohibiting ships from docking in Italian ports. Other proposals included what would amount to a near ban on politicians using social media networks, demanding that “media protects, defend, and come as close as possible to the truth,” treating verbal violence as equivalent to physical violence, and additional measures to clean up the country’s polluted political discourse.
In March, the Sardines leaders will convene to figure out how to capitalize on the energy they’ve sparked in the last months. Meanwhile, they will seek to remind Italian readers of the essentially moral dimension of their effort in a book, co-authored by the four founders, recapping the journey from a Facebook post half-jokingly calling for an “ichthyic,” or fishlike, revolution to a national phenomenon that quickly spread in dozens of cities, sparking a media frenzy.
Although some of the leaders have admitted to being personally on the left, the Sardines formally refused from the very beginning any affiliation with political parties. Supporters were instructed to just wave sardine-shaped cardboard signs during rallies, avoiding flags and political symbols.
The only political figure at the core of Sardines’ narrative is Salvini himself. Serving as both a foil and a villain, he is the center of gravity around which the movement rotates and an indispensable and ubiquitous presence in their grassroots campaign against populism. The leader of the League is so central to their narrative that they began rallying against him at a time when he was out of government, held no power, and was slowly declining in popularity.
Last summer Salvini, then deputy prime minister and the government’s power broker, clumsily prompted a government crisis, giving his adversaries the opportunity to form a new coalition with the sole purpose of excluding him from power. A series of local elections are providing Salvini the chance for a comeback—including this weekend’s vote in Emilia-Romagna. Turning the spotlight on Salvini is a strategy that may backfire, as the media-obsessed leader thrives when he’s at the center of the storm.
But as much as the Sardines seek to distance themselves from Italy’s populist politicians, the movement’s simultaneous distrust of traditional political parties and its obsession with having an enemy to stand against makes it more of a populist movement than it’s willing to admit. “Sardines employ tools similar to the ones typically used by the forces they claim to fight, like the preference for Manichean logic and the need for a scapegoat,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor of history and director of the school of government at LUISS University in Rome, who is also the co-author of a forthcoming book on the Sardines.
While far-right populists have picked the “external other”—primarily immigrants, Muslims, and minorities—as their preferred scapegoats, the Sardines have applied a similar principle to the “internal other, the populist himself, presented as the root of all evil,” Orsina told Foreign Policy.
It’s a strategy that could end up strengthening rather than marginalizing Salvini. In an op-ed in the newspaper La Stampa, Orsina argued that the Sardines’ lack of new political vision and their inability to get out of the traditional “symbolic and cultural space of the left” might eventually help the League win Sunday’s crucial election in Emilia-Romagna.
But if their generic demand for civility is not the movement’s true objective, what do the Sardines want? According to Orsina, their unstated purpose is the “moral and cultural restoration of the progressive set of values that were affirmed during the 1990s,” meaning the individualistic, globalized, market-oriented ethos that today’s populists are working to dismantle. In other words, the activists now storming the Italian political landscape are promoting the revival of the very ideas that the current brand of populism was born to defeat.
If the populist era that the contemporary world is facing is merely a blip in history, the Sardines’ goal of reestablishing the prior consensus is an achievable one. But if the populist age is the symptom of a deeper, structural crisis of the liberal order, then repackaging old politics that failed to deliver by waving pictures of cute and collaborative sea creatures won’t do the trick.
“The Sardines claim to be a fresh movement that crosses the political aisle, but they lined up with the Democratic Party,” said former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right party, Forza Italia, supports Lucia Borgonzoni, the League’s candidate for governor in Emilia-Romagna. “They represent the usual old politics, it looks as if they are maneuvered by other political players, and therefore their legitimate appeal for more respectful debate in politics is not really credible,” Berlusconi told Foreign Policy.
The Sardines’ relationship with the political establishment has been a contested issue since the rise of the movement. Critics pointed out that Santori works for an energy-focused magazine called Energia headed by Romano Prodi, a former center-left prime minister and European Union commissioner in the early 2000s. Prodi denied being involved in the Sardines movement, though he says he nonetheless supports it. “I really wish I had been able to generate something like that,” he told the Corriere della Sera newspaper.
Recently, Santori said that during the campaign in Emilia-Romagna the incumbent PD governor, Stefano Bonaccini, never tried to get in touch with them, while members of the Five Star Movement, currently governing alongside the PD, reached out to establish a connection. The Sardines’ leaders made a point of not being involved with political parties and managed to frame their campaign in Emilia-Romagna as primarily against the League and only indirectly in support of the PD incumbent.
This raises the question of whether the Sardines will launch a new party. The movement’s leaders have repeatedly dismissed the idea, but one pollster recently estimated the Sardines could get around 11 percent of the vote nationally, draining support mostly from the vulnerable PD and the Five Star Movement, which is now a mere shadow of the energetic force that only a few years ago was able to stir up the angry masses against the rotten establishment.
Some supporters suggest the Sardines should find a home within the traditional political spectrum. “It’s desirable, if not necessary, that they will turn their energy into a political form,” said the philosopher Massimo Cacciari, a former PD mayor of Venice. “They could create a new force or, even better, coalesce into the Democratic Party in order to revive it, taking advantage of the next party convention,” Cacciari said, referring to the upcoming internal battle to replace the party’s leadership.
But if they turn to electoral politics, the Sardines will face a challenge: They have struggled to represent Italy’s most economically vulnerable voters—precisely the ones turning to populist parties. Protesters in the streets mainly gave voice to what the sociologist Luca Ricolfi has provocatively labeled as “stately mass society” in his latest book. A professor at the University of Turin, Ricolfi observed that Sardines’ rallies predominantly feature members of the upper middle class, while low-income Italians, the uneducated, retirees, unskilled workers, and working-class people were barely represented.
“These groups,” Ricolfi added, “are more exposed to the harshness of the markets and social life, and therefore express demands for protection to which now the League and Brothers of Italy [a far-right party] are more sensitive than leftist parties.”
In the short run, the Sardines are focused on the Emilia-Romagna election, where pollsters put the two main candidates in a virtual dead heat. A victory for the center-right coalition would be shocking for a region that for over 70 years was consistently run by the Communist Party and then by the Democratic Party.
The League is hoping instead that a victory would shake Italy’s already feeble government, led by Giuseppe Conte. In the last several weeks, Salvini obsessively covered every inch of the region—taking an uncountable number of selfies while sampling local delicacies, another instance of what has been aptly termed “gastropopulism”—in order to project the local election on a national scale. “On January 27th … with victory in my pocket, I will issue Conte with an eviction order,” Salvini told his supporters in the town of Maranello.
A pack of Sardines may not be enough to stop him, and in the long term, they might inadvertently end up fattening the sharks they seek to escape from.