Voters in Italy rejected a referendum on constitutional reforms advanced by the government of Matteo Renzi, on whose rule the referendum became a referendum, and who announced his resignation in the wake of the results.
Various Italian governments in the last decades have pushed the issue of constitutional reform—in 2011, voters rejected an effort by then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to, among other things, make the prime ministership stronger at the expense of the presidency. Like the present effort, it was framed as a way to make governing Italy easier. Former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina advised the pro-yes effort (he also worked on David Cameron's re-election and the Brexit Remain campaign), and Renzi visited the White House for a state dinner in October. The U.S. ambassador to Italy warned that a no vote could make it harder for Italy to attract foreign investment from places like the U.S.
One of the key points in this reform effort was reducing the size and power of the Senate. The two chambers of the Italian legislature are currently considered 'perfectly symmetrical'—members of both chambers are elected at the same time for the same length terms, and both chambers have to pass the same piece of legislation for it to move on. The legislation passes from chamber to chamber until the two have passed the same bill, a process known as the "parliamentary shuffle," which can go on indefinitely. The proposed reforms would cut the Senate out of the process for a whole set of legislative issues, shrink the chamber, and fill it with regional assembly members and mayors. The reform would also award extra seats to the best performing party in the chamber of deputies, making it easier to put together stronger governments.
The reforms were opposed by a cross-section of Italian political life, from the Northern League's Matteo Salvini to economist Mario Monti, who was selected to replace Berlusconi as prime minister, and previously served on the European Commission from 1995 to 2004, as well as members of Renzi's Democratic party. The Economist recommended a no vote. Meanwhile, opponents framed a "no" vote as another signpost on the road to populism, because of a perception that populist parties could benefit most from the prime minister's resignation, the consequent uncertainty, and a potential snap election.
After the results were announced, Salvini tweeted "Viva Trump, viva Putin, viva la Le Pen e viva la Lega!" Beppe Grillo, a comedian who helped start a left-wing populist party, the Five Star Movement, meanwhile, called the vote a victory for democracy. The mentions of President-elect Trump, Russia President Vladimir Putin, and France's Marine Le Pen are a reference to the apparent confluence of interests of anti-globalist, populist and nationalist-type movements across the West. Like the attempt by some to connect Brexit to Trump, these kind of exercises don't work. While UKIP's Nigel Farage became a fast friend of Trump's, the Conservative Daniel Hannan, another pro-Brexit British politician, called Trump's rise a danger to the Republican party and American democracy and rejected parallels between Trumpism and Brexit as "absurdly overdone."
Salvini's attempt to align the no vote with Trump, Putin, and France's National Front, , also illustrates the danger of opponents of reflexive anti-establishmentarianism who themselves reflexively lump disparate political movements and forces into one basket of deplorables. Last month, the Washington Post ran a story about "fake news" as part of a massive Russian propaganda effort, based in large part on a report by PropOrNot, a group that has kept the identity of its members a secret and has been accused itself of being a Ukrainian propaganda effort, that identified more than 200 websites as "routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season." As The New Yorker's Adrien Chen noted last week, for PropOrNot "simply exhibiting a pattern of beliefs outside the political mainstream [was] enough to risk being labelled a Russian propagandist."
This kind of "you're either with us or against us" approach to a (bigger government) "political mainstream" that is increasingly no such thing doesn't earn that position any more credibility. Voters in Italy were, by a margin of almost 20 percent, not interested in changing their constitution to make governing easier for the ruling party. This despite the usual economic doom and gloom that accompanies a vote outside of, in Europe's case, the Euro-integrationist mainstream. In Italy, the threat is argued to be because a "no" vote makes eventual departure from the Eurozone more plausible (though still unlikely), which in turn would make it more difficult to bail out Italian banks now seeking them.
At its most basic level, it's a similar argument made in the 2008 fiscal crisis—that if the government didn't intervene aggressively there would be catastrophe. It's also similar to arguments deployed wherever there's a case being made for more government intervention—that inaction is too dangerous, and the government has to "do something." It's a dangerous conceit, and one that becomes less persuasive the more government, as it is wont to do, fails, and the more that the world get better despite big government's best efforts.