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After Brexit And Trump, Italy's Urban-Rural Divide Deepens

Like the the UK and U.S. election surprises before, Italy's recent populist triumphs marked a revolt by voters outside the major urban centers.

Florence or bust? Separate ways in Italy
Florence or bust? Separate ways in Italy
Alberto Rollo

-Analysis-


TURIN — After the final votes were tallied following Italy's March 4 election, I hung a map with the results on the wall above the desk where I work. Now that a couple of weeks have passed, it's time to step back and take a deeper look.

It's also time to ask questions. The map of the vote shows different shades and colors covering the entire country — the blue and green of right-wing parties in the north; the yellow of the Five Star Movement in the south; and a smattering of Democratic Party red in central Italy and major urban centers. With such a dramatic divide at hand, are these just political opinions or are they the sign of something worse: a kind of undeclared civil war?

I don't think so, and not because I'm particularly optimistic. To the contrary: I'm convinced that Italy is dealing with a cultural war that has already been lost. The red dots of Milan and Turin, surrounded by the blue of right-wing parties, remind me of San Francisco, New York, and London. What did New Yorkers know about the concerns of voters in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where the veterinarian Rex Rammell runs for office brandishing his Trump-loving credentials? Did Londoners pay any attention to the issues troubling their Brexit-supporting compatriots in Birmingham, Preston, and Lancashire?

These cities are similar in that they all live in worlds largely isolated from the rest of the country. In Milan and Rome, people discuss human rights and value socially progressive policies. They are home to movie stars, major newspapers, the fashion industry, charity organizations, and endless foundations set up by wealthy benefactors. Despite all the contradictions, the inclusion of outsiders feels possible here, just as it does in New York and London.

Residents in Italy's major urban centers care little about the problems facing people in towns like Novi Ligure, Castelfranco Veneto, Romano di Lombardia. And yet, Italy has always been a country of provinces, not cities. It's in the provinces that Italians developed their culture, monuments and traditions.

Sorry, Novi Ligure — Photo: greenland

A social and architectural shift has transformed provincial life, confining Italians to detached houses that isolate them from their communities. What was once a symbol of prosperity and independence has instead bred a climate of paranoia and conflict. Italians in rural towns have become socially segregated, ideologically suffocated, and hardened in their prejudice.

For better or worse, we've all become ignorant. Politicians that trumpeted social values for years became ignorant of these dynamics, unlike their rivals in the League and Five Star.

In the early 1960s, Truman Capote traveled to the town of Holcomb, deep in the High Wheat Plains of Kansas. He shone the spotlight on the rich social fabric of a neglected region where you could count the number of progressive voters on the fingers of one hand.

They seek comfort in talk shows and reality TV, shout opinions on social media.

The divide between Italy's urban centers and their industrial peripheries masks a wider divide with the emptying provinces, where people are growing poorer and more fearful. They seek comfort in talk shows and reality TV, shout their opinions on social media, and inveigh against immigrants seeking shelter in train stations. To them, they are all the same: they see no difference between the loiterers and those who show up for work every day at construction sites and retirement homes across the country, earning a pittance compared to their urban counterparts.

I'm curious to know what these Italians are thinking, and why they don't buy the narrative that we should all strive for a future that ends global poverty and brings prosperity to all. When people in cities talk about multiculturalism, their rural counterparts fear it will unnecessarily complicate their lives. In their eyes, even public schools cannot be trusted.

The time of experts and pundits is over. It's too early to truly understand the motivations behind this political earthquake, but it's time to start looking beyond the borders of our cities. We must acknowledge the reality, challenge our opinions, and even meet with our worst enemies so we can try to understand their concerns.

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