The term “Tea Party,” which refers to the 1773 Boston revolt against taxation by the British, doesn’t have the same historical resonance in Italy as it does in the United States. Nevertheless, the American political tradition often provides a useful model for public debates in Italy—and Europe more generally. In this context, America’s contemporary Tea Party movement has provided a significant contribution.
The American founding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” continue to inspire American patriotism. Liberty—and, more specifically, economic liberty—was at the center of the American political debate when the Bush and Obama Administrations approved government intervention in the economic crisis (in 2008, with the Bush Administration, and in early 2009, after President Obama’s stimulus package).
For many Americans, these policies were seen as a version of “European-style statism.” President Obama’s policies therefore prompted the mobilization of a large, grassroots counter-movement that has become influential in many elections: the Tea Party. Reacting to the state-heavy responses to the economic crisis under Obama, the Tea Party organized numerous demonstrations defending private property, resisting tax increases, and calling for limited government.
The Tea Party is a movement that we Europeans cannot ignore, especially in the so called “PIIGS” countries (i.e. Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain), as we continue to try to find ways to respond to the debt crisis. In Italy, the importance of the American Tea Party phenomenon was not lost on people and an inspired young lover of liberty, David Mazzerelli, proposed that Italians should respond in the same way. The Italian Tea Party (Tea Party Italia) movement was thus founded in May 2010 in Prato, an industrial town in Tuscany.
Mazzerelli’s idea for an Italian Tea Party spread across Italy through the internet and in the media. Hundreds of people took part in the first Italian Tea Party event to listen to conservative and pro-free market speakers. These included Italian scholar and writer Marco Respinti, Leonardo Facco from the Movimento Libertario, and Andrea Mancia, founder of Tocqueville.it.
After this initial enthusiastic response, requests were received by the organizers of the fledgling Italian Tea Party from like-minded people around Italy. They wanted to hold similar events all over the country. Since then, over the past two and a half years, about one hundred Italian Tea Party rallies have taken place in different towns, reaching almost all of Italy’s regions and attracting thousands of people. According to preliminary figures from international surveys, Tea Party Italia is now the largest group of its kind outside the United States. It represents the voices and concerns of Italian taxpayers and freedom fighters, while maintaining political independence from the country’s established political parties.
But there have been numerous obstacles to the spread of the Tea Party movement in Italy. These include the left-wing media’s slanted portrayal of American politics, a general public consensus on public spending (and tacit acceptance of high levels of debt), and widespread indifference to economic freedom and ignorance of the whole tradition of Austrian economics. In 2010, when American Tea Party candidates successfully stormed the midterm elections, to the surprise of many observers, Italians were absorbed and distracted instead by personal scandals among party leaders. Rather than consider the looming Greek financial crisis and other important public policy issues, Italian public officials seemed preoccupied by the sordid.
The request of the European Central Bank (ECB) in July 2011 for Italy to cut public spending and to start market liberalization, as well as the appointment of a ‘technocratic government’ under the leadership of Prime Minister Mario Monti the following autumn, resulted in a sudden spike of public interest in economic freedom (or the lack thereof). The debate then (thankfully) shifted from the personal affairs of Italian politicians to the debt crisis. But due to the inability of Italian policy-makers to cut spending and introduce liberalization measures, the immediate response to the ECB’s request—in both the Berlusconi and Monti Administrations—was simply to raise taxes.
Tea Party Italia was the only political group to object to this. In response, officials and left-wing media began to consider members of the Italian Tea Party as synonymous with “tax antagonist.” Accusations were especially shrill during the fight over the new property tax proposal introduced by Monti. Tea Party Italia introduced motions in local councils urging administrators to reduce rather than raise property taxes. These motions were discussed in about 150 local councils. Dozens of towns eventually voted to reduce property taxes.
It is worth remembering that Italy, until only recently, was listed among the “Mostly Unfree” countries in the Heritage Foundation’s “Economic Freedom Index,” a dubious distinction. This was primarily due to the country’s labor taxes and the many obstacles to starting a new business. In fact, a lack of market liberalization, heavy taxation, a large welfare state, and wasteful government spending (which has risen to 51.8% of GDP) are the fundamental problems of the Italian economy. Small businesses and the average worker both seem to be aware of these problems; but they remain generally unknown to—or ignored by—most public sector workers, who have traded in liberty for a sort of fake safety net. Moreover, public debate on economic issues generally supports and justifies profligate public spending in the name of an abstract, government-provided common good.
Given this consensus on public spending and big government in Italy, efforts to introduce American-style conservative issues and policy discussions have required some modifications. The ideas that animated the American Tea Party have had to be translated and adapted to the Italian political framework. In fact, there are other Italian political movements which have a clear populist character; but their goals remain confused (and confusing), with some groups combining anti-establishment sentiments simultaneously with demands for more government intervention.
The largest of these populist groups is the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S), which has one main target in its crosshairs: former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Unlike Tea Party Italia, however, M5S has recognition as a formal political party in local and national elections.
On February 24 and 25, Italy will face rather uncertain elections with regard to both candidates and coalitions. This uncertainty is a considerable problem for a grass-roots movement, which must try to get pledges to specific policies from candidates while maintaining political independence. The hope is that the public debate, influenced by increasingly American-style campaigns, will center on questions of economic freedom—with big, “European-style” government on one side and free-markets, fiscal responsibility, and limited government on the other.
There are some optimistic signs that free-market political organizations will be involved in these elections. Regardless of the parties and the candidates, the Italian Tea Party will be active around the country to promote free-market ideas and convince voters of the virtues of smaller government. It will use its growing popularity among frustrated voters and disgruntled Italian conservatives to focus on these issues, and will also reach out to individual candidates and try to influence the policy platforms of political parties.
The differences between Italy and the United States, which are primarily historical and constitutional, are clear to the Italian Tea Party movement. For example, the Italian Constitution does not have the same clearly defined points about individual liberty, private property, and free markets that the US Constitution has enshrined; in Italy, free markets are merely “allowed” or permitted by the government. But things can change.
What is necessary is to learn more about American points of view—both conservative and libertarian—which could be applied to our social and political reality. In this, the practical contributions of American think-tanks continue to be vital tools for the Italian Tea Party and its growing number of supporters.