Sep 27, 2022

The elections in Italy.

The elections in Italy.

Plus, how do you talk to someone who believes in conspiracies?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

The elections in Italy and a question about talking to people who believe in conspiracies.

Italy's future prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Image:
Italy's future prime minister, Giorgia Meloni. Image:

Reader feedback.

Carrie, a New Yorker living in Oslo, Norway, wrote in yesterday about the supposition that Trump's alleged fraud was a "victimless crime."

"The fact is that normal people have had to worry about this law and try to operate inside of it for a very long time. I’m one of them. As an entrepreneur, I put my life savings into a startup and applied for an SBA loan. The amount of information that required is staggering, including valuations of assets that were complicated and variable. I was repeatedly warned by loan officers of the consequences of inflating valuations, and at one point I was literally threatened with referral to prosecutors for a valuation that differed from a prior statement (and this was a required change in valuation that was also reported to the IRS from someone desperately trying to comply with the law!)... If this isn’t an abuse worthy of punishment, then everyone defending Trump should be clamoring to repeal the regulation so that it’s not used against anyone else either."


Last week, I sat down with election expert and author Michael McDonald to talk about the 2022 midterms, his new book, and whether we can trust the polls. McDonald is open about his left-leaning politics, but spoke about how he tries not to let those views influence his work. He was fun to have on the show and offered some analysis that I thought was valuable to carry into the next few months. You can listen here.

Quick hits.

  1. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that President Biden's student loan relief program would cost $420 billion. (The estimates)
  2. Russian President Vladimir Putin granted citizenship to Edward Snowden, who fled the U.S. 11 years ago after sharing classified documents about its mass surveillance program. (The citizenship)
  3. Canada is dropping its Covid-19 travel and border restrictions beginning on Saturday. (The end)
  4. Hurricane Ian made landfall in Cuba as a Category 3 hurricane and is expected to hit the Tampa Bay area of Florida tomorrow. (The threat)
  5. Apple began manufacturing its new iPhone 14 in India, hoping to diversify its production capacity away from China. (The decision)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Italy's elections. On Sunday, Giorgia Meloni appeared to have formed a coalition to take the majority in Italy's parliament. The coalition is considered a nationalist-populist group of parties.

About 64% of eligible Italian voters participated in the election, an unusually low turnout rate in Italy. Meloni's party, Brothers of Italy, received about 26% of the vote, the most votes in both houses of Italy's parliament. She campaigned on a mainstream conservative position, as a vocal opponent of lenient immigration policies, same-sex marriage, abortion, the European Union and international bankers. A lifelong political activist and candidate, Meloni has relatively limited executive experience, serving for three years as the minister for youth from 2008 to 2011. Now, she could become the first woman to serve as Italy's prime minister.

Context: Italy was holding a snap election after the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi on July 21, which we covered in our special international edition. Draghi had overseen a big-tent coalition of left-wing, right-wing and centrist parties. His tenure drew international acclaim, and Italy was dubbed "Country of the Year" by The Economist for its economic response to Covid-19. However, the prime minister who preceded Draghi pulled his party's support for the post-Covid economic aid decree, leading to the coalition's eventual demise.

Via Euro News: Italy operates in a bicameral parliamentary democracy, where general elections decide the composition of the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies (Camera dei Deputati) and the upper house, the Senate (Senato). The prime minister is the head of the government, but is not elected directly by the citizenry. Rather, the prime minister is chosen by the new parliament and the president (presidents in Italy do not hold executive power, but are chosen in a secretive round of elections).

Meloni's party, the Brothers of Italy, descended from the remnants of fascism and has been criticized as "far-right." It will still be weeks until the new parliament is seated and a new government is formed, and it’s hard to know how Italy's parliamentary makeup will shake out.

In the last 77 years, Italy has had 69 different governing coalitions, and the government has built a reputation for being bureaucratic and ineffective. It's possible, if not likely, that Meloni's power and this current coalition may be fleeting.

Why this matters: Meloni has the potential to be an influential global figure. She is known for giving rousing speeches, and she is sure to shake up the European Union. While she has remained steadfast in her support of Ukraine so far, many in her coalition express a strong reverence for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her victory comes at a time when nationalist power is coalescing across Europe, with similar politicians winning seats of government or scoring strong showings in Sweden, Spain, and France.

Meloni has recently distanced herself from her party's far-right background, condemning fascist leader Benito Mussolini, whom she had praised in the past, and criticizing Hungary's Viktor Orban and France's Marine le Pen, who was among the first to congratulate her on her victory.

Meloni enters office at a time when Italian voters’ concerns seem tied most closely to energy bills and the cost of living, as with most of Europe right now. Her party has called for imposing a cap on natural gas prices and decoupling gas and electricity prices. Some European Union leaders have expressed worries that Italy may be the crack in EU unity in sanctioning Russia, which has resulted in an energy war that has driven up prices across the continent.

Today, we're going to take a look at some opinions from the right and left here in America, as well as a couple of opinions from Italian writers. Then, my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say fears about Meloni are overblown, and insist she must find a way to revive Italy's economy.
  • Some argue that Meloni's being supported because she respects Italy's tradition.
  • Others say there appears to be little reason to worry Meloni won't continue supporting Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said voters finally got the conservative government they wanted in 2018.

"On economics, expect a conventional (for Italy) right-wing populist agenda that focuses on targeted tax cuts and welfare handouts rather than the big-bang reforms a different conservative leader is attempting in the United Kingdom," the board said. "European worthies fret this lays the groundwork for a new conflict between Rome and the European Union over budget rules. This is a concern with Italian government debt near 150% of GDP and no plan to stimulate economic growth. But the EU also has surrendered leverage it might have had by shielding Rome from market judgments. Large-scale purchases of Italian bonds by the European Central Bank have hemmed in the spread between German and Italian bonds, a benchmark indicator.

"On foreign policy, Ms. Meloni and her conservative allies aren’t noticeably more pro-Ukraine than any other Italian politician regarding Russia’s invasion," they wrote. "But she also isn’t noticeably less supportive, and appears to feel bound by a consensus among voters to support sanctions against Russia. Ms. Meloni has followed other Italian conservatives’ lead by promising a crackdown on illegal migration, perhaps including a naval blockade of Libya. That plan sounds implausible, but Italy is on the front line of a wave of illegal migration that started in 2015 and never fully stopped. If anyone in Brussels has better ideas for bringing the situation under control, Italians probably would be all ears."

In The Washington Post, Henry Olsen said fears about Meloni are overblown.

"Italy is not Hungary," Olsen said. "It has a robustly free media and has been a Western democracy for nearly 80 years. Moreover, Meloni’s party has never embarked on a crusade against liberal democracy the way Mussolini or even Orban has. The Brothers party doesn’t want to end democracy; it wants to respect Italy’s national traditions and restore the country’s economic freedoms. Those twin concerns mark Meloni’s rise and explain her appeal. She came to prominence when she proclaimed in 2019 that ‘I am a woman, I am a mother, I am Italian, I am a Christian.’

"This social conservatism isn’t rooted in the past; rather, it is rooted in a sense that Italy’s past is worthy of respect and can form the foundation for its future," he wrote. "The economic issues are also crucial to explaining her rise. Italy is a founding member of the euro zone, but its economy has largely stagnated after adopting the euro in 2002. Since then, Italy’s economy has never grown by more than 2 percent annually, except for last year’s post-pandemic bounce. It also never recovered from the 2008 financial crash; unemployment has never dropped below 8 percent since then, and its real GDP per capita remains lower than it was in 2007. This has produced political upheaval, of which Meloni and her party are the current beneficiaries."

What the left is saying.

  • Many warn about Meloni's anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant views.
  • Some note that her party has roots in WWII era fascism.
  • Others say we need to keep a watchful eye on Italian democracy.

In Vox, Ellen Ioanes wrote about Meloni's years-in-the-making rise.

"On the campaign trail, she emphasized her womanhood and motherhood, though she is not a feminist. She has also taken a hard line against immigration — suggesting that the Italian Navy patrol the Mediterranean to keep migrants from arriving by sea," Ioanes wrote. "Meloni’s victory could portend rollbacks to minority rights, including the rights of women, LGBTQ people, and migrants. Her Brothers of Italy party uses an insignia and slogan — 'Dio, patria, famiglia,' or 'God, country, family' — which echo its fascist predecessors.

"Voter turnout appears to have reached historic lows," she added. "That’s partly because the state of Italian politics has left many voters 'disaffected, disappointed,' pollster Lorenzo Pregliasco of YouTrend told the Associated Press. 'They don’t see their vote as something that matters.' As Italy’s new leader, Meloni will have to contend with a series of major issues — some of which, like immigration, a tax system overhaul, and judicial reform, have plagued Italy for years, across many governments, seemingly without a tenable solution."

The Washington Post editorial board said "danger lurks" after Italy's shocking election.

"There remains ample cause for concern about Ms. Meloni, who is set to govern one of the world’s largest economies despite her own modest credentials in government," the board said. "Amid a drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric — she warns darkly that ethnic Italians are in danger of 'replacement' — she has advanced the far fetched idea of a naval blockade to stop unauthorized foreigners from reaching Italian shores. That’s unlikely to work. It’s also a toxic echo of the fierce antisemitism of Mussolini, the World War II dictator whom Ms. Meloni once openly admired. Her intolerance is also directed at LGBTQ people, for whom her government might make life more challenging in the only major E.U. country that has not legalized same-sex marriage. Framing her views as pro-family, she has vowed to block same-sex adoptions and surrogacy.

"Her party and its right-wing coalition partners include figures who might threaten free and fair elections if given their druthers; many would emulate Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has gutted key aspects of that country’s democracy," the board wrote. "However, Ms. Meloni’s bloc will lack the votes in Italy’s Parliament to tamper with constitutional protections for Italian democratic institutions. The lurking danger of a Meloni government is to Europe’s ability to withstand Mr. Putin’s attempts to break Western anti-Kremlin sanctions, using Europe’s dependence on Russian energy exports as leverage. Italy’s economy is chronically anemic, and many Italians will suffer as Moscow’s pressure mounts. That will test Ms. Meloni’s determination to hold the line."

From Italy...

In The New York Times, Italian journalist Mattia Ferraresi said Meloni is extreme, "but she's no tyrant."

"This is, to put it mildly, concerning," Ferraresi said. "Yet the most pervasive worry is not that Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party will reinstitute fascism in Italy — whatever that would mean. It’s that a government led by her will transform Italy into an 'electoral autocracy,' along the lines of Viktor Orban’s Hungary. During the campaign, the center-left Democratic Party — Brothers of Italy’s main opponent — obsessively invoked Hungary as Italy’s destiny under Ms. Meloni’s rule. The contest, they repeated, was one between democracy and authoritarianism.

"In the end, the Democrats’ anguished 'alarm for democracy' failed to persuade voters: At an early reckoning, the party took 19 percent against the Brothers of Italy’s 26 percent," Ferraresi wrote. "There are many reasons for that. One surely is that the picture they drew of Ms. Meloni, as a would-be tyrant taking an ax to Italian democracy and ushering in an era of illiberalism, was unconvincing. For all the rhetorical radicalism and historic extremism of her party, the fact remains that it will not be operating in circumstances of its choosing. Tethered to the European Union and constrained by Italy’s political system, Ms. Meloni won’t have much room to maneuver. She couldn’t turn Rome into Budapest even if she wanted to."

In The Wall Street Journal, Alberto Mingardi and Nicola Rossi, two politics professors in Italy, asked if Meloni can revive the economy.

"Ms. Meloni insisted recently that the sustainability of public debt depends on economic growth," they said. "Her coalition’s proposals include lower taxes on both labor and corporate profits. But these measures will be insufficient. Our think tank, Istituto Bruno Leoni, has been looking at entrepreneurial dynamism over the past century. Both in the U.S. and Italy, the net turnover of businesses is trending downward. In the U.S. (except during the financial crisis), it’s still positive: More businesses are being born than dying. But Italy has been negative since 2001, with 4% of businesses dying a year and only half as many being born.

"Historians remember Italy’s economic miracle in the 1950s," they added. "In 1953 GDP per capita was 30% higher than the peak reached in the preceding 20 years, and the country had four million more people than it did in 1939. Italy industrialized rapidly, and exports grew from 8% of GDP in 1938 to 21% in 1965. From 2010 to 2018, exports were the only positive contribution to GDP, with other components of the economy shrinking. The Italian export companies that keep the country afloat are by and large the descendants of the 1950s, the short season in Italian history in which the government unleashed private enterprise. Doing so again requires a major deregulation and a wholesale tax reform aimed at creating incentives for productivity. It’s unclear that Italy’s political class—including Ms. Meloni—understands this."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

Clearly, nationalism is ascendent in Europe, and it's no secret why.

Many counties there are facing immigration crises and economic fragility, and that mixture — historically — has had a very common outcome: Nationalist leaders pillorying the elite, calling for immigration restrictions, and rallying around tradition and birthright.

Meloni's advantage in this election seemed to be that she was the only major candidate who had cleaved her association with the preceding administration. In that regard, it was an almost American result. We've been a nation desperate for change over the last 20 years, and that isn't a mood unique to the United States. Meloni had the benefit of being able to say she was not one of the current people in office, didn't agree with them, and didn't want to be associated with them. The left and center parties were divided and fractious, so she rose.

By progressive American standards, I understand why Meloni is so feared. She is staunchly anti-LGBTQ and unabashedly pro-life. But, as many others have noted, the cries of "fascism" strike me as pretty overblown. Meloni will be boxed in between the need to keep Europe happy (or lose billions of dollars from the EU, which is propping up Italy's economy) and the need to keep her right-wing coalition happy (which probably means increasingly strict immigration policies). Italy's government is not going to collapse or become autocratic or get taken over by a Mussolini-style authoritarian. More likely, this coalition will fold and be reborn in the next two years, like most of the coalitions before it.

Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with running on religion, family and country — a call that is appealing not just in Italy but across the globe. It'll be Meloni's actual policies that are much more worth following. Chief among her obstacles will be finding a way to help the Italian economy grow. All the rousing speeches in the world can't substitute for results there — and I imagine her window of time to enact change and produce results won't be long.

As it relates to the U.S., the election probably won't mean a whole lot. As Politico put it, "in terms of the issues that the U.S. cares about — keeping the anti-Putin coalition intact and keeping Rome as a constructive force inside the EU — Meloni is either already on board or unlikely to make waves." The biggest international story in the world right now is the war in Ukraine, and Meloni has to this point maintained a pretty mainstream, pro-sanction, anti-Russia stance in that regard.

More relevantly, she represents the nationalist, traditional, religious sentiment sweeping through Europe in the wake of the recent dominance by progressive and left-wing politics — an era we may be watching come undone in real time.

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Your questions, answered.

Q: How does one respond to a family member who believes wild conspiracy theories from questionable sources at best? It’s difficult to even listen to the rhetoric. An example: he asked one of our guests who was diagnosed with cancer if the diagnosis came before or after she was vaccinated. He believes that the Covid vaccine causes cancer and the government and the mainstream media is keeping that information from us. That's just the tip of the iceberg.

— Frances, Lynwood, Washington

Tangle: I get a version of this question a lot, and it's a difficult one to navigate. There is a lot of research and debate on how to break people out of certain delusions or conspiracy theories. I frequently engage people who believe in conspiracies, but I'm not an expert on the psychological research. What I can do is tell you what I try to do in similar situations.

First, don't attack. I find that the best course of action, initially, is to maintain an open mind and an inquisitive posture. Ask open-ended questions. Sincere questions. How would a vaccine cause cancer? What is the actual mechanism for that to happen? Who is telling you that happens? How might that person benefit (financially) from promoting that kind of story? Do you know what cancer is and how it happens? Can you explain how the vaccine works? Help them see some of their own blind spots.

Two, remember that we're all conspiracy theorists (kind of). Most people I know believe at least a few things they can't really prove. My joke in Tangle (stolen from a reader) is that everyone should get one good conspiracy theory. Maybe two, if they are a really stable person otherwise. I believe, for instance, that the government is covering up contact with extraterrestrial life. I can't really prove that, but I have some good arguments I could make about it, and I like talking about it. Most of us are bad at changing our minds, and it usually takes an environment of openness and persistent engagement to do so. Think about what would change your mind on something you believe.

Three, don't waste your time trying to prove a negative. Most conspiracy theories are rooted in the idea that it's impossible to disprove the conspiracy. The burden of proof is — and should be — on the claimant. You may not be able to prove to me that aliens have never been here, but I am the one making the claim — I need to prove to you somehow that they have.

Four, know when to let it breathe. I've never talked a friend or family member out of an absurd belief in one sitting, and I’ve never been talked out of one of my own in one sitting. It takes repeated engagement, patience, time, and persistence. That is just the reality of it. And it may turn out they are onto something that I missed — which is why it is critical not to remain steadfast in your own views, too. When you get an inch, though — like your family member conceding maybe it isn't that likely a vaccine causes cancer — take the win and let that inch simmer.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Lumber prices have fallen back to their lowest level in more than two years, bringing two-by-fours back to what they cost before the pandemic, according to The Wall Street Journal. The prices have come down about one-third from a year ago and more than 70% from their peak in March, around the time the Federal reserve began raising interest rates to fight inflation. Prices exploded early on in the pandemic when Americans began remodeling homes en masse and two-by-four prices nearly tripled. The latest prices are a sign of a cooling housing and construction market. WSJ has the story (paywall).


  • 46-46. The deadlock race between GOP nominee Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley in North Carolina's Senate race, according to an internal Democratic poll.
  • 51-44. Republican Greg Abbott's lead over Democrat Beto O'Rourke in the state's race for governor, according to a Texas Hispanic Policy foundation poll.
  • 48.7-46.5. Democrat Sen. Patty Murray's lead over Republican Tiffany Smiley in Washington’s senate race, according to a Trafalgar Group poll.
  • 45-42. Democrat John Fetterman's current lead over Republican Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania's Senate race, according to an Insider Advantage/Fox29 Philadelphia poll.
  • 52-37. Democrat Josh Shapiro's lead over Republican Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania's race for governor, according to an Insider Advantage/Fox29 Philadelphia poll.

Have a nice day.

Have you ever worried about an asteroid hitting planet earth? Well, yesterday, we got some good news. NASA successfully collided a space probe — about the size of a vending machine — with the 525-foot wide asteroid Dimorphos. It was the first ever test of a planetary defense system. The asteroid was no threat to earth, but NASA's DART system successfully made contact at 14,000 miles per hour and knocked it onto a new course about 6.8 million miles from our planet. In the coming years, the agency is going to track its trajectory and try to understand how our intervention impacted the flight path. The $325 million mission was designed to see if NASA could successfully deflect asteroids that may one day pose a threat to life on earth. NBC News has the story.

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