Understanding the “conflicted middle” in Italy
The lead-up to Italy’s March 2018 election reflected the increased prominence of issues of immigration: the public debate was polarised for months, with statistics and a flurry of accusations, acts of solidarity being criminalised, and complex phenomena oversimplified.
Like the citizens of other European countries, Italians are increasingly concerned with issues of national identity and belonging, and their interaction with immigration and a perceived loss of control of Italy’s southern borders. Despite widespread views that immigration has had negative effects on Italy, however, the majority of Italians have feelings of solidarity and empathy towards outsiders. Public attitudes in Italy are more nuanced than is often assumed. This is one of the results which has emerged from the research “Understanding the ‘conflicted’ middle in Italy”, which we presented on April 13 at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia.
The research, supported by The Social Change Initiative in partnership with More in Common, surveyed political debate, public opinion, and reactions from civil society in five countries: Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and Greece. The research was carried out in Italy by IPSOS.
The Italian Coalition for Civil Liberties and Rights has decided to become a partner in the project for Italy because we have realised that even in our daily job as human rights advocates we tend to speak to those who already have some knowledge of the issues and agree with us; that or we try to change the minds of people whose values and attitudes are radically different. In other words, consciously or not even we are tempted to engage in divisive narratives, to oversimplify a complex world in a country where large strata of the population feel ignored and see their frustration growing. People whose values may not be too distant from our own, but who are also be driven by doubts, concerns, and fears that migrant flows may be at the root of a socio-economic situation that feels increasingly precarious and marked by conflict.
Attitudinal segments in Italy
More In Common’s research in Italy shows seven distinct groups in Italian society which think differently about issues of identity, belonging, and ‘open’ and ‘closed’ values related to issues of immigration, refugees, diversity, and national identity.
There is a greater degree of divergence in opinion in Italy than in the three countries in which More in Common has previously conducted national studies. Among both the closed and open groups, the segmentation analysis identified two distinctive groups (whereas the analysis in Germany, France, and the Netherlands identified only one open and one closed group). Among the middle segments, three distinctive groups emerged (and in this respect, the outcome is similar to France and Germany).
Two segments (28 per cent of the population) hold more open values and are supportive of immigrants. Two other segments (24 per cent of the population) hold more closed values and oppose newcomers of almost any kind. Three segments belong to what is sometimes referred to as the ‘conflicted middle’ or ‘anxious middle’; up to 48 per cent of the Italian population belongs to one of the conflicted middle groups.
While Italy has many distinctive features, this overall picture is consistent with the research that More In Common has carried out in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. In all of the surveyed countries, a large number of people have been identified as belonging to a middle group and not sharing the views of those at either end of the spectrum. Each segment prioritises different issues and is driven by different values and concerns. Understanding those differences – and especially the characteristics of middle groups – is essential to engaging mainstream audiences effectively.
More In Common’s research in Italy confirms the existence of a large ‘conflicted middle’ of the population – but with some uniquely Italian elements in this picture, some of which are clearly shaped by Italy’s historic Catholic identity as well as the considerable differences in attitudes between different regions.
Concerns over eroded cultural identity and growing dissatisfaction – but no embracing of extremist attitudes
The research confirms many elements of the everyday narrative about Italy: widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo, a deep distrust of elites, and an overwhelming view that Italy is losing out from globalisation (just 18 per cent of Italians believe that the impact of globalisation on the Italian economy is positive).
Frustration with the status quo in politics is reflected in the very high percentage (73 per cent) of the population who say that traditional parties and politicians do not care about people like them. Sixty per cent of Italians say that Italian society is worse today than a year ago (versus 9 per cent who believe it is better) and 43 per cent predict that in the next five years things will get even worse (versus 19 per cent who say it will get better, and 30 per cent who expect it to stay about the same). Despite the prolonged crisis, their assessment of the economic outlook is more optimistic, with an almost equal three-way tie between people who expect conditions to improve, worsen, or stay the same.
Like citizens in other European countries, Italians are also increasingly concerned by issues of national identity and belonging, and their interaction with immigration and a perceived loss of control of Italy’s southern borders. Traditional cultural identity is important to Italians, and a majority are concerned that their identity is disappearing.
That stated, most Italians hold these concerns alongside a belief in the value of hospitality towards others and in having a moral responsibility towards refugees. And though they sit together with concerns about Italy losing its way, empathy, solidarity, and compassion remain deeply felt values.
Despite their concerns about the management and impacts of migration, most Italians do not embrace extremist attitudes towards migrants. Many Italians remain warm towards outsiders, including refugees and migrants, and the vast majority (72 per cent) support the principle of asylum and believe that people should be able to take refuge in other countries, including Italy.
In addition, despite the media coverage of several cases, a strong refusal of extremism emerges: most Italians (61 per cent) feel concerned about the rise of racism and discrimination, and only 17 per cent say that they are not concerned. Only 11 per cent of Italians feel a strong connection to political movements in defence of the nation, while 37 per cent feel a strong connection to the human rights movement.
Furthermore, unlike other Europeans, more Italians feel that they are free to speak their mind about controversial issues. There is almost no sensitivity about ‘political correctness’ or a sense that certain issues are off-limits, nor that open conversation about cultural sensitivities is being stifled. Even considering the often exasperated tones of political discourse, all of these elements give us hope that we will be able to start a fresh dialogue on these issues, a dialogue that will include and represent new voices.
This research will therefore be a starting point for us: listening to Italians’ diverse views and attitudes will help us inform the commitment of society civil leaders, of politics, and of social institutions towards a better understanding of these fragilities, mobilise the Italian population – especially in its central segments – and build a more inclusive, stronger, more open society.
Cover image: Bari, neighbourhood of Madonnella (image by Claudio Riccio, first photo coverage by the fotosintesi collective, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)