Book review: Giuseppe Martinico, Filtering Populist Claims to Fight Populism: The Italian Case in Comparative Perspective (CUP 2021)

By Julian Scholtes, Lecturer in EU and Public Law, Newcastle University

Filtering Populist Claims to Fight Populism: The Italian Case in Comparative Perspective by Giuseppe Martinico is a wonderfully written in-depth analysis of the constitutional dimensions of populism in Italy. It is full of comparative, theoretical, and practical insight, as well as a sense of nuance and calm consideration.

What sets the book apart from the already large swathes of literature on populism and constitutionalism is its case study, Italy, and the way in which that case study is approached. Current literature on constitutional populism in Europe tends to be inseparable from concerns about ‘democratic backsliding’ and its most prominent exponents in Central and Eastern Europe – Poland and Hungary. Within these pre-existing case studies, particular attention is paid to the judicial dimensions of populism. By focusing on Italy, and in particular the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) – ‘Five Star Movement’ –as his case study, Martinico provides us with an insight into a populist movement that first and foremost devotes its attention to reforming and reshaping the legislature – a political dimension of populism.

Martinico spends less time talking about judicial review, judicial independence, and the Rule of Law, and more time on the future of democracy, the importance of political parties, referenda, and representation – a refreshing focus for an analysis of populism from a constitutional perspective.

The title already summarizes Martinico’s main intention – by differentiating plausible populist claims from populism itself, Martinico wishes to bolster a reactive approach to populism. Such an approach, rather than merely dismissing populism, strives to seize the populist surge as an opportunity for reflection about how to improve constitutionalism. Such an approach ultimately serves to strengthen the fundament of constitutionalism itself.

Martinico begins his book with a discussion of the relationship between populism and constitutionalism. The idea of ‘populist constitutionalism’ is, in his view, oxymoronic. Martinico argues that populism ultimately fails as a constitutional project. Rejecting the cornerstones of constitutionalism – namely, its counter-majoritarian nature that also recognizes and protects values other than democracy – populism at best amounts to a “constitutional counter-narrative” rather than a coherent constitutional theory. The relationship of this counter-narrative to constitutionalism is based on what Martinico calls mimetism and parasitism: populism imitates constitutionalism by cherry-picking and selectively employing some of its core concepts, but it also seeks to manipulate the configuration of values that comes with constitutionalism, placing some of these values – such as democracy or ‘the will of the people’ – at the forefront, at the expense of others – such as the Rule of Law and the protection of fundamental rights.

Examples of the mimetism and parasitism Martinico ascribes to the populist constitutional counter-narrative are not short in supply. The most prominent example raised is a speech by former Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the United Nations, invoking the value of ‘popular sovereignty’ as contained in Article 1 of the Italian Constitution, while strategically omitting the full text of that Article, which states not only that “[s]overeignty belongs to the people” but also that it “is exercised by the people in the forms and within the limits of this constitution”. Conte, Martinico argues, is cherry-picking one aspect of this constitutional provision while ignoring the other aspects in order to justify a model of unfettered popular sovereignty.

The central chapters of the book elucidate and discuss some of the most prominent claims raised, and reforms pursued, by populists in Italy. Martinico debunks ‘sovereigntist’ interpretations of the Italian Constitution that see it as incompatible with European integration, pointing to the well-established principle of constitutional openness and the Italian Constitutional Court’s ‘controlimiti’ case law, which poses strict conditions to the acceptance of the supremacy of EU law in the Italian constitutional order. He criticizes the M5S-Lega government’s proposals for a ‘legislative referendum’ as reflective of the populist “politics of immediacy” that bypasses representative democratic institutions, highlighting above all the danger of “creating parallel channels of legitimation which could destabilize and delegitimate parliaments” (120-121).

Martinico also takes issue with the constitutional reforms passed by the second Conte government (2019-2021), which drastically reduced the number of seats in both chambers of Parliament. While the real problem of Italian parliamentarism – its ‘perfect bicameralism’ that establishes two equally powerful chambers of parliament, which are both forced to approve an identical legislative text – remains unresolved, the constitutional reform was characterized by a “punitive logic towards parliamentarians” (126), driven by a popular impression of parliamentarians as lazy and corrupt.

Finally, Martinico criticizes proposals made by M5S concerning abolition of the free parliamentary mandate – in other words a tightening of party discipline that would strictly bind representatives to the platform on which they were elected. The relationship between voters and representatives is not private and contractual, but instead fiduciary – if the purpose of parliaments is to serve as deliberative chambers that can mediate between conflicting interests, the imperative mandate would make such deliberation close to impossible.

In the concluding chapter, Martinico comes to the main endeavor of the book, which is already contained in the title: dismissing all the claims made by populists alongside the populism that drives them would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Instead, we should take the claims made by populists seriously and see which of those claims can be usefully retained in order to improve constitutional democracy.

Doing so, Martinico argues, might take some wind of the populists’ sails. Dismissing populism at large does not mean that all populist claims are incompatible with “the essence of Italian (and post-WWII) constitutionalism” (172).

Building upon the nuanced, balanced, and careful discussions in the previous chapters, Martinico takes to “filtering” populist claims. The potential of the internet for democracy must be explored, but chasing the Five Star Movement’s techno-utopian dreams of instantaneous democracy propelled by collaborative digital platforms ignores the need for the safeguards of democratic discourse and democratic procedures. The structural quorum for referenda cannot be dropped entirely, but we should think about reducing it. The EU, rather than denying Italian sovereignty, is part of Italy’s constitutional heritage. The parliamentary mandate must remain free, but solutions to the excessive tendency of Italian politicians to “cross the floor” must be found. Instead of eliminating political parties altogether, they need to be democratized.

Martinico’s book features a depth of insights and discussions that provides a clearer look into constitutional populism in Italy. Throughout the discussions of the several ideas and endeavors of Italian populists, Martinico shares comparative insights and nuanced discussions. He provides insights into the history of Italian populism beyond the current vogue, going back to the formation of the republic and the ‘tangentopoli’ corruption scandal that eventually gave rise to the “populist pioneer” Silvio Berlusconi. He explores the ideological underbelly of the Five Star Movement, which is marked by a strangely fantastical techno-utopianism. Crucially, he delves into historical and theoretical excursions to explain even the ideas he ultimately rejects (like the imperative mandate) with a restrained measure of sympathy, which only serves to strengthen the conclusions at which he arrives. All of this makes the book an insightful and compelling read.

The endeavor of Martinico’s book – to not dismiss the populist challenge outright and, rather than fortify the status quo, take it as an occasion for reflection about constitutional change and reform – is fully worthy of support. The most difficult balancing act in this endeavor, however, is to find the right balance between making space for constitutional reflexivity and insisting on protecting certain constitutional essentials. On this front, Martinico tends to err on the side of caution in favor of the latter, perhaps excessively so.

Martinico’s normative orientation is less towards constitutionalism proper but to what he calls “post-WWII European constitutionalism” – this is driven by a desire to overcome a totalitarian past, characterized by a strong counter-majoritarian nature, and featuring a strong doctrine of constitutional entrenchment and unamendability. While, in the beginning, he still differentiates some sense of constitutionalism proper from post-WWII European constitutionalism, these boundaries begin to blur further into the book. Martinico rightly insists upon the “normative dimension of constitutionalism as such” (28), but he does so in a way that tends to reduce that dimension to what can at best be considered a specific form of constitutionalism. When Martinico argues in the final chapter that the “counter-majoritarian and pro-integration nature of constitutionalism” (170, emphasis added) precludes the possibility of populist constitutionalism, those boundaries seem to have fully evaporated – even though it is hardly arguable that a form of constitutionalism that does not support European integration is inconceivable.

The point here is, of course, not about dismissing European integration and its importance to constitutionalism in Europe. Rather, it is that

overidentifying constitutionalism with the contingent forms it took in Western Europe after World War II might unduly limit our conceptual horizons and the potential for constitutional change, renewal, and experimentation. 

Martinico strives to filter out “some normative arguments [made by populists] that could be reconciled with the untouchable core of post-WWII constitutionalism” (7) – but in doing so, he precludes reflection about this (only elusively defined) untouchable core itself..

Martinico’s ambition of “filtering populist claims” strives to inspire reflexivity around the practice of constitutionalism in the light of the populist challenge the latter is facing. However, eliding the variety of genres of normatively plausible constitutionalism runs the risk of depriving us of precisely that reflexivity. At best, the proposals arising from Martinico’s ‘filtered’ populist claims amount to constitutional fine-tuning. An overly narrow conception of constitutionalism might unduly constrain the ambition of the work. Nevertheless, as it stands, Filtering Populist Claims to Fight Populism is a wonderful book, which is bursting with insights.

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