Above all, Santori said, the Sardines want to push the conversation away from social-media posturing and back to issues. He pointed out that ahead of the elections, Salvini shifted from focusing on fear of out-of-control illegal immigration to focusing on one-off attention-grabbing incidents to highlight his man-of-the-people persona. “There’s nothing political about hugging a cow or signing an autograph on a Parmigiano. There’s nothing about the future. There’s nothing about the environment,” Santori said. “There’s nothing about politics.”
Then, in Bologna last week, trailed by television cameras, Salvini spoke through an intercom to the apartment of a man whose neighbors said he was Tunisian and a drug dealer. “I want to rehabilitate the name of your family, since someone tells me you and your son deal drugs,” Salvini told the man. The incident was posted on YouTube. Italy is a conservative country, but it’s not an extreme one, and the Sardines’ message of civility might have resonated.
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The question today is what will become of the spirit represented by the Sardines, and what it means for the Democratic Party, which would likely not have won in Emilia-Romagna without their help. Similar to its center-left counterparts in the United States, France, and Germany, the Democratic Party has been fractured and often complacent, divided against itself, not terribly nimble on social media, and unclear of its fundamental message, especially on immigration. Bonaccini, who looks like a hipster, with his ’70s-style aviator glasses, closely cropped hair, and bushy gray beard, was popular in the region but suffered from his party’s flagging identity crisis at the national level. Faced with the existential threat posed by the League and its savvy messaging, the Democratic Party has struggled to articulate a strong counter-narrative. “The left has to tell an authentic story. The left has to stop explaining,” Chaudhary told me ahead of the elections. “As we say in American politics, ‘When you’re explaining, you’re losing.’”
In many ways, the Sardines are reminiscent of the Five Star Movement, the populist protest vote founded in 2009 at a rally (also in Bologna). But whereas the Five Star Movement was angry at the establishment until it came to power and became the establishment, the Sardines are different. Their events are peaceful, not rowdy; they say they want to shore up Italian institutions, not destroy them.
Like the 2016 U.S. election, the Emilia-Romagna race was about change. Voters of all stripes here told me that they were generally satisfied with how things were going in their region, but still wanted improvements locally and nationally. In the piazza at the Sardines concert, people told me of their desire for “a better kind of politics, a politics with less shouting,” as Gabriele Federici, a retiree, put it. Giusi Paladino, a high-school philosophy teacher from Verona who was wearing a sequined fish on her head, told me that the Sardines had inspired her to action. “They gave us the courage to come outside, to say, ‘Okay, we’ll get off the couch and do something,’” she said. “Even the fact of our being here together and coming together is something important. We count; we’re all for something and all against something precise.” That something is Salvini.