To identify who the anti-populists are, it helps to understand what makes a populist—a question that has been the subject of much scholarship and debate in recent years. Though populist leaders come in a variety of forms and contexts, they share some notable similarities. As Catherine Fieschi, the director of the Global Policy Institute at Queen Mary University of London, writes in Populocracy: The Tyranny of Authenticity and the Rise of Populism, these include a claim to defend the true interests of (often homogenous) “real people” against the interests of elites, including mainstream political parties and the media. For right-wing populists such as Salvini—as well as Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and Marine Le Pen in France, to name a few—this has manifested in nativist rhetoric, calls for tighter immigration controls, and the discrediting of political opponents as inherently “illegitimate.”
What has been less clearly defined, however, is who the anti-populists are. In some countries, such as Germany, the primary opposition to populist parties such as the far-right Alternative for Germany and the far-left Die Linke is the mainstream groups they have pitted themselves against. In others, there are new, nonmainstream alternatives. Take, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche movement, which swept to power a year after its founding: Though led by Macron, a former minister in Socialist President François Hollande’s government, En Marche was regarded as being outside of France’s traditional two-party system, allowing the movement to distance itself from the anti-establishment rhetoric of Macron’s chief rival, Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (or as it was known at the time, the National Front).
In Britain, the erstwhile Conservative minister turned independent mayoral candidate Rory Stewart declared his own ambition to start a new centrist movement—one that he told me could follow Macron’s En Marche model. Stewart said he would combat “populist extremes” by better engaging the electorate in the business of governing through citizens’ assemblies and, in doing so, undermine the populist narrative of elite betrayal. Unlike Macron, though, he doesn’t aim to do this at the national level, hoping instead to build his new centrist movement from the bottom up—or, in his case, from London city hall.
The Sardines, of course, don’t resemble Macron’s En Marche or Rory Stewart. They are a grassroots movement—not a political organization or candidate. Like many protest movements around the world, the Sardines function without a clear hierarchy. They aren’t affiliated with a political party and, according to one of their founders, they have no ambition to become one. The group’s sole stated aim is to reassert values of tolerance and moderation into the public square as part of an “anti-fascist, pro-equality” movement that speaks out against racism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant sentiment. But this hasn’t stopped voters from viewing them as a de facto opposition: One poll found that 40 percent of Italians regard the Sardines as a greater threat to Salvini than his actual political opponents. Their success hasn’t escaped the notice of Salvini either. Though the League leader has previously expressed appreciation for the group—telling one interviewer that “the more people [who] participate, the better”—he has also taken to criticizing it on Twitter, stating his preference for kittens. (His reason: They eat sardines.)