WHAT do voters want? Do they even know? They’re clearly mad – incandescent, in fact. But are they mad and bad, lashing out unthinkingly and indiscriminately in a fit of pique? Or are they mad and smart, supporting whichever radical vehicle is best placed to represent their grievances and provide a lasting shock to a tired and failing mainstream?

Rage against the machine has brought us Scotland’s Yes movement, Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and extremists in power or close to it in too many Western countries for comfort. It has burst through in Italy. In the country’s general election at the weekend, the main winners were the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which took more than 30% of the vote and will be the largest party in parliament, and the right-wing, anti-immigrant League, which looks to have secured nearly 20%.

Italy is not Britain, Britain is not the United States and modern Scottish support for independence has nothing to do with continental neo-fascism but the strong winds buffeting nations and blowing electorates into unusual corners originate from similar sources.

In Italy’s case those forces are a laggard economy and high unemployment, plus the country’s Mediterranean situation, which has made it the destination for vast numbers of “irregular” immigrants and refugees from North Africa and Western Asia. More than 600,000 non-EU migrants have arrived since 2014. No one should be surprised that beleaguered Italian voters have judged the traditional political establishment venal, self-serving, culpable and ineffective and sought to take radical corrective action. We’re seeing the same thing everywhere.

This popular discontent and the sense that the mainstream still fails to grasp its scale and urgency are opening doors that were once closed and letting in some pretty unpleasant characters. Mainstream parties boast of competence and offer incremental change that will avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This has served them well in the past, but is no longer cutting it.

The extremists promise, instead, grand spending programmes, conveniently ignoring the consequences of further massive debt. They cast the EU in the role of bogeyman, deservedly at times, and blame it for restricting national agency, especially when tackling immigration. Globalisation and free trade are similarly denounced: Donald Trump appears on the verge of causing a trade war by introducing tariffs on steel and aluminium imports to the US. In Italy, the League and Five Star have set themselves against trade deals and opposed foreign takeovers and investment in the country. Matteo Salvini, leader of the League, supports Mr Trump on tariffs, saying: “If Italians will choose me as prime minister I will [act] like Trump. I will defend Italian workers and entrepreneurs even if it means putting up tariffs to protect the ‘made in Italy’ brand.”

There has been a fusion (or perhaps a marriage of convenience) between, on the one hand, the radical intelligentsias of hard-left and far-right and, on the other, the discontented and left behind. The latter usually comprise the less well-educated, the relatively poor and the elderly. They more easily fall prey to the outlandish promises and gross simplifications offered by ambitious ideological rogues. These are fertile times. In the UK, Mr Corbyn and co propose sweeping nationalisation and a hosepipe approach to public spending; the successful Leave campaign won on the slogan of ‘“taking back control” and playing on public fears about immigration. Boris Johnson and friends may speak of a liberal, free-trading future outside the EU but there are at least as many Brexiters who see an opportunity to radically tighten borders and pursue a “Britain First” agenda.

What is perhaps even more disturbing than this shift towards extreme action is the failure of the mainstream to properly respond and display its radical chops. In Downing Street, Theresa May is a prisoner of her party’s warring Brexit factions while the enormity of the challenge of leaving the EU seems to have left her Government becalmed in most other major policy areas. The administration is unable or unwilling to face up to the public spending pressures and intergenerational unfairnesses that require increases in taxation and, say, a vast housebuilding programme. As David Willetts, the former Conservative Cabinet minister and now chairman of the Resolution think tank, said yesterday that “the age of tax cuts is over”. Bolder thinking is required around areas like taxes on unearned income from property and inheritance. The centre should listen to Mr Willetts: “I know these taxes are unpopular. But the alternatives are far worse. Our belief in universal healthcare, free at the point of use, is cherished even more than our opposition to tax rises.”

There are moments in history when voters decide it’s time to deviate from the norm and license their politicians to step into new territory. In the UK, we saw it in 1945 and 1979. It’s evident that we have again arrived at that stage, and that powerful vested interests must be taken on and beaten by the kinds of politicians who normally court their vote. The big ideas are coming from the fringes and, even where worth considering, they emanate from people you wouldn’t let babysit your dog. I don’t want John McDonnell anywhere near the Treasury. I don’t want Jacob Rees-Mogg anywhere near Downing Street, even if his nanny’s there to mind him. But to prevent these outcomes, the decent, moderate centre needs to break with character and find its own indecent immoderation, and fast.

Norman Kirk, the former New Zealand prime minister, famously said that people don’t want much; just “someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for”. That hasn’t changed and it seems unlikely it ever will. But if harmonious, secure, stable societies are treated with casual neglect and wilful blindness by those asked to lead them, it should be no surprise that voters search for solutions in darker corners.