Catalonia and the Malady of Democracy

Spain’s present troubles are a reflection of the challenges facing liberal democracy throughout the West.

The procés leading to the promised October 1 Catalonian referendum and its fait accompli independence declaration has produced all manner of spectacle: grotesque, depressing, surreal. But perhaps nothing captures how far off the rails of sanity things have gone than the divergent treatment of two men, Arnaldo Otegi and Joan Manuel Serrat.

Otegi is a condemned and unrepentant former leader of the terrorist group ETA. This is the same ETA that thirty years ago carried out one of the most horrific terror attacks in Spanish history in the heart of Barcelona, indiscriminately killing 21 and injuring 45 in an afternoon bombing of a supermarket. In his most recent iteration, Otegi has become a vocal proponent of an independent Catalonia and has been warmly embraced by pro-independence Catalans as a symbol of resistance to the Spanish state. In this vein, he was outrageously invited as a guest of honor to the march against terrorism held in Barcelona this summer following the August 17 attack, where he was treated a celebrity among young radicals who scrambled to take selfies with him.

Compare this with the reception of Joan Manuel Serrat. Serrat is Spain’s Bob Dylan. He is not the voice of a generation, but of generations, in a career that has traversed Spain’s entire modern history. But Serrat, who is from Catalonia and sings in both Spanish and Catalan, had the temerity recently to suggest that the Catalonian referendum being pushed by the regional parliament lacked transparency. For this he has been subjected to withering attacks by fellow Catalans who have deemed the leftist Serrat—who was himself censored by the Franco regime—a traitor, a fascist, and a Nazi.

And so here we are, in a moment in which a symbol of terror is lauded and a songwriter who transcends political cleavages is harangued. Such is the sheer irrationality we are confronted with.

The Catalonia situation is in many ways particularly Spanish. It arises from our history—both contemporary and more distant past—our politics, our economics. But the spasm of identitarianism that we now see on the streets of Barcelona is also a reflection of the challenges facing liberal democracy throughout the West. Catalonia is not sui generis, and as such this rocky road to October 1 and beyond is relevant not just for Spain or Europe, but for the Western world as a whole.

So what is really happening here?

The independentists argue that the roots of a distinct Catalan identity dates from the time of Charlemagne’s conquest of the northern part of the Iberian Peninsula in the 9th century, with an additional hook to the War of Spanish Succession in the early 18th century— arguments well rendered recently in El Pais. But whatever the strength of this foundation, it is undeniable that Catalan identity is a construct to which many people have gravitated. That is a reality.

This gravitation has been fueled by Spain’s transition to democracy. In moving away from the legacy of the Franco regime, whose laws suppressed Catalan culture, the 1978 Constitution allowed for broad autonomy for Spain’s regions via autonomy statutes. The 1979 Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia, and especially its 2006 revision, gave the Catalonian regional government responsibility in a wide range of areas. The result has been the absence and retreat of Spanish institutions and state, most crucially in the area of education. And so as Catalonia’s identitarian narrative strengthened, connections to the framework of Spanish statehood and common belonging, which is in and of itself not contradictory to the idea of Catalanidad, weakened. The mechanisms meant to reinforce bonds between citizen and state simply were not there. This denied a bridge to Catalonia and left isolated those Catalans who, as a majority still do, identify as both Catalan and Spanish without contradiction.

Enhanced by the 2008 economic crisis, which dimmed the promise of a brighter future, increasing numbers of people in Catalonia turned not to the state but to something more primordial and tribal—something nostalgic and something that had not yet had the chance to fail them: the idea of a separate national identity. For even as the Catalan Generalitat held significant powers, it was the Spanish state that served as the symbol of power.

This is a story of Spain and its historical development, but Catalonia represents an example of a malady infecting European and American democracies—the growing disconnect between government and the governed. What is instructive about the Catalonia example is that the gap is so tangibly and brutally visible. The Spanish state has physically withdrawn from linking itself with its citizens in this autonomous region. It therefore serves as both cautionary tale and possibly a playbook for addressing the challenges facing liberal democracy everywhere.

For what we are seeing today in Catalonia is a localized strain of what is happening in the West—with Trump’s America, Le Pen’s (almost) France, Brexit, and Germany’s ascendant Alternative für Deutschland and Die Linke. The list goes on and on. Postmodernity has created a perceived (and often real) loss of agency on the part of citizens. There is a sense that they no longer control their own future. This has thinned the relationship with government that is defined more and more on what is provided (on both sides) rather than on active democratic engagement—a substitution of the transactional for the emotionally substantive.

In times of plenty this weakness can largely be painted over, but during fallow periods when government does not deliver the goods expected from a social democratic contract (explicit or implicit), such passive citizenship is devastating, for it creates fickle buy-in and a propensity for exit. These are the perfect conditions for voices playing not to rationality but to emotion to chime in. In such circumstances truth matters less than belief.

This is a dangerous moment, particularly so for rules-based liberal democracies that base their legitimacy not on myth or coercion, but on rationality. Hillary Clinton summed up her difficulties in the 2016 U.S. election thusly: “That was my problem with many voters: I skipped the venting and went straight to the solving.” But as Clinton and the British Remain campaign before her saw, “solving” on the basis of educating about facts no longer cuts it politically in today’s world.

We have seen a similar problem in the Spanish Government’s response to Catalonia’s threatened secession in the months leading up to October 1. The argument has begun, and often ended, with the point that the planned referendum violates the Constitution and is against the rule of law. This is correct. It is rational. It is central to a normal functioning liberal democratic system. It is important.

But it is not enough in a situation in which irrational nativism has overcome the already weakened bonds between citizen and state. An argument cannot simply rest on the legitimacy of law. Society’s commitment to the law itself must be bolstered. In an ideal scenario and a healthy system, this is done organically on a daily basis through interaction, engagement, and education. It is a robust and fluid relationship. It is not too late to build such a framework, but for the present moment Spain is beyond incremental approaches.

What Spain needs today is something bigger, and to get it we must move beyond the Transición. The shift from dictatorship to democracy was as improbable as it was abundant in its blessings. It has brought all of Spain unprecedented prosperity, cultural flowering, and personal growth. It is, however, an accomplishment so big that it has cast its shadow on everything that has come after. It is an accomplishment of a generation, my generation, which, like our Baby Boomer cousins in other Western democracies, has been loath to release the levers of power. What we see in Spain, and in particular in Catalonia, is a yearning by some in the younger generations, the generation of King Felipe VI, to have a Spain of their own, to control their destiny, to have political agency as robust as they sense their personal agency. At the same time a huge number of this younger generation has simply disconnected. What made the Transición a success was that it galvanized all of society, but younger Spaniards have no personal memory of that era. This is the new generation’s moment to engage and take responsibility, while it is our time to step aside.

And in this Catalonia and Spain can be an example for the world. I believe that this crisis will pass. The lies and distortions of the Catalan regional government leaders have become so manifest that it is hard to foresee a plausible move to independence this go round. But dodging this bullet must not and cannot be the end. Rather it should be the start of a national project aimed at reinforcing the ownership and hence the legitimacy of the system and the law. What form such an endeavor takes is not for me to say, but whatever it is, it must be active, genuine, and ongoing. Democracy in the 21st century is not a turnkey operation. It requires daily work by both state and citizens. Spain could be a model for this.

I fear that if we do not take this opportunity to put reason back in the driver’s seat, we will be doomed to hear much more from Otegi and much less of the brilliance of Serrat. That would be a tragedy for Catalonia, Spain, and the world.