I have been trying to get my head around the peculiarly fevered and intemperate tone that passes for political debate in much of the democratic world these days, and particularly in some of the countries I know best: the UK, the US and Spain. Not long ago, it would have seemed inconceivable for a British conservative journalist to accuse a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer of treason, especially if the deemed treachery appeared to be reluctance to increase the government deficit for some ill-specified contingency fund. Obviously, this charge was levelled on Twitter. Similarly, Donald Trump has dragged American political discourse to a place where denying the sitting President's place of birth, as he did until this time last year, appears borderline sane. Everywhere you look people are not just disagreeing about politics, but accusing each other of stupidity, insanity, sabotage, sedition, disloyalty and elitism. Especially, but not only, on Twitter.
Nowhere is this more true than in Spain, where in short order the long-running dispute over the relative powers and fiscal arrangements between Catalonia and the Spanish central government has spiralled into police brutality, a unilateral declaration of independence (albeit apparently suspended) and a threat from Madrid to invoke an emergency clause of the constitution to suspend Catalonia's institutions of self-government. The merits of the case for or against Catalan independence are complex and can be left for another post. Here I want to focus instead on the way people are talking about the issue: with barely concealed frustration and incomprehension of the reasons of the other side.
The President of the Catalan government Puigdemont claims to have a mandate to declare independence on the basis of a vote declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court, held with unclear procedures, alleged opportunities to vote multiple times, and most of the electorate not taking part. Polling suggests between 40-50% of Catalans favour independence, and around a third of Catalans vote for parties that are firmly against the very idea. Yet suggestions that unilateral secession might be politically and legally problematic are often dismissed with a wave of the hand and irate reminders of Catalonia's long history of subjugation to Spain, Woodrow Wilson's 14 points, and appeals to the 'dignity of nations'.
Mariano Rajoy, and unfortunately the King of Spain, seem to think that invoking a constitution drawn up four decades ago in the shadow of Basque insurgency and a twitchy military obsessed with the unity of Spain is the only possible framework for dealing with the country's fast evolving political moods. Since this framework does not allow a self-determination referendum to take place, the strong support for such a vote in Catalonia was dismissed as illegal. Worse, police were sent in to confiscate ballot boxes, and there were reports of hundreds of people injured, a small number seriously. The pictures made grim viewing. Yet, the King's crude and obtuse speech on the day after the vote offered no solace to around two million Catalans who are prepared to march, vote and defy the truncheons in pursuit of their dream. Instead, he accused the Catalan institutions of 'disloyalty'.
Not only has political debate become absurdly polarized, the politicians throwing abuse at each other almost seem to be colluding to make each other's task easier. Both sides of this debate appear more than ready to invoke the horrors of the Spanish Civil War to score a political point. Last week a conservative politician reminded Puigdemont of the fate of the last Catalan leader to invoke independence: Lluis Companys was tortured and killed in a Francoist prison 77 years ago. The Catalan Left party, of course, organized an event to commemorate Companys' murder, held today. Intellectuals do no better: some of the contributions from social scientists have shown scant interest in sober rigorous analysis (no links, for reasons I hope you understand).
Spain's transition to democracy in the 1970s was based around a determination on the part of the leading politicians of the time to avoid a return to conflict. Political scientists described the transition process as an example of 'consociationalism', a concept coined by Arend Lijphart to describe post-war democracy in the Netherlands. In a consociational democracy, political elites work to overcome social divisions by establishing stable patterns of power-sharing between different groups, absorbing political tension and downplaying differences between the groups to avert open conflict. Politics becomes a way of weakening social conflict and institutionalizing cooperation between people who may have little in common. A good recent example of such arrangements is Northern Ireland, which is facing its own pressures as Brexit threatens to unravel its consociational model.
But what we are seeing in Spain in 2017, and indeed across many of our democracies, is the opposite: what we may as well call 'dissociationalism'. Rather than working to absorb and channel conflictual impulses in society, politicians such as Rajoy and Puigdemont are mobilizing, exaggerating and magnifying conflict. Catalan nationalism, almost exclusively peaceful, has long paraded flags and other symbols of identity inside Catalonia. But the spiralling of the independence dispute has lead to a corresponding surge of nationalistic symbolism in the rest of Spain. The photo below was sent to me by a friend in Madrid. In thirty years I have never seen Spanish flags hanging from balconies in the capital.
Why is this happening? In part, real social divisions are present and they have been made more acute by the deep economic crisis afflicting Spain and most other democracies. In hard times, there is no money to smooth differences, and everyone feels put upon (Catalans, in particular, feel aggrieved by their fiscal surplus with Spain). But politicians are also deliberately mobilizing these divisions for electoral gain: for example, the former Catalan nationalist leader Artur Mas, on the eve of his shift to a pro-independence position, was offering his parties' votes to Rajoy's Partido Popular in the Spanish Congress in exchange for reciprocal support in the Catalan Parliament. His volte-face in September 2012, abandoning compromise with the Spanish right and opting for independence, was a political calculation which in turn had dramatic effects on wider support for independence in Catalonia, as we see below.
The weakness of incumbent elites - the mainstream Catalan nationalist coalition which has governed Catalonia for most of the period from the first autonomous elections in 1980 until now has haemorraged support over the past decade - is an important reason for the increasingly conflictual nature of their discourse. Consociationalism, to be successful, requires strong political parties, cultural associations, and trade unions to act as 'pillars' holding together social groups in such a way as to allow elites to make compromises on their behalf. Unfortunately political parties and other organizations in western democracies are increasingly fragile and distant from their constituents. Having to preside over economic decline weakens them further, and mobilizing resentment becomes first a temptation, and then a necessity as radical insurgent parties outbid them from the extremes. The Catalan nationalist leadership, like the Partido Popular in the rest of Spain, has become embroiled in a series of major corruption scandals over the past decade, creating a strong incentive to shift voter anger away from politicians and onto out-groups to shore up support.
Going for the politics of dissociation is a short-sighted strategy. Like Brexit or Trump's promises to Make America Great Again, Catalonia's pro-independence movement is unlikely to produce any miracles. Even should a majority of Catalans support it, and even if the rest of Spain agrees to a painless separation (and there is no indication that will happen), sorting out the logistics and international ramifications of such a shift would be difficult if not intractable, and undoubtedly painful. More than a dozen companies have hastily moved their corporate headquarters out of Catalonia in the past week. If things escalate, jobs and capital will follow the paperwork. At that point, politicians will have to either step back from the brink and lose face, or engage in a chicken game strategy in the hope their opponents will back down. And there is not much comfort to be had from the history books if that happens.