I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the political crisis between Madrid and Barcelona while I was here. However, for someone who’s only been in Spain five weeks, it’s almost impossible to write a truly cogent opinion piece about the Catalonian referendum for independence. At the same time, it is impossible to ignore it. The tension, confusion and growing nationalism is literally palpable. As someone born and raised in the southern United States (Birmingham, Alabama), I’m wary of any kind of hardline secessionist movement. Of course, the American Civil War is a different case entirely. The Confederate States broke away from the Union to try to preserve an evil institution of slavery. Obviously, Catalonia’s reasons are vastly different, but if I’m being honest I don’t think the independence movement is a good idea. Most economists agree, at least in the short term, that neither Catalonia nor Spain would be better off without the other. At the same time, I’m also not in favor of the government’s violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and voters during the October 1st referendum.
As both sides dig in their heals, nationalism is on the rise throughout all of Spain. Just a few days ago, during a pro-unity rally in Barcelona, demonstrators carried flags from the Franco era and were even photographed giving the infamous fascist salute. My host father thinks the entire confrontation is political theater designed to gain President Rajoy and his Partido Popular (the conservative majority party) a broader power base. Though I certainly don’t think the referendum is manufactured (it is, after all, a social movement), my host father’s not wrong about a sudden rise in Spanish pride. When I arrived in Madrid in early September, there were almost no Spanish flags displayed in public. Now I can’t walk down a city block without seeing dozens of them flapping from the balconies. The same is true in Barcelona, where Catalonia’s primary reason for independence seems to boil down to: We are Catalonia, different from Spain. Nationalism anywhere is corrosive to open, democratic societies—its nature is to exclude one group by uplifting another. I see its divisive effects in my home country with a mentality that says “Make America Great Again.” The same kind of nationalism and short-sightedness that led to the American Civil War—the scars of which still linger in Confederate monuments and in white nationalist marches such as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Despite this spike in nationalism, almost everyone I talk to, whether they be Spanish or Catalonian, seems deeply disillusioned with the political leadership. This, I believe, is what’s really gnawing away at Spanish democracy and, to a larger extent, democracies throughout the world. Call it political lethargy or public apathy, call it what you want, no one has any faith that the elected officials represent the people anymore. Because they don’t. The political class, both in Spain, the United States, and many other countries, has become oligarchical. They enjoy privileges and benefits that the common citizen could only dream of. For instance, in Spain many politicians have a special protection known as aforamiento, which states that they are immune to prosecution in the lower courts (they can only be tried by the highest court in their region or by the Spanish Supreme Court). Furthermore, former ex-Prime Ministers receive lifelong salaries as well as two assistants and many additional stipends for office costs, rent and other “needs.” In the United States, politicians of every ilk receive taxpayer-subsidized healthcare (a right still denied to their constituents). Even worse, there is no limit to the amount of money that U.S. Senators and Congressmen can make off of insider trading (a federal crime for U.S. citizens). In return for all these perks, the tax-paying citizen receives “representation,” which in the age of the Internet and instantaneous communication is absolutely useless. What we’re witnessing now is an out-of-date system of government struggling to function in a much faster world where it’s easier than ever to rig elections, buy politicians, spuriously finance campaigns, and divide the public through a plethora of distorted facts and outright lies. Catalonians and Spaniards should understand that the enemy is not each other but rather their corrupt and bloated “representatives” which try to divide them. Spain has always been, and always will be, a patchwork of diverse cultures and kingdoms. It’s time for the country to embrace this multicultural history, instead of fracturing into ever smaller city-states. What Spain needs is not a new country but rather a new democracy.