Salvo 08.01.2023 6 minutes

The Spanish Left (and Right) Baits the Bull


Spain's conservatives seem to be on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

On Sunday, July 23, Spain’s conservatives had the wind at their backs. After five years of (mis)rule under socialist Pedro Sánchez, highly publicized polling predicted a sweep of Spain’s Cortes by the center-right Partido Popular and harder-right VOX, as well as the investiture of a conservative Prime Minister, Alberto Núñez Feijóo of the PP. Spain’s average annual wages, even before adjusting for rampant inflation and loss of purchasing power, were down over 2,000 Euros from 2019 to 2022, and the unemployment rate was hovering near 13 percent, with the youth unemployment rate closer to 28 percent. But much like the American 2022 midterm’s vaunted yet failed “red wave,” Spain’s conservative sweep, by the early hours of July 24, looked like a fever dream. As of this writing, the election results are a stalemate; that is, the socialist Left is just as likely as the conservatives to form a coalition, and barring either of those outcomes a new election cycle is imminent.

What the hell happened? In so many words, Spain’s animal-loving Left, despite its declared principles, masterfully baited the Right’s bull as it stormed into the arena—with a large assist, of course, from the establishment media. For American readers, the huge Spanish conservative whiff with bases loaded may seem irrelevant. It isn’t. Indeed, a careful analysis of Spain’s elections suggests a series of dos and don’ts from which the American Right must learn, lest America’s coming elections follow Spain’s example.

Firstly, American voters must beware the establishment media spin—both in terms of disinformation from left-liberal and right-liberal media outlets as well as from dubious polling affirming the former. The media pushed the narrative that if only Spain’s conservatives would become more “moderate”—especially on culture war issues—then they would handily defeat the economy-ruining socialists of the PSOE. This appeal for moderation, which Feijóo slavishly obeyed, put all conservatives—including, unfortunately, the dissident Right VOX—on the defensive. The onus was constantly on conservatives to prove they were not homophobic, not xenophobic, and not crypto-fascists enamored of Spain’s long-deceased dictator, Francisco Franco. By comparison, the ruling socialists were rarely—if ever—compelled to denounce the Hugo Chavez-inspired communists—formerly PODEMOS, now rebranded SUMAR to obscure its ignominious origins—or, for that matter, the radical and sometimes terrorist forces of Basque and Catalan separatism.

Each of these groups had formed coalition governments with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s socialists over the past five years, without apologies. The GOP’s lesson from Spain is to beware Democratic incantations about a “moderate” or non-MAGA GOP with which they can “work” and “find common ground.” All such “compromise” or “meeting in the middle” will be unidirectional; what is more, as the data about Spanish voting potentially suggests (see my colleague Carlos Perona’s incisive piece), appeals to a “reasonable” or “moderate” Right kill two birds with one stone: they not only put conservatives on the defensive but also demoralize the much-maligned conservative base voters who might not show up to vote for a “squish” or RINO.

As dissident Right VOX leader Santiago Abascal has stated, poorly conducted—if not outright manipulated—polls suggesting that Feijóo was a shoo-in to become the Prime Minister gave supporters an excuse not to bother showing up at the polls. Of the 600,000 voters who didn’t vote for VOX compared to 2019, just as many may have not shown up to the polls as did switch their votes to the “safer” moderate PP.

Even if Trump’s 2024 electability is an issue—and it certainly is—beware media speculation that a candidate who is softer on culture war issues stands a better chance. In the end, they will still be called a MAGA extremist, just as Feijóo continually had to waive his antifascist credentials. When the Left calls for moderation, all it amounts to in practice is the Left firing up its base with impunity while the Right masochistically devours its own. As former VOX MP Francisco Contreras put it:

The Partido Popular thought it could win with the same buzz words as always: the economy and the “useful vote.” They don’t understand that man doesn’t live on bread alone. And then the left comes and wins launching a campaign about “equality,” “climate emergency” and men’s assault of women (violencia machista)…. It’s [about] the culture, stupid. The same one they [conservatives] surrendered to the left.

We already know what this looks like in practice in America, because we’ve seen it before: Democrats marching with Black Lives Matter, waving rainbow flags and trans-oriented kids’ books, and lauding abortion as healthcare while the Right talks about tax cuts, upgrades to the military, and a long-term plan to balance the budget by reforming Social Security and Medicare.

This is how the Spanish Left baits the bull. If one believes in the cynical supposition of Patrick Deneen and his post-liberal cohort that American—and to some extent Western democratic politics writ large—is largely a debate confined to “liberal” circles, with economic liberals on the Right and social liberals on the Left, and each aiding the other under the auspices of progress, then Spain’s elections were also revelatory for their verdict on the (post)liberal question.

A mere day before the Spanish elections, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board was lauding Spain’s “lesson” for Europe and America—that a libertarian-style small government message was just what the doctor ordered to cure the malady of right-wing populism and the lost elections they bring. The same paper disingenuously continued to argue that the moderate PP had achieved a victory of sorts against the “far right” and its “copycat” schemes of right-wing style welfare-state redistribution and protectionism, even after the failure became clear.

As Carlos Perona and others have noted, Spain’s VOX—like America’s GOP and the European Right—is divided over economic policy, with economic liberals vying for turf with economic nationalists. Just as Spain’s dissident Right must prove its anti-phobia bona fides to the Left, it must also prove its “pro-market” bona fides to the libertarian-inflected establishment Right. What VOX tried—and arguably failed to do—was to thread the needle by rebranding economic liberalism as a kind of populism.

Tax cuts and deregulation are logical when it comes to energy independence or housing construction, but less so on issues like a living wage or the reshoring of manufacturing. As with the baiting by the Left, the results are much the same: an arguably demoralized working-class voter who fails to show up on election day or casts his lot with the identitarian Left over a few toothless pieties about labor rights. What is more, such negotiation tactics, yet another form of “moderation,” fail, as Perona points out, to build a new voting bloc from the ashes of the old Left and the declining middle class.

If VOX’s messaging on economics was mixed, and if this part-liberal, part-statist mishmash contributed to the party’s lackluster performance on July 23, this would suggest that post-liberal political instincts are correct. The conservative movement’s potential not only to hold but gain market share lies in cultivating a new working-class coalition, not in chasing the remnants of “moderate” voters that are both fewer and, in cultural terms, much further to the Left than they’ve ever been.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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