In Spain, patriotism is back in fashion. It’s neither the old National-Catholicism of Francisco Franco’s right-wing dictatorship nor the flag-waving rhetoric of the conservative Popular Party of the current Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy. Spain’s new patriots are the leaders and voters of Podemos, the left populist party that is trying to shake the foundations of the nation’s political system.
Podemos seeks to reclaim patriotism for progressive ends. This is a novelty in a country still haunted by crimes that Franco perpetrated in the name of the “patria”—such as the 20,000 killed by his regime, after the civil war of the late 1930s ended. Even after Franco died, the Spanish left shunned the use of such national symbols as the country’s red-and-yellow flag and sometimes even the name of the country itself. In so doing, progressives emulated Germans after Hitler rather than France, with its long and consensual republican tradition. What’s more, millions of Spanish citizens don’t identify as Spanish but as Catalan or Basque.
But Podemos is trying to stir up a new kind of national spirit. Last January, speaking at a huge demonstration in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, the capital’s central square, General Secretary Pablo Iglesias drew a genealogy of the new, left-wing version of patriotism. He mentioned four historical moments: the day in 1808 when Madrileños rebelled against Napoleon’s occupying troops; the Second Republic of the 1930s when “there were people who dreamt about a modern and democratic Spain where there would be no differences between men and women”; the resistance during the Franco years, when “young students and workers put everything at stake for the dignity of our country”; and, finally, May 2011 when the indignados (the young rebels who helped inspire Occupy Wall Street) screamed “They don’t represent us!” at the political establishment. To “say ‘patria’ with pride,” Iglesias declared during a 2013 televised interview, “is a question that goes beyond left and right. . . . This is about being patriotic and being decent, and in this country no government has been either patriotic or decent.”
Nationalism is being reasserted everywhere in Europe today. Insurgent parties on both the left and right share a desire for sovereignty and share a deep mistrust of the European Union and its bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels. Across the ideological spectrum—from Syriza in Greece to UKIP in Great Britain—there is a determination to be governed by “us,” not by “them.”
But how they define those two little words makes all the difference. UKIP draws from a strong tradition of Euroskepticism in the British Isles. In France, the National Front belongs to a long history of anti-immigrant, racist groups one can trace as far back as the Dreyfus Affair at the end of the nineteenth century. But for Podemos, “us” is not merely “the Spanish” but also “those under” the established elites—“la casta” or “the caste.” For Podemos, patriotism rhymes with a class-conscious populism. We are the people, they claim, the true patriots. We don’t follow those who steal and are corrupt, who stash their money in secret Swiss bank accounts, who evict homeowners unable to pay their mortgages, who outsource our economic policy to Brussels or Frankfurt, Berlin or Wall Street.
The young party officials who crafted this discourse are all, by training, political scientists. Iglesias, Iñigo Errejón, and Juan Carlos Monedero all have PhDs. All but Monedero are under forty. All have taught at Madrid’s Universidad Complutense, a bastion of left-wing scholarship and activism. They have taken concepts like hegemony from Antonio Gramsci, the renowed Italian Communist who died in one of Mussolini’s prisons, and Argentinian philosopher Ernesto Laclau, who died last year in Spain. For these Podemos leaders, hegemony, a key term in Gramsci’s work, does not mean domination but the ability to build alliances and to turn a minority position into a majority one. From Laclau, they learned to reverse the pejorative notion of “populism” as a synonym for demagogy, bigotry, and authoritarian rule. “Populism doesn’t have a specific content,” said Laclau in 2005, “it is . . . a way of articulating diverse demands, a way of constructing the political sphere.” He declared that “[p]opulism, far from being an obstacle, guarantees democracy, and prevents it from becoming just something to be managed.”
These ideas have great practical value for Iglesias and his fellow leaders. They recognize that a leftist party of the traditional kind cannot win a majority in Spain. Thus, Podemos seeks to broaden its appeal with rhetoric about the casta versus the people. The party is certainly on the left: its economic proposals include a tax on financial transactions, the creation of a public bank, a 35-hour workweek, and higher income taxes on the wealthy. But it rejects the categories of left and right in favor of those below versus those on top. This dichotomy is framing the political debate in Spain. And after all, the framing is brilliant. Who wants to belong to the caste?
The rise of Podemos and the popularity of its rhetoric is a logical consequence of three intersecting crises that have rocked Spanish society in recent years. First, the Great Recession that began in 2008 continues to rage; at the end of 2014, Spain’s unemployment rate exceeded 23 percent, and more than half of all young people were without a job. According to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of people have been evicted from their homes since 2007.
The second crisis is territorial. Franco’s Spain not only suppressed political dissent, it also persecuted Spain’s minority cultures and regions. After Franco died, the democratic constitution of 1978 created a system that gave regional governments autonomy over education and health care. Catalans and Basques also took control of their police forces.
But the survival of this system is now in doubt. Centralists claim that Spain has devolved too much power to the regions. For their part, Catalans protest that they are at an economic disadvantage because, being more prosperous than other regions, they pay more to the central government than they receive from it. Many also resent the authorities in Madrid for partially repealing a regional constitution approved by popular vote in 2006. The government in Catalonia is pushing to hold a vote to secede from the country.
The third crisis is institutional. The rise of Podemos has helped catalyze widespread dissatisfaction with the parliamentary order set up in 1978, after Franco’s death. The new constitution established a parliamentary monarchy and made possible the emergence of the two-party system, in which either the Socialists or the Popular Party would govern the nation.
The economic crisis has intersected with and greatly exacerbated the other two crises. Spain’s peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy no longer looks like the immaculate model that once inspired Latin American and Eastern European countries but a myth that hides bitter concessions to Franco’s heirs. A rapid process of reconciliation prevented the nation from a public airing of Franco’s crimes or bringing any of his henchmen to justice.
Spain is no longer a success story. The old institutions and parties appear stagnant and corrupt. The territorial compact seems obsolete and unable to hold the distinct parts of the country together. And to many if not most Spaniards, the European community has ceased to be the solution and is now in fact the problem. Instead of the road up to prosperity, the Brussels Union is now viewed as a rocky path to austerity, to cuts in the welfare state, and to a stubbornly high rate of unemployment.
While Podemos is growing, it remains something of an enigma. The party was only founded in early 2014 and thus has a thin structure, no mass membership, nor a link to the labor movement, which other forces of the left—the Socialist Workers Party or the Communist Party—possessed. While its growth has been impressive—it won 1.2 million votes in the European Parliament elections of May 2014—it has yet to govern any big city or region. To date, it has run candidates in just three elections: those in 2014, in Andalusia this March, and in municipal and regional elections this May. In the May election, the new left obtained huge gains in the two largest cities of Spain, Madrid and Barcelona. A coalition of several progressive forces, among them Podemos, won the local election in Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia. In Madrid, another coalition including Podemos came in second place to the PP, but can govern in an alliance with the Socialist Party. These elections also gave, for the first time, seats to Podemos in thirteen regional parliaments, even though the party itself didn’t win.
It is not clear whether Podemos will turn out to be a governing party like Syriza in Greece or a flash-in-the-pan like Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian whose meteoric movement was soundly defeated in the 2014 European elections. The window of opportunity for Podemos may be small: when the economic crisis finally ends and the anger of voters cools, it could be too late. The first serious crisis erupted in late April, when Monedero left the leadership of the party because of his disagreement with Iglesias’ strategy and Podemos’ pragmatic turn.
The party’s agenda is an enigma as well. As of this writing, Podemos had not yet published an electoral program. Are Iglesias and his fellow leaders Marxists? Peronistas? Social democrats? Do they want to abolish the Spanish modern democracy, founded after Franco’s death, or just tinker with it? Are they revolutionaries or reformists?
Podemos certainly appears to be capable of developing beyond being just a protest movement. Its young, academically trained leaders perform well on TV talk shows, both as hosts and as interview subjects. Imagine Rachel Maddow helping to run a national party. They have brought fresh air to a stale political scene. Prime Minister Rajoy is sixty years old and has been politically prominent for a quarter-century. He rarely gives press conferences or makes other kinds of unscripted appearances. Meanwhile, the Socialists have been unable to find a leader since Felipe González who can fire up their constituents. And González, now in his seventies, last served as Prime Minister almost two decades ago.
In fact, Pablo Iglesias is often compared to González as a twenty-first-century version of the former socialist leader who first took the reins of government in 1982. Young and eloquent, innovative and progressive, they both herald a new era of politics; both strike fear in large sectors of the political and financial establishment. González was forty when he won his first election; Iglesias (who, ironically, has the same name and surname as the man who founded the Spanish Socialist Party in 1879) is thirty-six.
But during a visit to Washington in March, González underlined an important difference with the Podemos leaders—whom he called “these youngsters.” He pointed out that some founders of the new party began their political careers far to his left: several belonged to Communist organizations and had close links to the Venezuelan regime established by Hugo Chávez and now run by Nicolás Maduro. Opponents of Podemos have accused it of having been being financed, in part, by Venezuela. As González mentioned, they are now rushing to disavow those affiliations. “I was never ashamed of joining . . . my political fate with Willy Brandt, or with Olof Palme. I thought it was fine,” the older Socialist declared.
Iglesias and his colleagues know that any link to radicals in a struggling, poor nation like Venezuela doesn’t sit well with most Spaniards. When they dream about a brighter future, they do not look to South America but to Europe, even as they have soured on the bureaucrats in Brussels. So, in recent months, Podemos has unveiled economic proposals that sound more like the then visionary social democratic ones espoused by Felipe González in 1982 than those of Nicolás Maduro in 2015. That doesn’t prevent the new party, however, from scorning the Socialists as members of the “casta.”
Whatever their future may be, the young patriots of Podemos have rushed to the center of Spain’s political and policy debates. The party articulately expresses anger against the established system but also the hope that another model is possible. After the great recession hit in 2008, only one political project had done that: the independence movement in Catalonia, but of course, only for the citizens of that region. Because Podemos is attempting to represent the same hope, and that too for the entire country, many independence activists view its presence in Catalonia with great suspicion. Don’t be fooled by their promises to grant greater autonomy, they tell other Catalans. Podemos is just as fierce a defender of a united Spanish nation as are the two old governing parties.
A parallel expression of the malaise with the political establishment is the emergence of another young party—Ciudadanos, or Citizens—which was originally founded in 2006 in Catalonia as a firm opponent of regional secession. Now, as a national party, it offers a centrist alternative to the two old parties that are both patriotic and for the free-market. Its very name allows younger but conservative Spaniards to feel proud of their country without the rancid connotations that the Popular Party—the heir of a party founded by Francoist officials after the dictator’s death—still has for many citizens who lean right or hover at the center.
The next general election in Spain may take place this coming fall. The Popular Party and the Socialists are still big parties with solid cores of support. Spain, as a nation-state, is also more stable than supporters of Catalan independence may wish. But Podemos has already changed the vocabulary and style of the nation’s politics—and, perhaps, altered what it means to be a proud citizen of Spain.
Marc Bassets is the U.S. bureau chief for the Spanish newspaper El País.