21 November 2011

Spain Votes: an omen for the U.S.?

After giving the international movement against austerity the nearest thing it has to a common name (the "indignados"), Spain may have surprised the world this weekend when it reacted to severe unemployment and debt by giving an absolute majority in its parliamentary elections to the conservative People's Party. The ruling socialist government was soundly repudiated, while some leftist parties increased their representation in the national legislature, presumably at the former ruling party's expense. It might be argued that the Spanish people have voted for austerity, but they were probably going to get austerity no matter whom they chose. What more did they get, then, by making a two-time loser their next prime minister? The new leader is described as a "social conservative" and an "economic liberal," though in that context liberal probably means "neo-liberal" as in laissez-faire and free trade. The People's Party has an "Atlanticist" orientation that looks to the U.S. for global leadership, but unlike American Republicans, the PP has little tolerance for secessionist sentiments or rhetoric -- they're nationalists opposed to greater autonomy for the Basque and Catalan regions of the country. As a rule, we should expect European conservatives to eschew the anti-statist attitudes of their presumed American counterparts, since they tap into older political traditions in which conservatives above all upheld the power and dignity of the state. While they may be expected to uphold free markets as well, they should be less likely to assume the incompatibility of market and state than the more pathological American rightists. Nevertheless, presuming that the winning party's name fooled no one, Spanish voters have not turned left, and it's unclear to what extent they've turned at all. To the extent that Spain is an effective bipolarchy, with only two major parties realistically capable of forming a government, voters there may have done just as Americans tend to do, which is to blame the ruling party for national failure and endorse the strongest opposition party for no better reason than convenience.   The existence of an "official" opposition requires little imagination of voters, since the someone else who can presumably do the job better than the incumbent, it also being presumed that no one can do worse, is always readily at hand. The complacent assurance that there's always the Republicans in the U.S., or always the People's Party in Spain -- though that party actually dates back only to 1989 -- may limit a republic's (or a parliamentary monarch's) capacity for political innovation, and may prove a self-reinforcing handicap, since the most likely response to PP or GOP failure will be recourse to each country's official opposition. The one thing that can be said with certainty about Spain is that Spanish voters failed to think outside the box despite their economic crisis. Sadly, Americans seem no more likely to do so next year.

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