MADRID — Two Spanish factions — the far left, whose agenda includes cultural aggression, and Catalonia’s secessionists — are playing with fire. Santiago Abascal is the fire.
His party’s name — Vox (Voice) — proclaims that it exists to speak for those who think their beliefs have become not just embattled but unutterable. Those beliefs — about nationalism, marriage, immigration, schooling and even bullfighting and hunting — have lost ground in the democratic competition of Spain’s rowdy marketplace of ideas. This does not assuage their sense of grievance because they think the public forum unfairly privileges other voices. Sound familiar, America?
Vox is a counteroffensive that probably will, and perhaps should, mostly fail in cultural matters. But the party might serve Spain’s democratic stability as a safety valve for venting disappointments.
Normal political preoccupations — economics, health care, etc. — have been for Vox markedly less salient than the challenge to Spain’s unity coming from one of Spain’s 17 regions. In the 2016 general election, Vox won just 0.2 percent of the vote. But Catalonia’s illegal independence referendum of Oct. 1, 2017, ignited indignation that propelled Vox from the fringe to the center of Spanish politics. Today it has the third-most seats in parliament.
With piercing eyes, a trim beard and a rapid-fire delivery of his molten convictions, Abascal, 43, has the charisma of indignation incarnate. His bodyguards function partly to fend off supporters, but he has had protection since he was 18 and his parents were targeted by Basque separatists who burned their store. Basque terrorists killed more than 850 people in a failed campaign to fracture the nation.
Striding across his office to this nation’s flag, he explains Spain’s long-standing unity as attested by the flag’s complex coat of arms. No nation’s politics are more history-haunted than Spain’s. An early clash of civilizations between Christendom and Islam occurred on the Iberian Peninsula. As Tobias Buck writes in “After the Fall: Crisis, Recovery and the Making of a New Spain,” Spain’s golden age was 500 years ago. Spain’s 19th century began with the Napoleonic wars’ hideous carnage and ended with the humiliation of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The viciousness of the 1936-1939 civil war was followed by the suffocation of politics, and as Buck says, when the dictator Francisco Franco died in 1975, “Spain formed part of Europe in geographical terms only.”
Today, Spain has the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy, with a per capita income approaching Italy’s. Spain’s population of 40 million in 1999 became 47 million by 2010, almost entirely because of immigration: Non-Spaniards increased eightfold, from 750,000 to 5.75 million — from 2 percent to more than 12 percent of the population, an amazing influx amazingly well accommodated. The percentage of Spaniards wanting fewer immigrants is Europe’s lowest; the percentage wanting more is Europe’s highest. If Vox were primarily selling xenophobia, it would not matter.
Here, as in the United States, schools cause resentments: Abascal seethes about the way he says young Spaniards are taught their nation’s history as a series of atrocities and debacles — that Iberia was harmonious until the 700-year Christian “Reconquista” against Islam; Spain’s overseas undertakings brought only disease and despoliation to the New World; all was well in the 20th century until the military and the right rose against the republic in 1936.Many of Abascal’s rhetorical flights — against the European Union’s “globalists” (although Vox does not advocate Spain exiting the E.U.), against Spaniards “threatening to impoverish and Islamicize us,” against “supremacist feminism,” etc. — do not resonate with the nation’s temperate majority. And the leader of the respectable center-right People’s Party has accused Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez of being “the Trojan Horse” to “destroy the state.” because Sánchez this month formed his coalition government relying on Catalan and Basque separatist parties. His main coalition party is as far left as Vox is right.
Like many evangelical Christians recoiling against U.S. cultural ferments, many Vox voters are disoriented by Spain’s transformation, which has been swift and accompanied by minimal rancor. Spain was among the first nations to adopt same-sex marriage — in 2005, and not, as in the United States in 2015, by judicial fiat but by legislation. Spain abolished capital punishment before France did.
Abascal is not the cause of Spain’s social fissures any more than Donald Trump caused America’s. In democracies, when a substantial faction of voters has been provoked, this will bring forth provocative leaders. But temperate Spain is not dry tinder that will catch fire from sparks coming off Abascal’s flinty persona.