What Catalonia Has in Common with the United States

In neither case can partisans agree on the facts.

Barcelona Spain
W Hotel and Barceloneta Beach in Barcelona, Spain (Unsplash/Benjamín Gremler)

Asked to judge such dirty tricks as spreading false information about an opponent or removing yard signs, both Democrats and Republicans in the United States are far more forgiving if their own party is to blame — and outraged if such misdeeds are perpetrated by the other side.

Partisanship colors how we interpret events. Catalonia could be another case study.


In the United States, the most divisive issue is the impeachment of Donald Trump following the revelation that he asked the Ukrainian government to investigate his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, as a “favor” in exchange for weapons. Most Democrats are scandalized and believe this warrants his removal. A majority of Republicans still don’t seem to care.

It’s the same with attitudes to the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, which had been forbidden by the Spanish Constitutional Court.

Proponents of Catalan independence dismiss the court as biased. It had, after all, overturned sections of Catalonia’s autonomy statute in 2010; a decision that precipitated mass support for the separatist cause. If the court is anti-Catalan, why take its rulings seriously?

Unionists, by contrast, have elevated the court’s decision to a sacred writ, as if the law can never be changed and the opinions of half the Catalan population are irrelevant.

What happened?

It’s not just the interpretation of events; partisans can’t even agree on the facts.

The White House has released a summary of Trump’s call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, which leaves no doubt that he asked a foreign government to investigate a domestic political opponent (which is illegal). Yet only 40 percent of Republicans believe this is what happened.

In a letter to The New York Review of Books, a Spanish economist and historian, Gabriel Tortella, writes that a million Catalans took to the streets of Barcelona after the 2017 referendum to demonstrate for unity with Spain. This never happened. At best, according to local police, tens of thousands of people turned out. But this demonstration was reported widely in the Madrid-based media, which tend to downplay much larger protests for independence.

At their peak, annual demonstrations for Catalan independence drew more than a million people to Barcelona (out of a Catalan population of 7.5 million). This year, attendance was down to perhaps 650,000. At least, according to local police. Every year, the organizers inflate the number while the Spanish government and the Spanish media go with the lowest possible estimate.

Supporters of President Trump believe the real scandal is Biden’s corruption, even though there is no evidence of it. But that is what they hear from Trump-friendly media.

When images of Catalan voters being beaten up by Spanish riot police in an attempt to prevent them from voting in the referendum came out, partisans of Spanish unity preferred to believe they were fakes, spread by separatists to smear the Spanish state, rather than accept that their side might have overreacted.

On the other hand, separatists seized on a few instances of disproportionate police violence to argue that the whole Spanish state is still instinctively Francoist.

Can the center hold?

There is some indication common sense may yet prevail in America. Since the Ukraine scandal broke, the share of Republicans and self-described independents who support impeachment has risen to 16 and 44 percent, respectively. A month ago, those figures were 10 and 34 percent.

In Catalonia, support for independence has fallen from a high of 57 percent in 2012 to 44-48 percent in this year’s polls. When the option of becoming a federal state inside a reformed Spain is added, support for independence is even back where it was before the financial crisis at 34 percent.

The tragedy is that hardliners will accept nothing less than independence anymore. Even moderate Catalan nationalists are now doubtful they will get any concessions from the rest of Spain. And the Spanish right rejects any compromise, arguing that Catalonia’s autonomy should be suspended indefinitely.