I’ve been a fan of Yascha Mounk’s Persuasion, which was founded to resist the illiberal turn in American media. The newsletter deliberately publishes analysis and commentary from across the political spectrum to make it readers think. I’ve disagreed with several pieces, and that’s the point.
This is the first time I’m disappointed by one.
Mounk has published a hit piece that makes Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a mainstream social democrat, out to be the greatest threat to Spanish democracy since Francisco Franco!
The author, journalist Maite Rico, channels the views of the Madrid establishment when she writes that the demise of Spain’s two-party system has “fragmented and paralyzed” Congress. That is half-true. There is fragmentation, but no paralysis.
I’ve argued for several years that Spain must get used to multiparty democracy. The days when the Socialists (PSOE) and conservative People’s Party (PP) could alternate in power are unlikely to return, nor should they. Two-party systems encourage parties to radicalize their supporters. Multiparty democracy engenders compromise.
Spain is still going through a transition, but Sánchez is leaning one way while Rico’s thinking goes in the other.
The social democrat presides over what Rico dismissively describes as “a coalition of small parties, some quite extreme.” That’s a good thing! Pulling the far-left Podemos (We Can) into the government has moderated the party. Rico quotes some of party leader Pablo Iglesias’ most radical statements (out of context). I’m no fan of Iglesias and supported his more pragmatic opponent for the party leadership. But it’s worth pointing out that the ponytailed former academic has traded diatribes against capitalism and NATO for a focus on bread-and-butter issues, like raising the minimum wage and lowering rents.
The Catalan Republican Left, which voted to make Sánchez prime minister but isn’t part of his government, has put secession on hold in hopes of negotiating more self-government for the region.
Sánchez has even been able to work with Vox (Voice), a far-right party, to give support to businesses hurt by the pandemic.
A minority left-wing government that is dependent on Basque and Catalan separatists will have hiccups, but what was the alternative?
Rico laments that Sánchez didn’t form “a grand coalition alongside the center-right,” but in fact the Socialists halfheartedly supported a conservative minority government for two years and it was the PP that lurched so far to the right after Sánchez became prime minister — in a transparent, and failed, bid to compete with Vox — that it made a left-right deal impossible.
Rico goes gently on the PP throughout her story.
She claims that, by 2018, “a long series of corruption scandals had discredited both of the major traditional moderate parties.” Except corruption in the PSOE had come to light many years earlier and it was the corruption scandal in the PP that precipitated Sánchez’ coming to power that year.
Rico leaves out the details: dozens of PP members were convicted of embezzlement and tax evasion for operating an illegal slush fund between 1999 and 2005 to finance the party’s political campaigns.
This is the party Sánchez ought to have formed a government with?
Like many Madrid-based journalists, Rico is unable to write dispassionately about the slow-moving independence crisis in Catalonia, which she insists has been “misconstrued by more than a few foreign correspondents.” I guess that includes me.
Unionists are keen to point out that Spain is already “highly decentralized” and that its regions have “more self-governing autonomy than anywhere else in the European Union.” That may be true now that the United Kingdom has left the EU; Scotland has more autonomy from England than Catalonia does from Madrid.
But it misses the point: the majority of Catalans want more autonomy and half would rather break away from Spain than accept the status quo. The refusal of journalists like Rico to ask why, let alone engage with Catalan demands substantively, is one reason so few Catalans feel they have a future in Spain.
Sánchez has at least promised to consider a new settlement, one that might give Catalonia the right to collect its own taxes and make home rule irrevocable. For this, Rico accuses the prime minister of putting the “unity of Spain” at risk.
The opposite is true: without a compromise, Catalan independence will only become more likely.
Over the top
Rico isn’t wrong about everything. Spain’s COVID response has been lackluster. Sánchez has relied too much on executive orders. He has continued the practice of his predecessors to appoint loyalists in nominally independent government posts.
Although I wouldn’t uncritically ape the criticisms of Spanish judges, many of whom were appointed by the PP, and who decry Sánchez’ attempts to clean up the judiciary as an “attack on the separation of powers”.
But these fair points pale in comparison to Rico’s over-the-top characterizations, from accusing Sánchez of “pathological narcissism and lack of scruples,” to comparing him to Donald Trump, to claiming he has “merged” the PSOE with the anti-system left, to incredibly attributing the prime minister’s enduring popularity to Spaniards’ exhaustion with scandal.
These aren’t serious criticisms. Persuasion can do better.