“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs...”
Rudyard Kipling, English poet
Just who do the Spanish think they are? Look at them, so vain, boasting about how terrible their politicians are, feeling like they own a title deed on mediocrity. Don’t they realize that in the sport of cheap populism, irresponsibility and sheer stupidity, they simply cannot compete on the international stage? Can’t they see that their old inferiority complex with regard to the United States, England and indeed all of Europe makes no sense anymore?
The time has come for them to do a reboot. Ever since the British plebiscide, as the referendum on EU permanence is also known, I have made the London-Spain trip three times. And every time, I have had the same conversation.
“How sad, the result of the referendum, such madness. But of course, we are worse here in Spain, because our politicians...well, you know,” the locals always tell me. “What?” is my reply. “Don’t you realize that compared with what we are seeing today in the US election campaign, compared with what we saw in the Brexit campaign, compared with the demagoguery that is sinking so deep in the populations of France, Germany, the Netherlands and Austria, the political climate in Spain is a shining model of tolerance, respect, civilized manners and temperance? Please!”
I will admit that Spanish politics are boring — it’s like Groundhog Day, just not as funny. But boredom is a virtue when you witness the collective hysterics displayed by followers of the potential next president of the United States, Donald Trump, or by supporters of his political cousin from England, the europhobe Nigel Farage (although, to be fair, Farage traveled to Trump’s coronation at the Republican Convention in Cleveland and confessed that, for the first time in his life, he felt “left-wing”).
It is also true that the winner of the two general elections held in Spain in the last few months (and almost certainly the winner of a third election, if it comes to pass) is a notoriously corrupt party. But Spaniards should not feel too special in this department, either, or consider that their own system favors impunity as much as many people like to think. In Spain, the king’s sister has had to answer to charges of tax crimes inside a court of law. In England, Prince Andrew, the queen’s son, has been involved in all kinds of instances of power abuse and shady dealings with dictatorial regimes such as Kazakhstan’s, yet it never crossed anybody’s mind to make him give explanations to a judge.
Yes, it’s true that there is matter for debate here, but the most relevant point of all is this: campaigns in Spain have shown a degree of maturity and sobriety that most countries in the world, but most especially the US, should be envious of. Debates between the candidates, for instance, did not stand out for their use of personal insults and lies, but were based instead on the dissection of each nominee’s different policies, almost always relying on data that was not too far off from reality.
In the US, most particularly, hard data is losing traction in the political debate. Barack Obama proved that he is living in the past when he complained that Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention was not based on facts. It is true that Trump’s portrayal of a nation sunk in criminal violence does not fit reality; it is true that crime rates have dropped ever since Obama became president; it is true that the number of homicides in New York was 352 in 2015, compared with 2,245 in 1990, a proportional drop that reflects national trends throughout this period. But none of it matters. Trump appeals solely to feelings and prejudices. The voters who see Trump as a redeemer are immune to lies, just like the English majority that voted for Brexit.
Trump says: let’s build a wall, let’s deny Muslims access to the United States, let’s turn our backs on NATO, let’s trust Vladimir Putin more than we trust Hillary Clinton, believe in me and the US will be a healthy and prosperous nation once again. These are not workable policies, these are childish impulses. The Trump phenomenon is a personality cult. The people who see a hero in Trump are immune to reason, just like when one falls madly in love, he or she becomes blind to the loved one’s faults.
It is sometimes said that there is a personality cult around Pablo Iglesias. But first of all, the leader of Podemos has come nowhere even close to capturing the imagination of half of the country’s voters, the way Trump has; and second, it would be absurd to compare him with a hyper-narcissistic tycoon who defines himself as a champion of outsiders. Iglesias is intelligent and cultivated, he proposes debatable policies that are not based on some hallucinogenic vision of the world, and he speaks like an adult, using complete sentences, generally not in the first person. Iglesias is often written off as a populist, but he is the epitome of good sense, temperance, pragmatism and rational thought compared with the man who could be in charge of the the most fearsome nuclear arsenal on earth, just six months from now.
Next to Trump, so is Mariano Rajoy. The head of the caretaker government and of the Popular Party can be accused of many things, but being a populist is not one of them. He is the anti-demagogue to end all anti-demagogues. He does little and says nothing. The Spanish left detests him, but he is no Trump, no Farage, no Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National party in France. Even Podemos voters would vote for Rajoy before voting for any one of those three.
All of which leads us to the most irrefutable argument of all against the idea held by Spaniards that their political class is exceptionally mediocre: none of the four main parties in Spain has appealed to racism or xenophobia to win votes. Yet the conditions were there for such a party to emerge. There has been a lot of indignation, a lot of immigration and a lot of unemployment. But unlike what we are seeing elsewhere in the wealthy Western world, there is none of that in Spain, which is a veritable island of decency surrounded by a sea of meanness. One cannot say too often how admirable this is, or what it says about the singularity of Spain’s politicians, and above all about the generosity of the citizens they represent – no matter how much they insist on being hard on themselves.
English version by Susana Urra.