The Catalan Vote: Mobilization and Identity

The voting in Catalonia was a trap for Spain’s political leadership in Madrid. They were going to be criticized if they ignored the vote and also if they tried to stop it. Moreover, shunting responsibility for dealing with the crisis on the courts and the police as institutions was no way out. Ultimately, institutions are about people and not just words on a piece of paper. The voters in Catalonia know that. Now the Spanish government will be held to account. Political leaders everywhere should pay attention.

Let’s start with the story about Catalonia. For a while, now, the polls have shown that opinion in the region is evenly split. Many Catalans feel fervently about the cause of independence but many are less enthusiastic. Moreover, as we have seen repeatedly over recent months, the pro-independence movement is anything but coherent. Such divisions offer less-than-fertile ground for a secessionist movement: Independence creates too much space for uncertainty which means that the inertia is on the side of the status quo.

The challenge for the Catalan independence movement was two-fold. First, they needed to build out the institutions they would need to govern an independent state. They have been working on that more-or-less quietly over the past eighteen months. At the same time, they have been setting out the protocols that would be necessary to establish autonomous control. This work has not been secret. Everyone watching the situation has known what the Catalan leadership is doing. But institution building of that sort is both technical and boring and so it was hard for the Madrid leadership to turn this activity into a scandal sufficient to warrant open conflict with Barcelona.

The second challenge for the pro-independence movement was to mobilize their support. If only half of the people support the cause, then it is enough to get half of the people to vote and make sure almost all of the ballots are pro-independence. The trick is to motivate separatist voters. That is why the Catalan authorities picked a fight with the leadership in Madrid. The Catalan leadership wagered that if they could get a strong-enough response from the Spanish government, then that would galvanize feelings of regional identity. Pro-independence voters would turn out and everyone else would find a good reason to stay home. Judging from the outcomes, that strategy was a success. Now we have to wait and see how the Spanish situation plays out.

In the meantime, we can focus on the more general issues underscored by the situation in Spain. The point to note is that the mobilization tactic used by the pro-independence movement works with much lower levels of conflict and much smaller percentages of the population. Opposition to the Dutch government succeeded in holding a humiliating referendum on the European Union’s trading relationship with Ukraine in April 2016 with under a third of the electorate turning out to vote and roughly one-in-five eligible voters casting ballots to reject the motion. The government strategy there was to avoid conflict and instead ask the voters to stay home. That strategy failed. In the more recent context of Catalonia, the Madrid government could have avoided conflict and probably also reduced the turnout rate by keeping tensions low, but it would have been unlikely to fare any better in terms of the outcome.

But winning the vote is not the only measure of success and losing is not the worst kind of failure. Where the Dutch government succeeded with its low-key approach was in taking away the reinforcement of identity. Imagine an alternative history where the Dutch government goes out and actively campaigns on behalf of a complicated trade deal between the European Union and Ukraine against a populist opposition that wants to put the interests of Dutch people first. The government campaign would have to focus on the importance of Europe, the binding nature of international commitments, and the promotion of quasi-cosmopolitan notions of international solidarity. The populist opposition would remain true to its message that national elites are selling out the Dutch people so that they can be popular among foreigners (and possibly also enrich themselves). The Dutch government would probably win the referendum in this alternative reality but it would pay a high price in terms of simmering resentment and perceptions of betrayal within a significant share of the electorate.

We can see a pale reflection of that kind of identity politics in the United States, where the Trump Administration is playing opposition to the legacy left by President Barack Obama. Donald Trump is President of the United States because he has mastered the techniques for using identity politics to mobilize a small but devoted share of the electorate. He does so by picking seemingly irrational or (borrowing again from Spain) quixotic fights and then provoking some sort of response from ruling elites or powerful institutions. This was easier when he was not in government and when ‘the establishment’ was essentially everyone else. Now that he is President, he must rely on the media, the judiciary, prominent members of Congress, and popular celebrities to provide the foil for his symbolic gestures. At each step, though, his intention is the same. He wants to provoke conflict so that he can mobilize the voters by reinforcing their sense of identity with the problem as he defines it.

A Dutch response to Trump or to Catalonia might lower the initial costs and yet it would not make the problem go away. Political leaders who want to avoid identity politics cannot just ask the voters to look somewhere else. If nothing else, the mobilization efforts of would-be opposition does lasting institutional damage. The Dutch finally ratified the EU treaty with Ukraine but they had to work through back channels to make that happen and the Dutch government was repeatedly embarrassed along the way. Since then, elections have taken place and the Dutch electorate is so fragmented that the country still does not have an official governing coalition. Efforts to ignore Donald Trump during the Obama years and by his opponents during the Republican primaries were no more effective.

Now the Catalans have voted for independence. It may be an illegal vote under the Spanish constitution, but it has nevertheless upset the country’s delicate political balance and constitutional arrangement. That is the most important lesson about identity-based political mobilization of the kind that has proven so popular lately. Getting a small share of the voters to turn out in large numbers by appealing to their perception of identity is a powerful way to influence democratic processes. But appealing to identities is also a powerful way to disrupt and damage the functioning of democratic institutions.

James Madison was well aware of the dangers inherent to identity politics, which is why he argued so fervently against the ‘politics of faction’ in the tenth Federalist Paper. Leaders can harvest great rewards in terms of power and influence, but only at the expense of long term stability. Moreover, eventually, in every functioning democracy, the tide of popular support will turn against them. This means that political leaders who play with identity politics will ultimately have to choose between losing power (and suffering the consequences) or bringing an end to alternation in government. Catalan voters who opted to break with Madrid should take careful stock of their political leadership in that respect. Winning support for independence was the easy part; protecting democracy may prove much harder.

This essay was originally published on the IISS website for Survival.  You can find the edited version here.