What to Read on Spanish Politics

La Pedrera in Barcelona (Jaume Meneses / flickr)

For decades, Spain has basked in the adulation of scholars, pundits, and leaders of the world's emerging democracies. All have been dazzled by the country's sweeping transformation. In the 1970s, Spain shed the four-decade-old authoritarian regime of Generalíssimo Francisco Franco, ushering in the so-called third wave of democratization -- the dozens of democratic transitions that wiped out dictatorships of almost every stripe in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In the 1990s, after undergoing a program of radical structural reforms, Spain became one of the era's economic miracles, posting growth rates that were the envy of other European nations. Along the way, it turned itself into a cultural trendsetter, influencing global tastes in everything from fashion to films and food. That these accomplishments came to a country whose only meaningful experience with democracy prior to the 1977 elections was the chaotic and short-lived Second Republic (1931-36) made Madrid's success all the more amazing.

Today, however, admiration has turned to apprehension. By all signs, the post-Franco fiesta is over. A deep financial crisis, punctuated by an unemployment rate approaching 25 percent of the job-seeking population, has shaken Spaniards' faith in their political institutions. Meanwhile, leaders around the globe ponder the consequences of a Spanish economic meltdown. Exploring what transpired in Spain between the country's democratic transition and its fall from grace offers clues for fixing the current predicament.

Spain, 1833-2002: People and State. By Mary Vincent. Oxford University Press, 2007.
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Vincent's study is an excellent introduction to contemporary Spanish history and politics. She walks the reader from Spain's liberation from the French in the 1830s to the state of play at the turn of the twenty-first century. The story of how the Spaniards became "Europeans" after joining the European Economic Community (the precursor to the European Union) in 1986 -- an aspiration denied for several decades due to the authoritarian nature of the Franco regime -- is especially compelling. Vincent documents the deliberate effort Spaniards made to leave the past behind and embrace a new identity as a modern European state. Oddly enough, the occasion chosen to proclaim the new national identity was the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' momentous but infamous voyage to the New World. So 1992 featured a trifecta of international events intended to showcase Spain at its best: the World's Fair in Seville, the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and the designation of Madrid as Europe's capital of culture. In hindsight, the extravagance of that year succeeded in introducing the world to the new Spain while masking many of the problems of the old one, including its fragmented national identity, the product of deep ethnolinguistic cleavages.

Democracy in Modern Spain. By Richard Gunther, José Ramón Montero, and Joan Botella. Yale University Press, 2004.
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This hefty volume is essential reading for understanding how Spain constructed its democracy in the post-Franco period. The authors' main thesis is that the making of Spanish democracy is best understood as a product of political craftsmanship. In putting forth this argument, they pointedly challenge conventional wisdom that democracy's success stems foremost from social and economic progress; for them, the Spanish experience shows that democracy is made and not born. This idea underlies chapters dealing with all aspects of recent Spanish state building, from the enacting of a new constitution to the reconfiguration of the party system and the creation of a system of autonomous regional governments. Surely, the current economic crisis is one of the biggest tests that the Spanish political class has faced. And thus far, the leaders have managed to keep the system afloat. The last national elections, in November 2011, were peaceful and produced a clear winner, quite the contrast to the chaos that prevailed in Greece and Italy. Still, the prevalent policy paralysis in Madrid does not inspire much confidence.

Memory and Amnesia: The Role of the Spanish Civil War in the Transition to Democracy. By Paloma Aguilar. Berghahn, 2002.
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One of the most pressing questions Spanish politicians tackled during the democratic transition was how to deal with the political excesses of the Spanish Civil War, the epic 1936-39 epic showdown between democracy and fascism. Rather than directly confronting the legacy of the war and the atrocities of the Franco regime (such as the concentration camps that Franco established after the end of the war to eradicate left-wing influence), the Spaniards simply chose to forget. Following Franco's death in 1975, the national political parties forged the aptly named pacto del olvido ("pact of forgetting"), which induced a kind of political amnesia. It precluded political trials and truth commissions. Aguilar's book explains how Spain's culture of forgetting -- especially a deeply problematic collective understanding of the civil war as a guerra de locos (a war of group madness) produced no winners and losers, only victims -- actually aided the transition to democracy by preventing the memory of the war from being politicized. The book also shows the dark side of forgetting: the silencing of victims. Eventually, silence proved untenable, and the country enacted the so-called Law of Historical Memory in 2007. Although the legislation spared the old regime from prosecution, it recognized the illegitimacy of the Francoist dictatorship and offered reparation to its many victims.

Ethnicity and Violence: The Case of Radical Basque Nationalism. By Diego Muro. Routledge, 2008.
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Another great dilemma for Spanish democratizers has been what to do about separatist groups, especially in the Basque country, which, during the late Franco period, saw the rise of the terrorist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna ("Basque Homeland and Freedom"). The ETA's goal to create an independent Basque state has so far claimed some 1,000 lives. While steering clear of any macro-level theory of violence, Muro suggests that claims of ethnicity, laced with assumptions about racial superiority, provide a recipe for violent social movements. The book also hints at the unintended consequences of attempts by the government to address separatist violence. Madrid's solution for dealing with the restless Basques (and the equally restless Catalans) has been to expand the powers of the regional governments dramatically, in the hope that more local autonomy would lessen the desire for outright independence. This solution has kept the country together, but it has come at the price of reducing the central state's capacity to implement coherent national policies.

Democracy's Voices: Social Ties and the Quality of Public Life in Spain. By Robert M. Fishman. Cornell University Press, 2004.
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Although Spain's democratization in the post-Franco era has been quite successful, the quality of Spanish political life leaves a lot to be desired. European surveys routinely find that Spaniards are generally uninterested in politics and unlikely to participate in political organizations. To explain this discrepancy between the success of democracy and the quality of political life, Fishman draws on an eclectic intellectual legacy that includes the French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, who were united in making the case that social ties are democracy's lifeblood. He concludes that the vibrancy of Spain's public life has faded as the historical ties between intellectuals and workers have weakened. On the positive side, Fishman's study shows the continuing relevance of public protest in Spanish political culture, a point suggested by the wave of demonstrations that greeted the economic crisis, starting with the "days of indignation" in March 2011. Whether this energy in the streets can be channeled into economic reform remains to be seen. 

Varieties of Capitalism in Spain: Remaking the Spanish Economy for the New Century. By Sebastián Royo. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
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Royo wrote Varieties of Capitalism before the global economic crisis hit Spain in 2008. But in it, he provides the best available picture of the brewing storm. As Royo lays out the route Spain took on its way to becoming one of the world's largest and most open economies, he also highlights missteps. His tally of post-1997 democratic regimes' mistakes and missed opportunities is long. Most notably, all of them failed to reform an outmoded labor market, an inheritance of the Franco regime that emphasized employment for life to compensate for the lack of political freedoms. Royo also points out Spain's inability to keep up with more advanced economies, due to its lack of support for research and development, runaway government spending, (especially by the profligate autonomous communities), and widespread corruption at all levels of government. Largely ignored during the boom years, these problems are even more daunting and unpalatable, given shrinking tax revenues, an increasingly unpopular government, a deflated housing bubble, and the dreaded prospect of leaving the eurozone.

A Political Philosophy in Public Life: Civic Republicanism in Zapatero's Spain. By José Luis Martí and Philip Pettit. Princeton University Press, 2012.
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José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who had served as prime minister since 2004, stepped down in 2011 after presiding over Spain's worst economy in decades. Yet throughout his eight years in power, his administration was known for its unusual marriage of philosophy and politics. Upon ascending to power, Zapatero unveiled his plan for a kind of citizens' socialism, based on the principles of civic republicanism. Building on the ideas of the Princeton political theorist Philip Pettit, who called for the use of law to end inequality and discrimination, Zapatero enacted civil codes to create gender parity in government and the workplace, developed a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, granted marriage equality to homosexual couples (the first for a Catholic-majority country), and pressed for the Law of Historical Memory. Martí and Pettit explain the roots of Zapatero's bold embrace of civic republicanism and offer the prime minister a qualified thumbs up. In doing so, the authors remind the reader of Spain's capacity for renewal and reinvention.

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