Post Opinions invited readers to submit questions about her Opinions Essay, “Want to build a far-right movement? Spain’s Vox party shows how.” What follows are lightly edited questions and answers about the essay.
Do you have any suggestions or thoughts for countries that wish to counteract the rise of the alt-right and far right?
Lots of politicians and political parties across Europe are struggling with that question right now. This is really the central question for all contemporary democracies. It’s a big subject, so I’ll mention just a few examples.
In many European countries where there are several parties in parliament, preventing an angry minority from dominating a fragmented majority is an important strategic objective. In Poland, for example, where a far-right party is in power, the rest of the political spectrum has decided to try to unify and create a centrist “bloc” to fight against them in the European elections.
But that’s a political strategy. As I’ve written in the past, some centrist parties are also working on an intellectual strategy, designed to prevent the far-right from monopolizing the language of patriotism. This has been President Emmanuel Macron’s tactic in France; he has sought to redefine “patriotism” as a term that implies respect for democracy and the rule of law, not just ethnic nationalism. The Swiss campaign group Operation Libero has also sought to remind people of Switzerland’s liberal traditions in an effort to push back against a populist narrative that defines Swiss “tradition” more narrowly.
Some center-right parties have tried openly adopting some of the far-right’s messages. The Austrian center-right, for example, pursued this approach on immigration. But this often ends badly. The center-right in Spain tried to mimic Vox, with catastrophic consequences: The party’s number of seats fell by half from the last elections in 2016, dropping from 137 to 66 seats in the parliament. Many voters, it seems, don’t like “phony” radicals. And if the center-right starts to sound nastier, they’ll push many of their supporters to vote center-left.
Another tactic that has been used successfully — notably by the center-left in Spain, which did very well in the election — is to change the subject completely, and to refocus the national conversation on other things people care about, such as unemployment, health care or education. A number of parties have seen benefits from avoiding polarizing identity issues and pulling the debate away from the extremes.
Finally, part of the answer requires facing up to the real problem of spreading extremism online. I believe we need social-media companies and Internet regulation to create more transparency and to limit the use of anonymity online, so as to prevent bots and trolls from artificially amplifying hateful messages. In the long term, we also need to think about adjusting algorithms on social media and search so that they do not favor false and sensationalist information. I’ve written about that, too, and have also argued that it doesn’t mean we need Internet “censorship.”
It’s important to remember that there is no single answer that will work for every country, and also that this won’t be easy. This is a task for the next generation — and maybe the one after that.
Spain’s [center-right] Ciudadanos party has been making steady progress over the last few years and almost doubled its seats in this election. However, it doesn’t get anything like the amount of mainstream press coverage that Vox gets. Is there a role that mainstream media coverage also plays in the growth of extremist parties such as Vox when they report on them so disproportionately in relation to the actual portion of the electorate they command?
Ciudadanos did get a huge amount of attention when it first appeared, and it did benefit from the same kind of “new party” boost that Vox enjoyed. To be sure, Ciudadanos has had some growing pains: In a very polarized political environment, the party is finding it hard to be “centrist,” as people seem to want to pigeonhole it as “left” or “right.” But the fact that Ciudadanos now feels like a permanent part of the political spectrum seems like a big achievement for what is still a new party.
Nevertheless, the overall point of the question is a good one. As I wrote in my essay, I think that Vox, by saying shocking things and violating some taboos, did surprise the mainstream media into giving it more coverage than perhaps it deserved. Of course, we saw exactly the same phenomenon in the United States during the 2016 campaign, when Donald Trump’s vulgarity and dishonesty actually won him more media attention than a traditional, serious candidate would have had. This is one of the subjects I’d like to think about over the next year: How can media honestly cover this kind of politics without falling into the trap and exacerbating polarization?
Throughout Spain’s history, the Catholic Church has been a major political player, always favoring the most conservative option (so long as it was sufficiently protective of church privilege). Is Vox angling for specifically Catholic support?
In the Franco era, the Catholic Church in Spain was seen as very sympathetic to the dictatorship. But this is why some Spaniards now reject the church, or at least reject its political influence. Some of this suspicion of the church manifests itself in support for socially liberal measures that the church dislikes (a similar dynamic has unfolded in Ireland).
On the other hand: Yes, it’s clear that there is a deep connection between the church and the Spanish right. It’s also clear that a part of Vox’s support is coming from people who absolutely reject that new social liberalism and want the church and its teachings restored to the center of public life. So although the church isn’t directly involved, it is certainly part of the political landscape.
According to a Pew report, in the U.S. election of 2016, Clinton won 55 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 compared to Trump’s 37 percent. Trump, meanwhile, won those over the age of 65, 53 to 45 percent. Do you have any idea how support for Vox breaks down by age — is it concentrated among those over, say, 50?
Actually, quite a lot of Vox supporters are younger. The high number of younger supporters may partly reflect the fact that the party’s campaign was targeted at younger voters, who are more likely to use the social media that Vox favors. It may also reflect the fact that these younger voters were directly hit by the financial crisis a decade ago. Some also argue that younger voters don’t remember Franco’s Spain, and so aren’t as wary as older Spaniards are of voting for a party on the right that uses some Franco-era themes (Spanish nationalism, the family, tradition).
What is notable about Vox voters is less their age than their gender: They are disproportionately male. Before the election, polls were showing that the average Vox voter was a man aged 35 to 44.
The lack of civics and history education in America is blamed for the rise of Trump. Is a lack of knowledge tied to the alt-right’s political evolution in Spain and across Europe?
To some extent, yes: As Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have written, in a lot of countries the understanding of, and respect for, democracy has dropped in recent years. The numbers in the United States are quite dramatic, but it’s true even in places such as Sweden or Britain.
I don’t want to generalize too much — every country is different — but the trend toward de-emphasizing history in schools may be partly responsible for the alt-right’s ascent. In Britain, children get a kind of cartoon version of history — the joke is that it’s “Tudors and Hitler” — which seems to skip over a real debate about the empire and its legacy. In Poland, children are taught very little about modern democratic institutions and how they work, and instead they hear a lot about national martyrdom. I think this is why the current Polish government’s assault on the constitution has elicited relatively little reaction among younger people. Not enough of them seem to understand why it matters.
Young people in Spain were stuck in their parents’ spare rooms a decade ago. Has the situation changed for the better, or have youth simply given up on politics?
The Spanish economy is growing again, and the country is definitely adding jobs, so the worst part of the crisis has passed. But, of course, there will be a long-term impact on people who were unemployed: Study after study shows that people’s incomes and prospects don’t recover, ever, after a long period out of work. Certainly anger over the economy fueled the rise of the Marxist far-left party, Podemos, several years ago. Vox is, among other things, a reaction to Podemos; as noted, Vox, too, may be speaking to people who feel frustrated by years lost to unemployment.