US Politics – OxPol
The storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 during a session formalizing Joe Biden’s presidential victory made headlines around the world. For many Americans, the fact that there was an armed attempt to disrupt a democratic shift in power was a worrying sign of a democratic relapse and the result of years of extreme partisanship. The siege heralded a grim vision of America’s political future.
However, 40 years ago the Spanish political system was able to recover from a similar event, which could be an instructive experience for America today. In February 1981, the Spanish political system, which had rapidly democratized after the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, faced its first real test when a radical but small military faction led by Colonel Antonio Tejero tried to take power through a military coup to usurp. Tejero led a group of soldiers who stormed the Spanish parliament during a vote on the election of the new prime minister. They continued to hold key members of the government and MPs at gunpoint as hostages. Later that night, King Juan Carlos rejected the coup plotters on national television, and when it became clear that no more military units would join the uprising, the conspirators surrendered. Although there were some injured, miraculously no one was killed in the attempted coup. The success of emerging Spanish democracy in recovering from this coup attempt has much to teach America after January 6th Attack.
Coup attempts are often viewed as the providence of weak dictatorships and Democracies in Transition. That there was an incident in America in 2021 should ring alarm bells as it shows a marked decline in state capacity and democratic norms. Several authors have argued that the demise of democracy has done irreparable damage and that the partisan divide in America too big to cross. However, the experience of Spain suggests that this is not the case and that after the coup attempt, albeit harsh, democratic renewal is possible. In the USA, however, initial attempts to promote reconciliation have not yet been implemented.
In Spain, following the attempted coup in 1981, various groups of political actors worked together to condemn the coup and restore public confidence in the democratic political system. Four days after February 23, a demonstration of more than one and a half million people took the streets of Madrid. At the head of the march were the leaders of the main political parties, as well as business and trade union leaders. This was a demonstration of unity and collective support for democracy. During this period – when both a possible “break in Spain” and the real danger of civil war were perceived – this solidarity event was crucial for maintaining Spanish democracy.
The challenge of post-coup national reconciliation and restoring public confidence in the democratic political system may be more difficult in America than in Spain. This is largely due to the postmodern and post factual nature of modernity American politics. Political leaders who preach reconciliation will find it difficult to compete with the rapidly changing narratives of conspiracy theorists. In addition, more and more Americans are willing to adapt facts to their worldview. This already happened with the storming of the Capitol. A few days after the attack on Congress, Yougov found that a simple majority of Republicans, 45%, supported the coup attempt. However, after several weeks later several Republican lawmakers and Fox News TV presenters argued without evidence that far-left groups like Antifa were actually behind the storm, 69% of Republican voters believed that extreme left groups were responsible for the coup attempt.
Other differences between the two coups can be seen in the actions of the political elites. After the February 23 coup, the major Spanish parties agreed to continue decentralizing and democratizing the country, believing this would prevent future coup attempts. America’s Republican Party, on the other hand, responded to the 2020 elections and the subsequent coup attempt by refusing to criticize Trump’s statements and rejecting that the 2020 elections were rigged. Few Republicans have dared to face the former president, who, while not currently holding a democratically elected office, wields significant control over the Republican party.
An attempted coup is likely to influence politics for years to come. However, the Spanish experience shows that it can actually expand democratic norms and overcome political dead ends. In the Spanish elections in 1982 – in which Tejero’s attempted coup was a big issue – the main social democratic party, the PSOE, won the largest majority in the country’s democratic history and ended a period of dysfunctional governments. In addition, all parties in the Spanish parliament unanimously condemned the attempted coup. And radical parties lost ground in the 1982 elections, suggesting a depolarization of Spanish society. Fuerza Nueva, the far-right party that won a seat in the last election, disappeared. The communists lost almost all of their seats. Finally one Attempt by Tejero, the most famous face of the coup, running for elections to get parliamentary immunity, ended up getting only 0.14% of the vote. Tejero was subsequently sentenced to 30 years in prison by the Supreme Court who sentenced 30 people for “inciting”. Tejero was finally pardoned after 15 years in prison for “helping to forget facts that must remain in the past”.
Unlike Spain, the American political system has so far failed to create a sense of national unity and Trump’s political brand remains strong. Only 10 Republican MPs and 7 Senators Voted for impeachment proceedings against Trump and a “demonstration for democracy” or a moment of reflection has yet to manifest. Indeed, Senate Republicans have blocked an investigation in the events of the 6the January and have worked to remove anti-Trump Republicans like Liz Cheney from leadership positions. This likely means Trump will avoid any political or legal ramifications for his role in the attempted coup, and he has promised to use his immense popularity with Republican voters to run for president again 2024.
Spain in 1981 and the US in 2021 are obviously different in many ways and have very different histories and political cultures. In both countries, however, the coup attempts mark a turning point. Although both coups had little chance of overthrowing the political system, they have shown that these democratic political systems are much weaker than many think. Worryingly, the US has already missed the opportunity for immediate post-coup reconciliation. If Americans want to keep democracy in their country, it is up to Republicans to condemn the attempted coup and forsake both Trump and the legacy of the January 6 events.