Download PDF Leaders can harvest great rewards by appealing to narrow identities, but only at the expense of long-term stability.

The 1 October Catalan referendum on independence was a trap for Madrid. Spain’s political leaders were bound to be criticised whether they ignored the vote or tried to stop it. Shunting responsibility for dealing with the crisis onto the courts and the police was no way out. The voters in Catalonia know that. Now the Spanish government will be held to account. Political leaders everywhere should pay attention.

Let us start with the story of Catalonia. For a while now, the polls have shown that opinion in the region is evenly split.1 Many Catalans feel fervently about the cause of independence; many are less enthusiastic. The pro-independence movement has shown itself repeatedly in recent months to be 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 favours the status quo.

The challenge for supporters of Catalan independence was twofold. Firstly, they needed to build up the institutions they would need to govern an independent state. They have been working on that, more or less quietly, over the past 18 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 Madrid to turn this activity into a scandal sufficient to warrant open conflict with Barcelona.

The second challenge for the pro-independence movement was to mobilise support. If only half of the people support the cause, then it suffices to get half of the people to vote, and to make sure almost all of the ballots are pro-independence. The key is to motivate separatist voters. That is why the Catalan authorities picked a fight with the leadership in Madrid. Catalan leaders wagered that if they could provoke a strong enough response from the Spanish government, then that would galvanise 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. According to Catalan government sources, 90% of voters cast ballots in favour of independence on the back of a 43% turnout.2 Critics immediately pointed out that this number falls well short of an absolute majority of the Catalan population. The response from the pro-independence movement, however, was that the verdict is clear when put in the context of the Spanish government’s efforts to close polling booths and in light of comparisons with other electoral contests. Turnout was actually lower (41%) in the 2014 consultative referendum on independence; turnout was higher in the 2015 regional elections (75%), but all the polling booths were open and there was no threat of violence.

Now we have to wait and see how the Spanish situation plays out. The choreography follows the Catalan law on the referendum for self-determination and Article 155 of the Spanish constitution.3 Catalan President Carles Puigdemont announced on 10 October that Catalonia had voted for independence but that he would delay any official declaration until after negotiations with Madrid. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy responded by giving Puigdemont five days to clarify whether he had actually made a declaration of independence. Puigdemont reasserted his right to make such a declaration, and Rajoy set another deadline to take positive steps to bring Catalonia back within the Spanish constitutional fold. In the meantime, Spanish police arrested two of the main pro-independence civil-society leaders on sedition charges.4 Tensions flared dangerously as all sides waited to see how the inevitable test of wills would unfold. Rajoy surprised observers by announcing his intention to remove the Catalan government and dissolve the Catalan parliament in anticipation of early elections. Puigdemont denounced the move as authoritarian and pledged to hold his ground.

Mobilising identity

As of this writing, it is still too early to see how this conflict will end. Nevertheless, it is possible to focus on the more general issues that the Spanish situation underscores. The point to note is that the mobilisation tactic used by the pro-independence movement works with much lower levels of conflict and much smaller percentages of the population. Opponents of 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.5 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.

Winning the vote is not the only measure of success, however, 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 in which 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 among a significant share of the electorate. The pro-independence movement in Catalonia is aware of this potential, and they have exploited it to great effect in the viral YouTube video, ‘Help Catalonia; Save Europe’.6 That video, which shows graphic images of police brutality amid pleas to support Catalan independence as an expression of European values, resonates particularly in light of European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans’s assertion that the level of force deployed by the Spanish government during the referendum was ‘proportionate’.7

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 Barack Obama. Donald Trump is president of the United States because he has mastered the techniques for using identity politics to mobilise 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 mobilise the voters by reinforcing their sense of identification with the problem as he defines it.8

Damage limitation

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, mobilisation efforts by the would-be opposition do 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 took months to cobble together a 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 mobilisation 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.

Here we might look to the example of Belgium. The Belgian government is torn over how to respond to the Spanish crisis. Much to the horror of Rajoy in Spain, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel offered international mediation. From the Spanish standpoint, such an act gives legitimacy to the grievance between Barcelona and Madrid – casting the two sides as equal. From the Belgian standpoint, the offer of mediation is simply a reflection of the facts on the ground. The Belgians have grown used to assertive regions, having struggled to keep first Wallonia and then Flanders in the national fold. Successive concessions to regional autonomy have only made the situation more unstable.9 As regions gained more power, politics became more local. Now the country’s largest political party, the New Flemish Alliance, seems determined to push decentralisation even further. It has stepped back from the obstructionism that resulted in more than 550 days without a federal government, but its more cooperative demeanour only reflects greater patience and not a change of purpose.10 By implication, Belgium may soon require mediation of its own.

* * *

James Madison was well aware of the dangers inherent in 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 by appealing to narrow and exclusive identities, but only at the expense of long-term stability. And 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.


1 Stephen Burgen, ‘Catalonia Divided as Controversial Poll on Independence Sparks Conflict with Madrid’, Observer, 17 September 2017.

2 See Generalitat de Catalunya, ‘Referèndum d’Autodeterminació de Catalunya: Resultats Definitius’,

3 Article 155 reads as follows: ‘1. If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain, the Government, after lodging a complaint with the President of the Autonomous Community and failing to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above-mentioned general interests. 2. With a view to implementing the measures provided in the foregoing clause, the Government may issue instructions to all the authorities of the Autonomous Communities.’ Spanish Constitution, 27 December 1978,

4 Sam Jones and Stephen Burgen, ‘Catalonia: Detention of Secessionist Leaders Sparks Large Protests’, Guardian, 17 October 2017.

5 Erik Jones and Matthias Matthijs, ‘Democracy without Solidarity: Political Dysfunction in Hard Times’, Government and Opposition, vol. 52, no. 3, 2017, pp. 200–1.

6 Òmnium Cultural, ‘Help Catalonia. Save Europe’, YouTube, 16 October 2017,

7 Maïa de la Baum and David M. Herszenhorn, ‘Brussels Defends Use of “Proportionate” Force in Catalonia’, Politico, 4 October 2017.

8 Sam Tanenhaus, ‘The Making of the Tabloid Presidency’, New York Review of Books, vol. 64, no. 13, 17 August–27 September 2017, pp. 4–8.

9 Erik Jones, ‘From Depillarization to Decentralization and Beyond: The Gathering Storm in Belgium’, Dutch Crossing, vol. 22, no. 1, Summer 1998, pp. 139–60.

10 Jones and Matthijs, ‘Democracy without Solidarity’, pp. 196–8.

Erik Jones is Professor of European Studies and Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University; Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford; and a Contributing Editor to Survival.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

December 2017–January 2018

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