The rise of populist far-right parties in Europe threatens the continent’s democracies. These parties are dangerous not only because they threaten the political status quo but also because they employ dehumanizing rhetoric towards oppositional candidates which leads to social divides (Mueller, 2019). For far-right political parties, this rhetoric comes in the form of nationalist or anti-immigrant sentiments which heightens identity-based polarization making it easier populism to take root (Iyengar, et al. 2019). This essay analyzes the extent to which Vox, a Spanish far-right political party, uses affective polarization to weaken Spanish democracy. In doing so, it is shown that while Vox is not wholly populist in its political approach, its catering to anti-democratic voters, nationalistic tendencies, and anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ sentiments all threaten mutual tolerance and thus Spain’s democratic foundations.
Founded in 2013 and emerging after the 2018 elections to the Andalusian parliament, Vox ended Spain’s unique position as one of the only European countries without a prominent far-right party (Turnbull-Dugarte, 2020). During the 2019 general elections, Vox became the third largest party in Spanish politics, earning fifty-two seats from fifteen percent of the national vote (Zanotti and Rama, 2020). This was a dramatic rise to power since Spanish politics had been historically dominated by the center-left PSOE and center-right PP parties until 2014 and 2015 due to the politically fractious Catalonian independence movement (Rama, et al. 2021). Tensions peaked in 2017, when the Spanish central government disbanded the autonomous government of Catalonia after they held an illegal referendum on independence. This referendum enabled Vox to take advantage of hyper-nationalist rhetoric in opposition to the Catalonians, allowing them to gain popularity among conservatives in 2018 and 2019 (Turnbull-Dugarte, 2020).
In addition to its nationalist platform, Vox’s strong anti-immigrant and anti-LGTBQ ideology see it increasing affective polarization among Spanish citizens (Turnbull-Dugarte, 2020; Santana, et al. 2021). This is reflected in how many of Vox’s supporters are “flag-waving, Eurosceptic, anti-immigration nativists” who reinforce their social identities using Vox’s party platform to justify nationalist tropes (Santana, et al. 2021). These sentiments turn Spanish politics away from mutual toleration towards divisive othering or the creation of political outsiders. In the long run, creating these out-groups of immigrants or members of the LGBTQ community could force citizens to vote with the candidates best representing their social identities, even if those candidates threaten democratic principles (Svolik, 2019). This could impact the stability of Spanish democracy as Vox or another extremist party would have an easier time launching anti-democratic policies if they came to power where many do not value an opposing opinion.
Vox’s use of affective polarization could normalize undemocratic sentiments in the nonpolitical sphere. Iyengar, et al. (2019) demonstrate that excessive partisanship caused by affective polarization lead people to make economic and social decisions based more off party identification than individual beliefs. This could entrench party ideology in citizen’s social life as decisions on things such as companies to invest in, individuals to associate with, areas to visit or stay-away from, etc. take on a new dimension caused by Vox’s determined in and out groups. This would result in “strengthened tribal tendencies” leading anyone not aligned with the “tribe” to be labeled as an “existential threat” to national well-being (McCoy, et al. 2018). When this occurs in conjunction with the rhetoric that Vox promulgates, there is potential for micro and macro aggressions against the established social outgroups. This further detracts from democratic institutions like mutual toleration and acceptance, weakening Spanish democracy.
Creating social out-groups along with threatening mutual toleration could also signify the danger of Vox becoming a populist alternative for supporters of authoritarianism. Most generally, populists delegitimatize the status-quo regime in arguing they alone represent the people’s common will (Mueller, 2019). While contemporary research demonstrates that populist rhetoric did not have a large impact on Vox’s rise to power in 2019 (Marcos-Marne, et al. 2021; Zanotti and Rama, 2020) their ideology and voter base makes them liable to populist influence in the future. For example, Vox’s anti-immigrant statements could be a way of expressing how they alone determine Spanish identity. This could have dangerous ramifications as it nullifies anyone standing in opposition to Vox as not real Spaniards, thus reinforcing social and political divides.
Vox’s use of affective polarization to create divides along nationalist, anti-immigrant, and anti-LGBTQ sentiments threatens mutual toleration and Spanish democracy. Vox’s meteoric rise to power in 2018 and 2019 saw the creation of political out-groups and the harnessing of nativist Spanish elites across the country (Santana, et al. 2021). In doing so, Vox questioned the legitimacy of labeled political outsiders which took away from a healthy democratic standard with respectful levels of competition. While Vox does not yet demonstrate strong populist tendencies, its trend towards divisiveness could see it claim to represent a Spanish identity articulated by exclusionary nativists. Vox serves as an example of how a far-right political party drives affective polarization and threatens democratic unity. Moving forward, its support for excessive partisanship and a polarized society should be cautiously monitored if the health of Spanish democracy is to be maintained.
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