The referendum in Catalonia: managing post-truth politics

Events on Sunday in the northeastern Spanish region of Catalonia, where an illegal referendum was held to gauge support for independence, provided a stunning, real-time example of the successful management of post-truth politics, whereby creating and shaping public opinion has less to do with objective facts than to appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.

From the outset, the regional government of Catalonia’s strategy, which has taken months to develop, has been directed toward that goal: the referendum was merely a means to an end. Whether it took place with or without democratic guarantees, that there were enough ballot boxes, that voters took part en masse or not, did not matter at all. Failure would not have been the police requisitioning ballot boxes, entering schools by force or even questions about the methodology or scrutiny: failure would have been the exact opposite. An orderly, uneventful vote, with no queues, no policemen in riot gear, or no stories to tell. This failure was carefully avoided with the positioning of the most radical supporters of independence to secure the images that the Catalan government wanted the international community to see.

And of course the Spanish government has been complicit in this exercise in political stage-management. Its response was fully anticipated, evaluated and framed in a scenario, making an invaluable contribution toward the Catalan regional government’s goal. The Spanish government and the state security forces created the perfect context for the Catalan government to hog the limelight. Throughout Sunday, from early in the morning, the objective became clear: images of violence in the international media, people injured, queues of families and the elderly patiently waiting to vote. And by mid-morning, the Spanish government had acted as expected: as “shocking images” were broadcast around the world, the police and the Civil Guard were called off. The Catalan government’s plan worked amazingly well, and it was even able to stage an open-air “scrutiny” on a giant screen that affirmed the supposed victory of independence supporters. Meanwhile, the Spanish government put in a sterling performance, looking utterly pathetic before the media, unconvincingly denying everything and seemingly unaware of what the world was saying.

Politics today, in a world where the media is capable of transmitting news in real time to billions of people armed with smartphones connected to the social networks, is no longer about telling the truth. The number of people who took part in Sunday’s referendum, the number of votes counted or the legitimacy of the process are of no consequence: what matters are images of peaceful ordinary people being beaten bloody by the police and who “prove beyond all doubt the savage repression of the Spanish state,” or that Barcelona FC’s match against Las Palmas was played behind closed doors, even if there was no need; and of course photographs of the long lines of people waiting to vote. The important thing in politics today is to tell a story, and that means carefully planning a story to sell to a world hungry for stories. The story, in fact, was told long ago: what happened yesterday, within certain parameters to endorse the official version — that of an astute Catalan government in Barcelona, not that of the clumsy Spanish government in Madrid — was of no consequence. In media terms, the issue was cut and dried. And like it or not, that’s all that matters these days.

Nobody is going to bother scrutinizing Sunday’s vote or counting the ballot papers or interpreting the results. Because everyone, whatever their views on the legitimacy of the process and what it means to break the law, saw what they saw, and drew the conclusions the Catalan government wanted them to; at the same time, they saw a bunch of absolute beginners — despite their many years in politics — sending in riot police to run amok and then denying something that tribes in the Amazon Basin yet to make contact with civilization will have been tutting over. Let’s be clear: there was no referendum in Catalonia on Sunday, instead, there was a macro-demonstration, just in the same way as it wasn’t the government Madrid that sent the riot police and the Civil Guard in, but the courts, and in the same way that there was no guarantee of a supposed electoral process… But none of that matters now. The only thing left is the post-truth: the citizens of Catalonia went out en masse to the street — interpret “en masse” how you like — and they unequivocally demonstrated in favor of independence — interpret “unequivocally” how you wish as well. The first act is over, and we must now wait to see how the plot develops.

Sunday’s events in Catalonia provided a masterclass that political scientists will pore over for many years. There was only one winner and one loser: a savvy regional government in Barcelona that understands the power of symbols, the social networks and media in the digital age, and a dumb, clumsy, ill-prepared and out-of-date government in Madrid that lacks any credibility and able only to make absurd statements, obsessively and stubbornly denying things nobody cares about, and that handed in a perfect performance to a screenplay written by the Catalan regional government.

The outcome of Sunday is that the Spanish government has signaled to the international community its inability to understand how things work in today’s world. As for the supposed democratic legitimacy of one side or the other, whichever you support, or what the people of Spain and Catalonia think, is of no interest to anybody.

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