Nationalism and Public Opinion in Contemporary Spain:
The Demobilization of the Working Class in Catalonia
Central Washington University, Ellensburg, WA USA
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This paper examines the relationship between nationalism and public opinion in the region of Catalonia in contemporary Spain. It analyzes the interaction of the climate of opinion, expectations, poll results, and political action. This holistic approach permits a conclusion that successive Catalan governments and the political class, in an effort to solidify their foothold in and emerging democracy, have been successful in creating a climate of opinion that has encouraged the nationalist part of the Catalan population, concentrated proportionally in highest socioeconomic strata, to be actively involved in politics, while at the same time demobilizing a significant part of the working class, the sector of Catalan society most resistant to nationalism, by ignoring other social problems.
Public opinion, Spain, Catalonia, nationalism
“Should I remind them that the boy was a blue-collar worker: that is to say, a person who doesn’t do dialectic ostentation, a man with other problems?”
(Juan Marsé, Last evenings with Teresa, 1966)
The recent literature on Catalan nationalism is prolific and its production has intensified with
the devolution of power to the regions of Spain that took place during the transition to
democracy following Franco’s death in 1975. Most studies acknowledge the historical reality
of oppression during the Franco dictatorship of some cultural groups, including the Catalans,
as a prelude to arguments supporting more autonomy, if not outright independence, for this
region. As such, most of these studies focus on historical justifications, social aspects and the
vindications of Catalan politicians to support the legitimacy of more self-government.
Nonetheless, most of these approaches justifying the idea of Catalonia as a “stateless nation”
have shown significant theoretical and interpretive biases. First, most emphasize the strong
sense of identity of the Catalans (Keating, 1996; Conversi, 1997; McRoberts, 2001; Gibernau,
2006), but fail to mention that the same surveys they cite show the percentage of the
population that feels some kind of Spanish-Catalan dual identity is majoritarian and never dips
below 67 percent. Second, they focus on the positive attitude of the Catalan population
toward more self-government (Lancaster, 1997), but avoid factors like the negative reactions
of citizens to, for example, the implementation of linguistic policies that prioritize the Catalan
language over the Spanish language in the public sphere (Martínez-Herrera, 2002).
Most of these works end up at least partially mystifying Catalan nationalism thought the use of
expressions such as “organic community,” “core values,” and “consensus” (Miley, 2007, p. 3).
They ignore the social conditions under which public opinion is formed and do not take into consideration relevant aspects such as the dominant climate of opinion, the expectations of
the Catalan people, the level of political participation of the citizenship, and the social
relations of power. Furthermore, although the variables of birthplace and native tongue would
seem to be the most relevant when analyzing attitudes toward Catalan nationalism as
demonstrated in surveys, the usual emphasis on the distinction between “Catalans” and
“immigrants” has tended to denaturalize the debate and offer a slanted view of the situation.
As an example, no Andalusian would argue seriously that he/she feels in a foreign land when
working and living in Catalonia. An additional lacuna is the fact that, due to the time context,
most of the existent analyses still rely on data from the decade of the nineties and have not
been able to evaluate the repercussions of events as important as the approval of the third
Statute of Autonomy in 2006.
This paper argues that the post-Franco nationalist Catalan political class can be understood
as a top-elite movement that has marginalized at least half of the Catalan people – mostly
those whose first language is Spanish and those from lower classes – from the political and
public sphere. This marginalization has come about in two ways. First, through the creation of
a social “false consensus” (Ross, Greene, and House, 1977), a perception theory that refers
to the tendency of individuals to see their own behavioral choices and judgments as common
and appropriate to existing circumstances. This false consensus effect explains why, although
a majority of Catalans don’t feel nationalist, they do not take an active role in opposing
Catalan nationalist policies under the assumption that nationalist sentiment is overall
aspirational, positive and ultimately necessary to integrate into Catalan society. Moreover, this paper argues, this false consensus has been reinforced by a “spiral of silence” (Noelle-
Neumann, 1984) generated by a nationalist climate of opinion that has contributed to
maintaining dissident opinions hidden.
Second, the increasing demobilization of this segment of the Catalan public opinion and
electorate demonstrates that the political discourse of the major Catalan parties, mostly
focused on identity issues, has generated alienation among these strata of the population.
This fact was evident in the last referendum to approve the third Statute of Autonomy in 2006:
popular participation barely reached 50 percent and only 33 percent of the entire electorate
voted for it. This result, on an issue as crucial as the level of self-government in a highly
politicized region, should be considered together with the low levels of political participation in
Catalonia in general (60 percent participation on average in regional elections). The theory of
a disconnection between the political elites and a large part of the electorate parallels
explanations given for low levels of participation in American elections in the past. If
historically one of the main complaints of American voters was that politicians ignored the real
interests of the lower 60 percent of the economic strata (Avey, 1989), in the case of Catalonia
we find a political party system that has clearly privileged identity issues over social issues.
This reality sends a pessimistic message about the level of influence that the climate of
opinion can exert upon public opinion and the demoralization that the inattentiveness of the
political class to the real concerns of the population can cause among the citizenship, thus
ultimately less likely to manifest their own opinions.
This paper argues that the public opinion phenomenon in Catalonia cannot be explained
relying exclusively on poll results. It is only when we analyze and integrate other public opinion components (social, informational and experiential) that we can interpret the public
opinion dynamics in the region.
To analyze the relationship between the climate of opinion and the level of political
involvement of the Catalan population, this author uses the multidimensional model of public
opinion analysis developed by Jacob and Michal Shamir (2000) in their book The Anatomy of
Public Opinion. This model not only relies on the analysis of the distribution of attitudes
obtained in the polls but also on the climate of opinion, expectations, public speech and
In their study of the changes of the Israeli public opinion with regard to the devolution of the
“West Bank” territories during the nineties, Jacob and Michal Shamir (2000) analyzed the
following four facets:
The climate of opinion that describes the most permanent values and a system
of goals creating consensus among the members of a society. In order to
assess the dominant climate of opinion in Catalonia, this paper examines the
role of the media in setting a public agenda where an identitarian frame is used
to explain and interpret Catalan reality.
The prospective-informational facet looks at the impact social and political
events have on people’s lives and in shaping the population’s outlook at any
point in time (Shamir & Shamir, 2000). This facet embodies general aspects like
the content of mass media discourse as well as a social impact analysis of other
factors, such as the effects on the population of the implementation of linguistic
policies to promote the Catalan language in the public sphere.
The evaluative dimension assesses personal attitudes and values as they are
commonly picked up by opinion polls. This section of the article examines the
results of recent polls regarding identity issues, political orientation and voting
attitudes, among other factors.
The behavioral facet emphasizes the public manifestation of public opinion
and its communicative nature. This section applies two perception theories, “the
false consensus effect” (Ross et al., 1977) and “the spiral of silence” (Noelle-
Neumann, 1984), to explain the low level of voter participation in regional
elections and the referendum for the third Statute of Autonomy.
For the purpose of obtaining information to evaluate the convergence and divergence of the
four public opinion facets detailed above, the authors have collected, analyzed and
interpreted data from numerous secondary (official, academic and media) sources in different
fields (media studies, political science, sociology, etc…). Included are the main sociological
statistical surveys implemented in Catalonia by the Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió (“Center of
Opinion Studies”), an organ of the Catalan autonomous government dedicated to
implementing polls and surveys analyzing the political and social evolution of Catalan society.
Catalonia is a highly politicized region where politics and identity play a key role in the content
of the media industry. It is perhaps symptomatic of the state of public opinion in Catalonia that
in the thirty years that nationalist issues have monopolized the public agenda, extensive
research on media coverage of Catalan nationalism is scarce. For example, between 2004 and 2006, there were 67 dissertations on the topic of communication in Catalan universities
and only one treating the topic from the point of view of the media coverage of the President
of the Generalitat (Catalan Government) during the electoral campaign (Moragas i Spa, Civil i
Serra, Reguero i Jiménez and Sedó, 2007). Nevertheless, there are partial analyses in these
dissertations about how the regional government has extensively used the public media over
the last thirty years to create a strong identification between nationalism and citizenship in
Catalonia. The most common has been the use of tactics of national territorial socialization
that question the legal frame of Catalonia as a region within Spain.
TV3 [the main public broadcast channel) not only contributes to shore up the nation, but also to
construct the myths and symbols of nationalism and to socialize them as those of all Catalonia. TV3
is more than a television station, since it not only aspires to entertain or inform, but also to
Thus if the objective is to construct the Paisos Catalans [Catalan countries], the weather maps will
reflect these territories; if Catalan must be the only language of the country, the soap operas show a
country in which –ignoring the socio-linguistic reality- no-one speaks Castilian. (Santamaría, 1999,
pp. 50-51; as cited in Etherington, 2003, pp. 265-266).
As explained in the Corporació Catalana de Mitjans Audiovisuals (CCMA) [Catalan
Corporation of Audiovisual Media] website, the Catalan government – with the objective of
helping consolidate and expand the use of the Catalan language, culture and identity – owns
the main media conglomerate operating in Catalonia. CCMA is a public broadcast service in
Catalan with six television broadcast channels, including the flagship TV3; four radio stations,
including audience leader Catalunya Radio; and the Catalan News Agency (Agencia Catalana
de Noticies), among other companies. CCMA’s 2,000 employees are equivalent to
approximately 25 percent of the entire audiovisual sector in Catalonia, which employs 8,063
people (excluding the film and video industry) (Estadística de l’audiovisual a Catalunya, 2007, p. 89). The importance of the public sector in the creation of opinion is also supported by the
fact that CCMA’s TVC (Catalonia Television) outsources numerous productions to other
companies in the region that depend on public funds for their survival (Baró & Cubelles,
The market advantages CCMA enjoys in terms of budget and human resources shape the
map of audiences. The public broadcast television and radio networks lead audience rankings
with levels of penetration of 90.6 and 56.1 percent respectively (Baròmetre de la Comunicació
i la Cultura, 2008). Furthermore, as in the rest of Spain, it is necessary to emphasize that the
Parliament of Catalonia elects the board of the CCMA and, subsequently, it is a highly
politicized media conglomerate.
With regard to television consumption patterns, the combined audience of the two main public
channels, TV3 and KC33, represents 25 percent of the total. This data acquires even greater
relevance where public opinion is concerned if we take into consideration that TV3 offers
twice as many news shows as the rest of the national channels (55.6 percent) (Prado,
Delgado, García, and Larrégola, 2007).
The public radio broadcast system, Catalunya Ràdio, also clearly leads audience rankings
with 564,000 listeners, or approximately one third of the entire audience (Martí, 2007). As part
of its mission to promote the Catalan language, the Catalan government also offered
important subsidies to RAC1, the third most listened to radio, to the tune of 700,000 Euros
between 2005 and 2006 (Ferreirós & De Angelis, January 22, 2008). In practice, these
numbers allow one to conclude that the regional government directly or indirectly controls 50
percent of the radio landscape in Catalonia. It is important to emphasize that radio in Spain differs from other countries in that it is a much more opinionated media than television and
dedicates considerably more space and time to opinions and political information through
newscasts, talk shows and audience phone-ins.
The influence of the printed press on the climate of opinion in Catalonia is minor compared to
television and radio. As in the rest of Spain, the level of penetration of newspapers among the
Catalan population is one of the lowest among OECD countries (Baròmetre de la
Comunicació i la Cultura, 2008). Nonetheless, the newspapers are highly influential among
elites and communication professionals. There are two key characteristics to keep in mind
about the Catalan press landscape (González Cabezas, 1995, p. 97). The first is the high
level of politicization: the two main regional newspapers, El Periódico de Catalunya and La
Vanguardia, which together account for approximately half of the Catalan newspaper
readership (Barómetre de la Comunicació i la Cultura, 2008), each clearly support a political
party: respectively, PSC, a branch of the Spanish Worker’s Socialist party, and Convergència i
Unió (CiU), the main conservative Catalan nationalist party (González Cabezas, 1995, pp. 97-
98). The second characteristic is the press’ dependence on public funds via direct subsidies:
during the biennium 2005/2006, El Periódico de Catalunya received 1.43 million Euros from
the regional government, and La Vanguardia 674,000 Euros (De Angelis, September 2,
2008). Furthermore, institutional publicity represents a second substantial source of public
funding for the Catalan press. The regional government, the main advertiser in Catalonia,
spent almost 10 million Euros advertising in the regional press in 2007 alone (Anguera de
Sojo, July 28, 2008). Yet perhaps the most remarkable fact with regard to the influence the
Catalan government yields over the press is its 20 percent ownership of Avui, a Catalan-only newspaper. This is a case unique in Europe.
The Catalan government has used its direct control of the public regional media conglomerate
and its indirect sway of private media through the allocation of subsidies to create a strongly
identitarian climate of opinion. Perhaps the best example of this media pressure was seen
recently in the simultaneous publication in 12 Catalan newspapers of a united editorial called
“La dignidad de Cataluña” (The dignity of Catalonia), a journalistic resource usually reserved
for situations of national emergency such as a coup d’état. Conceived as a way to intimidate
the Spanish Constitutional Court in case of an eventual cutting of the new Statute of
Autonomy, this editorial was an example of the instrumentalization of the Catalan newspapers
by the regional government.
In addition to the creation of a nationalist climate of opinion through the use of media that
emphasizes the existence of a Catalan problem within Spain, the Catalan government has
employed a strategy of occupying the public sphere and generally demotivating those citizens
without an identitarian concern. This strategy involves the strong display of an autonomous
government apparatus with the purpose of establishing identification between nationalism and
well-being. This capillary process is described in the following section.
Expectations and Prospective Information Sources
A nation-building process
All of the various post-Franco governments in Catalonia have strived for “nation building.” In
practical terms, this has meant restoring everyday use of the Catalan language as well as
creating a national identification and self-governing institutions (Martínez-Herrera, 2002, p.
430). These policies were implemented as soon as the regional institutions were created in the years following Franco’s death. The second Statute of Autonomy of 1979 acknowledged
that Catalonia had its own historical, cultural and linguistic personality within Spain. This
Statute provided Catalonia with the greatest self-government of its history, a unitary
government, its own parliament, and competencies in education, public order, health,
transport and communications. The Statute was reformed in 2006 and approved again in a
referendum. This third Statute expanded the competencies and in many aspects implied a
bilateral de facto relationship between the regional government and the national government
In their daily lives, Catalans have become accustomed to identifying with the regional political
structure by voting in regional elections, paying regional taxes, being subject to regional
regulations and being represented abroad by regional institutions (Martínez-Herrera, 2000, p.
429; Díez Nicolás, 1999). Since its inception, the Catalan government has pursued a
localized replication of the powers and symbols of Spain’s government. Catalonia has its own
police force, sends officials to visit foreign countries, and possesses ornamental signs such
as a flag, a national anthem, and so on (Moreno, 2001, p. 101). Furthermore, regional
institutions have not only promoted the Catalan identity but also supported and, to a certain
extent, tried to control the entire civil society. Indeed, most cultural activities and numerous
organizations within Catalan society have come to depend in one fashion or another on
support from the Catalan government and local authorities (McRoberts, 1996, pp. 116-122).
This has strongly affected the climate of opinion since many of these organizations work to
develop studies, publish materials and organize events to promote the Catalan identitarian
justifications. This occupation of the public sphere by different means has aimed to generate among the public opinion the perception that not only does the government support the
“nation-building” process but the citizenship as a whole. A good example has been the
recurrent utilization of the Barcelona soccer team as a platform for nationalist vindications.
One of the most memorable uses of synergies by different civil society associations happened
when, in the middle of a soccer match, the Coordinadora de Asociaciones para la Lengua
Catalana (Coordinator of Pro-Catalan Language Associations) walked onto the lawn to
display a huge poster in favor of the promotion of the Catalan language and a map in which
other regions appeared as a part of the països catalans (Vázquez, October 10, 2005).
One of the regional government’s strategies has been to emphasize a sentiment of grievance
among the citizenship. The topic of the fiscal deficit that Catalonia has with the rest of Spain,
according to which Catalonia receives much less from the central government than their total
contribution to the Spanish Treasury, has received extensive coverage in the local media.
Thus, and despite the fact that the local empowerment has brought a renaissance of the cacique, or provincial political boss, phenomenon (Reid, 2008), Catalans express a high level
of satisfaction with their regional institutions. Even among non-nationalists, 95 percent say
they believe more decentralization leads directly to a higher quality of life (Lancaster, 1997).
An elitist discourse
There are, however, other factors that, although more subtle, may have contributed to
alienating a significant part of the population from the public sphere and the civic life. Among
these factors are persistent inter-class differences, and the effects of the implementation of
linguistic policies in Catalonia.
Regarding the first factor, the analysis of different segments of Catalan society has demonstrated that the nationalist movement can be best understood as “ethnic”, “an elite-led,
‘top down’ project” (Miley, 2006, p. 3). Awareness of Catalan identity tends to be much more
developed among those born in Catalonia, whose “mother tongue” is Catalan, and among
those with higher levels of education and elite professional positions such as teachers or
politicians (p. 3). In fact, the sentiment of alienation from politics of a large percentage of
Catalan voters can be better explained by socioeconomic status than by place of origin.
Although the percentage of the Catalan population born in other parts of Spain has decreased
considerably in the last 30 years from 39 per cent in 1975 (Conversi, 1997, p.191; as cited in
Rebagliato, 1978, p. 256) to 33 per cent in 2006 (Idescat, 2006), the percentage of people
who declare in polls that they are uninterested in politics, approximately 50 percent, or have
abstained in regional elections and referendums, 40 per cent (Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió,
2007), has remained consistently high relative to populations in other Spanish regions.
If we take into consideration some key socioeconomic indicators related to health and
education, we can infer that the high percentage of the Catalan adult population that feels
disconnected from politics can be understood as a sign of frustration with an identitarian
discourse that doesn’t address their real problems. For example, the Public Health Agency of
Barcelona documented that between 1993 and 1995 the difference of life expectancy
between men could differ by 10 years according to their socioeconomic status (Borrell &
Benach, 2006). A report by the Program For International Student Assessment (PISA),
diagnosed Catalonia as one of the Spanish regions with the most direct links between a
parent’s income and the possibility of going to college (2003). Thus, between 30 and 35
percent of Catalan parents in the middle or upper middle class send their children to private schools, which enjoy the highest public subsidies of Spain, while most working class families
send their kids to public schools with one of the lowest public expenses per student (Navarro,
February 1, 2005). Although there are other data, such as the distribution of income, that
place Catalonia in accordance with European standards (Cordero, May 28, 2007), these key
qualitative indicators reflecting such different levels of mortality and education according to
social class of origin clearly underscore the existence of a social gap. Indeed, the absence of
social data is a characteristic of the Catalan media, which prioritize identitarian topics over
other social issues due to the previously discussed power of the Catalan elites to configure
the public agenda. A clear example of this was the level of attention paid by all Catalan media
to the denial by the International Federation of Hockey of a Catalan national team and, in
contrast, around the same time the media silence concerning the two aforementioned reports
illustrating the existence of broad class inequalities in the Catalan society (Navarro, February
1, 2005). This disproportion becomes even more significant if we take into consideration that
70 percent of the Catalan population define themselves as working class (Institut d’Estudis
Regionals I Metropolitans de Barcelona, 2004).
The implementation of identitarian linguistic policies
Joan Maragall, a former President of the Catalan government, once called the Catalan
language “the DNA of Catalonia” (Barbeta, November 28, 2004). Indeed, the implementation
of laws to foster the use of Catalan in the public sphere has been an axis of regional politics
(Martínez-Herrera, 2002, p. 447). And yet, controversy met the approval by the Catalan
parliament of both the Law of Linguistic Normalization in 1983 and the Law of Linguistic Policy
in 1998, both of which promoted the use of Catalan in the public sphere including in government offices, educational institutions, as the means of social communication, in cultural
industries and in business. The Statute of Autonomy states that Spanish and Catalan are the
official languages of Catalonia, but the two aforementioned laws prioritizing the use of Catalan
effectively acknowledged that Catalan in fact held an inferior position to Spanish in Catalonia
despite its use by the government and many media (McRoberts, 1996, p.145). Nonetheless,
considering that Spanish is the first language for 53 percent of the Catalan population, versus
Catalan for 40 percent (Idescat, 2003), the reaction against the imposition of Catalan as the
sole language – for instance, in schools – has not been as strong as might be expected. The
reason may well be that for a majority of Spanish speakers accustomed to seeing the greater
social and economic status of Catalan speakers. Catalan-only education represents a vehicle
for social progress. Some parents certainly have experienced the frustration that their children
have not been able to receive their education in their “mother tongue” or that the rate of
school failure for this reason is higher among Spanish speakers (PISA, 2003), but the
mobilization capacity of this segment of the population has been very limited. Although a new
political party, Ciutadans de Catalunya (Citizens of Catalonia), and a civic platform, Convivencia Cívica Catalana (Catalan Civic Convivence), were born in the last 10 years to
protest the lack of recognition Catalan institutions give to the bicultural and bilingual nature of
Catalan society, they are still relatively marginal movements in numerical terms. Ciutadans obtained three delegates of 135 total in the Catalan parliament in the last elections while the
main accomplishment of Convivencia Cívica Catalana was the gathering of 50,000 signatures
in support of the defense of education in children’s mother tongue and bilingualism in schools.
Although not irrelevant, neither accomplishment points to any sort of popular revolt against
identitarian and linguistic policies. Moreover, the process of creation of the political party Ciutadans de Catalunya can be understood as another example of how Catalan society is
structured according to elitist bases since, far from being considered a grassroots movement,
this new party was founded by a group of well-known Catalan intellectuals who felt the
necessity to protest against the official identitarian policies.
Attitudes and behaviors
In 1979, 68 percent of the Catalan population felt only Spanish or as Spanish as Catalan: 35
percent identified themselves as Spanish only or more Spanish than Catalan, and 33 percent
felt equally Spanish and Catalan (Martínez-Herrera, 2002, p. 435). In 2007, only 50 percent
felt only Spanish or as Spanish as Catalan, while the other 50 percent felt more Catalan than
Spanish (30 percent) or only Catalan (20 percent) (Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, 2007).
It seems clear that since 1979 the Catalan parties have been successful in forging and
strengthening a Catalan identity among the population. During the last 30 years “more
Spanish” identification has decreased while dual Spanish/Catalan and “more Catalan”
identification has grown (Martínez-Herrera, 2002, p. 436). This evolution of sentiment about
identity can be explained by the hegemonic role of the Catalan government as the main
provider of services for Catalan citizens, the holder of Catalan symbols, and the guiding force
behind the climate of opinion created by the regional media.
If the word consensus was widely used during the transition period to democracy in Spain to
describe the necessity for the different political factions to try to see eye to eye on matters, in
Catalonia this word has had an additional connotation meaning a need to combine efforts
around the reinforcement of the Catalan identity. While the benefits of this doctrine were
evident for Catalan elites who stood to gain more of a foothold as political and economic leaders in this new society, the benefits were not so clear for Catalan residents born outside
the region or for non-elites. In this sense, the role of the regional government and the media
was decisive in generating the perception that the development of the Catalan identity and
self-governing institutions was a substantial part of the democratic process and, thus both
appropriate and desirable. This situation has been defined as a “false consensus effect”
(Sherman, Presson, and Chassin, 1984; as cited in Glasser & Salmon, 1995), since the
necessity of social support and validation by a significant part of the population, comprised
mostly but not entirely of people born outside Catalonia, would have led them to view tacitly
the promotion of the sentiment of Catalan identity.
There are also indicators that allow one to infer the existence of a “spiral of silence,” (Noelle-
Neumann, 1995), or the use of public opinion as a tool of social control. This would suggest
that in order to be accepted as “plain Catalan citizens,” a significant percentage of the
population born in other parts of Spain would have softened their positions against
nationalism or at least adopted a passive attitude. A “spiral of silence” may have been
manifested during the referendum campaign to vote the third Statute of Catalan Autonomy as
a result of a concerted action by almost the entire political spectrum, the media, and the
business community (which signed a petition endorsing the new document) to generate a
favorable climate of opinion.
Catalan entrepreneurs put aside their traditional prudence and aligned themselves squarely
with the Catalan government supporting a document that talked of Catalonia as a “nation,” a
concept not welcomed by the rest of Spaniards who are, after all, the biggest market for
Catalan companies. The consequence of this entrepreneurial positioning was a boycott of Catalan products by many Spaniards. It should be acknowledged that a significant part of
these Catalan entrepreneurs might have experienced at least a sentiment of apprehension
with regard to the consequences that a different attitude could have for their relationship with
the Catalan government.
Something similar can be said about the main Catalan newspapers that signed a united
editorial affirming that the Statute had “enjoyed overwhelming social and political support” (La
Vanguardia, 2009) by the Catalan citizenship. Only a third of Catalans voted on the new
Statute, and only 37.5 of them say they think of Catalonia as a nation (see table 1), one of the
most controversial issues of the new Statute. This case represents a classic example of what
Floyd Allport (1937, p.12) called “journalistic fallacy,” or the tendency to confuse public opinion
with the presentation of opinion by the media when trying to capture public sentiment.
Table 1: Catalonia: A Region or a Nation?
The analysis of the behavior of Catalans in political surveys prior to the referendum and their
levels of voter participation also illustrate a willingness by many to express opinions similar to
the ones perceived in the climate of opinion and hide their disconformities. For example,
despite the fact that in polls implemented a few days before the referendum, 97.7 percent of
the Catalan electorate said they knew about this new document, and 86.9 percent said they
were sure or very sure of voting, the level of participation was only 49.6 percent (Centre
d’Estudis d’Opinió, 2006a) (see table 2).
Table 2: Referendums for the Statute of Autonomy
These figures suggest that a considerable number of Catalans did not go to vote but
answered affirmatively to the survey because they understood that to go to vote was in
agreement with the perceived climate of opinion. Moreover, the 74 percent of Catalans who
voted in favor of the new law, roughly 36.6 of the entire electorate, is a percentage that
coincides with the size of the professional or upper-middle class in the region (Navarro, February 1, 2005).
The “spiral of silence” translates into political apathy and a demobilization of a large
percentage of Catalans. An analysis of the profile of those who abstained in the referendum
vote shows a strong correlation between degree of disinterest with regard to politics and
identitarian issues (more or less equivalent in Catalonia) and identification with the working
class and with Spain as a primary community of reference. A total 60 percent of abstentionists
said they felt either as Spanish as Catalan (40 percent), more Spanish than Catalan (10
percent) or only Spanish (10 percent), a number that was 50 percent in the same survey for
the entire population (Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, 2006b). A majority of the abstentionists (72
percent) had at least one parent born outside Catalonia, while only 27.7 percent had two
Catalan-born parents. Only five percent of the abstentionist’s parents had college degrees
and at least half primary studies (Centre d’Estudis d’Opinió, 2006b). This correlation of data
permits the conclusion that as a reaction against the dominant nationalistic climate of opinion
an important part of the population has simply dropped out of politics. This segment probably
expressed more interest and support for the new Statute in polls than they ever felt. Indeed
the index of participation obtained in the referendum not only diverged substantially from the
polls prior to the votes, but also from all the levels of abstention reached in any Catalan
elections in the region’s post-Franco history of local Catalan elections (40 percent as
average) (see table 3).
Table 3: Elections for the Parliament of Catalonia
The hypothesis of a spiral of silence as a prior step to political demobilization can also be
understood by examining the priorities of the Catalan society as a whole. When asked about
the main problems that afflicted Catalan society during the months prior to the approval of the
new Statute, a majority of Catalans ranked issues related to nationalism, relations between
Spain and Catalonia, and the crisis of Catalan identity, 13 and 14, respectively, on a list of 18
items, far behind the problems of housing, lack of infrastructures, and immigration (Centre
d’Estudis d’Opinió, 2006a), issues that – not surprisingly – affect the working class the most.
Levels of electoral abstention in Catalonia have been substantially higher than in the rest of
Spain, with 26 percent in general elections and 35 percent in local elections (Boix & Riba,
2000, p. 98). Inequalities are no less marked in the rest of Spain, but lacking the identitarian factor the political discourse probably responds somewhat better to the demands and real
problems of the citizens.
Since traditional interpretation associates political demobilization with less urbanized and
developed areas, Catalonia becomes even more exceptional within a Spanish context since it
is one of the most urbanized and developed Spanish regions. Moreover, Catalonia, like the
rest of Spain, lacks the barriers that affect voter participation in other countries – such as
voter registration in the United States. Subsequently, the political demobilization of the
working class in Catalonia only can be explained through a double sentiment of alienation: on
the one hand, the adverse climate of opinion created against those who oppose the official,
elite-sustained identitarian policies; on the other hand, those, practically the same segment of
the population, who feel ignored by the political elites and for whom, after a long period of
unresponsiveness, mobilization has become that much more difficult (Avey, 1989, p. 125).
The approval of the third Statute of Catalonia, after 30 years of autonomy, seems to
consolidate a division between the interests of the political, economic and cultural elites and a
significant part of the working class that, unconcerned with issues of identity, feels excluded
from the political discourse.
The class-vindictive discourse of the Catalan left during the Franco regime switched to a
nationalist discourse in conjunction with the traditional Catalan right after Franco’s death in
1975. The expectations of an important segment of the Catalan population, mostly working
class and Spanish speaking, were frustrated by the absence of a majoritarian political option
more concerned with social issues. In addition, the climate of opinion generated by the regional media, whose informational context is identitarian, has contributed to the political and
civic disillusion of this part of the population.
An analysis of the public opinion facets permits us to infer that the nationalistic discourse of
the successive regional governments was successful in creating a climate of opinion that
affected citizenship in two ways: first, by solidifying and mobilizing that part of the citizenship
with the strongest sentiment of Catalan identity; and second, by demobilizing the rest of the
population more concerned with other social problems.
Unfortunately, studies on Catalan nationalism have tended to adopt a top-down paradigm,
focusing on the political vindications of the ruling class and the climate of opinion created by
the regional government, and minimizing other factors such as the social and political
circumstances that affect public opinion. Ultimately, this analysis illustrates that traditionally
one of the main problems in analyzing Catalan nationalism has been the unempirical
assumption of its theoretically “civic” nature, which has led to its consideration as a mass
movement. Nevertheless, the analysis of the public opinion dynamics acknowledges the
existence of a significant part of the society that, unidentified with Catalan nationalism, feels
marginal to the political discourse.
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About the Author
Ceasar Garcia earned his Ph.D. at Complutense University, Madrid. He is an assistant
professor of communication at Central Washington University. His recent publications include
to books: La opinion publica en Santayana (Public opinion in Santayana) and Historia de un
estereotipo: Intelectuales espanoles en Estado Unidos (1885-1936) (History of a stereotype:
Spanish intellectuals in the United States (1885-1936), as well as several academic articles
published in Public Relations Review, Journal of Communication and Religion, Journal of
American Culture, and the Annual Review of Public Health.