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Spain • Progressive Conservatism

Rajoy's "new" conservative framing

Carlos Mulas-Granados & Carmen de Paz - 16 May 2012

A new public attitudes survey highlights the extent to which conservatives are using progressive language to blur and manipulate traditional ideological boundaries

The Spanish conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP), seems to be successfully replicating the new so-called “progressive conservatism” strategy that other right-of-centre parties are using across Europe to soften and modernise their image while redefining the centre-ground of the ideological space.

The Spanish version of this “progressive conservatism” shares its main substantive features with the northern-European model: firstly, the redefinition of the current crisis as a state rather than a market failure; secondly, the promotion of scepticism about the public sector; and thirdly, the apparent renewal of traditional conservative social values.

The confusion this new conservatism can generate is fatal for progressive parties. On the surface, it blurs ideological differences between right and left and makes it more difficult for the left to focus public debate on the issues central to social democracy. Nevertheless, behind a seemingly progressive discourse, the Spanish right still hides a very conservative agenda, especially in social terms; albeit much harder to identify.

In this sense, two specific features of this new conservatism can be highlighted in Spain: the use of a misleading discourse, often contradicted by practice or final outcomes, which emphasises growth and employment creation as the final objective of the government’s otherwise controversial measures; and the compensation of hard conservative initiatives with apparently more progressive policies.

The new PP government’s explanation of the crisis, and thus also the response to the crisis, has focused, among other things, on inefficiencies in the public sector and labour markets. With the overall and hypothetical objective of favouring economic growth the PP government has thus passed much contested labour market reforms, introduced additional fiscal adjustments ─ mostly based on expenditure cuts ─ and is also slowly implementing relevant changes in the provision of essential public services.

At the same time, and as a somewhat compensatory measure, the government is working on legislation to improve and ensure the transparency of all public administration and has introduced a significant rise in personal/income taxes. Although both measures have been generally regarded as progressive, the former had already been prepared by the previous Socialist government, while the potential outcome of the latter is not as ¨social-democratic¨ as it might at first seem because, in a country like Spain, the middle and working classes predominantly pay taxes through their place of employment.

Rather than changing the substance of their traditional agenda, the Spanish right, as with other right-wing parties throughout Europe, has, in professor George Lakoff’s terms, mastered the ability to ¨[re-]frame¨ the political narrative. A recent IDEAS research project on political framing in Spain has found that the concepts and values evoked by this re-framed political discourse has significantly altered the public perception of what are otherwise unaltered and conventional PP policies and measures.

The IDEAS project is based on the assumption that there are two major ideological perspectives, and thus two main visions of the world and life: conservative and progressive. The moral foundations of the progressive vision are protection, justice and positive freedom (ensuring citizens have the power and resources to fulfill their own potential). Conservatives, by contrast, emphasise authority, ownership and negative freedom (the absence of intervention by others).

IDEAS analysis indicates that there has been a neo-conservative colonisation of traditionally progressive rhetoric in recent years as terms such as protection, solidarity, freedom and opportunity have become increasingly present in conservative discourses. Similarly, it has found that adoption of conservative rhetoric by progressive forces might have helped fuel the effectiveness of the “progressive conservatism” strategy.

In this sense, the new “moderate” PP seems to be effectively using concepts such as efficiency, responsibility, protection, excellence or freedom in order to justify and defend positions and policies with outcomes that are far from progressive. On the other hand, the systematic association of public sector services and “bureaucracy” with idleness and waste, and the successful re-framing by conservatives of the public perception of government expenditure as spendthrift and lacking sustainability are also helping to make it easier to implement further conservative public sector reforms.

This narrative of “enhanced efficiency and responsibility in public administration” translates in practice as cuts to the public sector and workers´ rights. Similarly, the “protection of maternity” has proven to mean restrictions on the regulation of abortion that threatens to undo all of the progress that has been achieved over the last thirty years, while “excellence and free choice in education or health service provision” now appears to mean widespread privatisation - and thus a deterioration of public services and, in reality, less actual choice for the majority.  

Positive freedom, ie the capacity of an individual to fulfil their personal potential regardless of circumstances, is as such a progressive value; completely separate from the negative principle used by the conservative right, which is instead primarily associated with free-markets. Nevertheless, the conservatives seem to have monopolised the term freedom in Spain, despite their rather hypocritical actions as regards personal civil rights.

In this regard, according to the IDEAS survey, although 97% of respondents agreed that state intervention in the economy and markets is generally negative, around 80% would support the idea that state intervention is necessary to prevent speculation or ensure equality of opportunity. This suggests that all measures related with state intervention in the economy and markets would be better accepted when properly justified based on their objectives.

On the other hand, the survey suggested that conventionally conservative principles would gather more support, even among conservative respondents, when framed in progressive terms. For instance, 89% of respondents would agree with a progressive idea of patriotism (92% of the conservative respondents), as the defence of tolerance, integration and respect for all cultural options in ones´ country; rather than the definition of patriotism as the defence of the unity of Spain and the Spanish above all, which only 63% of respondents supported (86% among conservatives).

Equality of opportunity, linked with effective social mobility, merit and freedom, is another central principle and objective for progressives. However, equality appears to be increasingly perceived in a negative way, as opposed to merit, and often associated with inefficiency and even unfairness. Worryingly, this perception, traditionally the exclusive preserve of conservatives, is becoming ever more accepted by larger sectors of progressive voters.

The survey’s findings go further. When speaking of state administration, citizens tend to distinguish between the concepts of public servant and civil servant, and between different types of public servants. In this sense, the same survey shows that 75% of respondents support paying more taxes to hire public servants such as doctors, teachers and scientists, 52% support paying more taxes to hire judges or security forces, and only 21% to hire more civil servants. This result confirms that the concept of the civil service is associated with negative connotations of bureaucracy.

The survey also illustrates that highly controversial issues, especially delicate for progressives in Europe, such as immigration and immigrant rights, can also be presented in ways that do not betray progressive values while responding to the growing concerns of a majority of citizens. For instance, although most respondents did not agree with allowing the use of the veil in public spaces based on the freedom to decide on one’s outfit, the percentage of acceptance increased by 12% when respondents were asked if they did not agree with forbidding the veil to ensure that immigrants adapt to domestic customs (23%).

Based on these results, it seems that by using an inadequate framing, progressives are only helping to reinforce neo-conservatives arguments; and that by using a “progressive conservative” framing the right-wing could be gaining further support for their policies even among left-wing voters. In this sense, even the term “progressive-conservatism” plays to the right-wing ideology advantage; for this neo-conservative discourse and practice is only progressive in speech, while there is little real progress involved.

The emerging neo-conservative agenda and discourse in Europe is a significant challenge for progressive movements, especially at a crucial time when policy alternatives to move out of the crisis remain unclear. However, this IDEAS study indicates that a counter-strategy focused specifically on communication would, at the very least, help to avoid strengthening the neo-conservative message and may even provide a first and much needed step to exposing this conservative spin for what it is.  After all, words do not only describe reality; they also help to build it.

This is a contribution to the Policy Network observatory series on "Progressive" conservatism in Europe

Carlos Mulas-Granados and Carmen de Paz are, respectively, executive director and head of the International Network at IDEAS Foundation

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Carlos Mulas-Granados , Carmen de Paz , Spain , progressive conservatism , PSOE , Popular Party , IDEAS , George Lakoff , Mariano Rajoy , social attitudes , welfare state , nationalism


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19 October 2012 16:09

Daniel Miller & Frunger , what is your factual asesesmsnt of the Marshall Plan??What do you believe to be the cons??Let`s have a few facts here rather than just a bunch of nonsense.Nothing is ever gained in a non-factual discussion as all ideas get tossed out the window , the good & the bad.What corrections would you want to see??What do you like about it??Be sure & thoroughly analyze it before you comment--the present discussion presents nothing constructive at all.Why waste an opportunity that will never come along again.Dr Mike Popovich

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21 September 2012 10:05

Wrong, Republicans don't get marching orerds like Democrats. We are free thinkers, not socialist elitist's who are spoon feed ideas via Airhead America.Ooops, no more Airhead, at least you guys still have the daily kos and the huffinton post to get your talking points from.

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17 July 2012 10:15

Frunger:Are you for real?In one breath you say "87% of reaptndsnos had no bloody idea."and in the next breath you say:"I'm pretty politically aware and I haven't read the thing."Hello? Are you always this presumptuous and blind?There were two questions that were asked. The first question had a "don't know" response level of 9% and the second question had a "don't know" response level of 18%.Even if you added those two numbers together (and what king of idiot would?) you'd still have to multiply them by 3.2 times to get your moronic and fanciful argument that 87% don't know.But then one sentence later, you admit that you don't know!LOL!I think your credibility is at issue here, and certainly not the professionals at Environics Reasearch.Brent Fullard

07 June 2012 10:11

The 87% number was puelld out of my posterior as a comment on how likely it is that the people being asked the questions had any idea what the Marshall Plan was. If you sincerly believe that only 9% and 18% didn't know the answer the their questions then you are the foolish one.People don't typically like to be taken as dumb, and when a stranger asks them a simple to answer "Do you like it or not" question to something unknown to them, it's easy to lie. If they asked an opened ended question or two to weed out those who 'have no bloody idea' you might get a reasonable result, but then it would be based on a laughably small sample size and useless to draw any conclusions from.I don't question the credibility of Environics at all. I suspect they were given instructions as to what questions to ask, and I know they are not naive enough to think that if you ask questions about a detailed, not widely understood policy plan then you'll get an incoherant, hardly reliable sample of responses. If someone pays you to do something stupid, you say "Thank you very much sir, how can I help you." and take their money.If I cared to provide the funding, I'd bet you your website that I could ask 1000 Canadians whether it would be a good idea to include the "McNally Future Prosperity Investment Plan" in the 2010 Budget and get similar numbers.It sounds like such a great idea, except that IT DOESN'T EXIST. Not that the average person would even know that. They could have changed "Marshall" to "Mathers" and the result would have been the same, except Eminem would get a little chuckle out of it.Hope you thought it was money well spent.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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