The storming of the American Capitol building on the 6th of January 2021 during a session to formalize Joe Biden’s presidential victory made headlines around the world. For many Americans, the fact that there was an armed attempt to disrupt a democratic transition of power was a worrying sign of democratic backsliding and the consequence of years of extreme partisanship. The siege suggested a grim vision of America’s political future.
However, 40 years ago, the Spanish political system was able to recover from a similar event, in what could be an instructive experience for contemporary America. In February 1981, the Spanish political system, which had rapidly democratised following the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975, faced its first real test when a radical but small military faction led by Colonel Antonio Tejero attempted to seize power in a military coup. Tejero led a group of soldiers that stormed the Spanish Parliament during a vote to select the new Prime Minister. They proceeded to hold key members of the government, as well as MPs, hostage at gunpoint. Later that night, King Juan Carlos repudiated the coup plotters on national TV, and when it became clear that no more military units would join the uprising, the plotters surrendered. Although there were some injuries, miraculously nobody was killed during the coup attempt. The success of the nascent Spanish democracy in recovering from this coup attempt has much to teach America in the aftermath of the 6th of January attack.
Coups attempts are often thought to be the providence of weak dictatorships and transitioning democracies. The fact that one occurred in America in 2021 should be setting off alarm bells, as it shows a clear decline in state capacity and democratic norms. Several writers have already argued that the decline of democracy has caused irreparable damage and that the partisan divide in America is too large to cross. The experience of Spain, however, suggests that this is not the case, and that post-coup attempts at democratic renewal, though hard, are possible. However, in the US, initial attempts to promote reconciliation have so far failed to gain traction.
In Spain, after the 1981 coup attempt, diverse groups of political actors worked together to condemn the coup and restore public confidence in the democratic political system. Four days after 23rd February, a demonstration of more than a million and a half people took the streets of Madrid. Leading the march were the leaders of the main political parties, as well as business and trade union leaders. This was a show of unity and collective support for democracy. During this period—where there was a perception of a possible “fracture of Spain,” as well as real danger of civil war—this solidarity event was critical to maintaining Spanish democracy.
The challenge of post-coup national reconciliation and restoring public confidence in the democratic political system may be more difficult for America than it was in Spain. This is largely due to the post-modern and post-truth nature of modern American politics. Political leaders preaching reconciliation will struggle to compete with the rapidly changing narratives of conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, an increasing number of Americans are willing to alter facts to fit their worldview. This has already happened with the storming of the Capitol. A few days after the attack on Congress, Yougov found that a simple majority of Republicans, 45%, supported the coup attempt. However, a few weeks later after several Republican lawmakers and Fox News TV hosts had argued without evidence that far-left groups like Antifa were actually behind the storming, 69% of Republicans voters thought that far-left groups were responsible for the coup attempt.
Other differences between both coups are seen in the actions of political elites. After the 23rd February coup, the major Spanish political parties agreed to continue to decentralise and democratise the country partially because they believed this would prevent coup attempts in the future. On the other hand, the Republican party in America has responded to the 2020 election and subsequent coup attempt by refusing to criticize and disavow Trump’s statements that the 2020 election was rigged. Few Republicans have dared to confront the former president who despite currently having no democratically elected position is seen to exercise significant control of the Republican party.
A coup attempt is likely to affect politics for years to come. However, the Spanish experience shows that it can actually augment democratic norms and overcome political impasses. In the 1982 Spanish election—where Tejero’s coup attempt was a major issue—the main social democratic party, the PSOE, was able to win the biggest majority in the democratic history of the country, ending a period of dysfunctional government. Furthermore, all of the parties in the Spanish Parliament unanimously condemned the attempted coup. And radical parties lost ground in the 1982 election, suggesting a depolarisation of Spanish society. Fuerza Nueva, the extreme-right party, which won one seat in the previous election, disappeared. The communists lost almost all of their seats. Finally, an attempt by Tejero, the best-known face of the coup, to run for elections in order to receive parliamentary immunity ended with him receiving a mere 0.14% of the vote. Tejero was subsequently sentenced to 30 years of prison by the Supreme Court, in a ruling which condemned 30 people for “instigation.” Tejero was eventually pardoned, after 15 years in prison, to “contribute in forgetting facts that must remain in the past.”
In contrast to Spain, the American political system has so far failed to create a sense of national unity, and Trump’s political brand remains strong. Only 10 Republican Representatives and 7 Senators voted to impeach Trump and a “demonstration for democracy” or moment of reflection has yet to manifest. Indeed, recently, Senate Republicans blocked an inquiry into the events of the 6th of January and have worked to purge anti-Trump Republicans, such as Liz Cheney, from leadership positions. This likely means that Trump will avoid any political or legal consequences for his role in the coup attempt, and he has promised to use his immense popularity among Republican voters to run again for president in 2024.
Spain in 1981 and the US in 2021 are obviously different in numerous ways, having vastly different histories and political cultures. However, in both countries, the attempted coups mark an inflection point. While there was little chance of either coup overthrowing the political system, they have revealed that these democratic political systems are much weaker than many imagine. Worryingly, the US has already missed the opportunity for immediate post-coup reconciliation. If Americans want to preserve democracy in their country, the onus is on Republicans to condemn the attempted coup and abandon both Trump and the legacy left by the events of the 6th of January.