Oct. 5 2016 12:53 AM

MSU event offers lessons for American democracy

MSU event offers lessons for American democracy

To save space, here is the political news and the weather, in one report: It’s pouring excrement with no end in sight.

Hm. How’s the weather in Spain?

In May 2015, Chicago-based journalist Erica Sagrans watched Barcelona’s new mayor, Ada Colau, and 10 new City Council members take the stage at the Barcelona En Comú victory party.

In just two years, the progressive political party Podemos (We Can) harnessed the energy of 15M, Spain’s version of the Occupy movement, and swept into power in cities across Spain.

To Sagrans, Colau and her cohort looked like activists, not professional politicians. “Colau wore jeans, and the others looked like they’d been out organizing all day, no suits or heels in sight,” she reported in the monthly political journal In These Times.

Sagrans, a journalist and activist based in Chicago, is among several speakers who will share their impressions of Spain’s vibrant wave of progressive politics at an unusual MSU symposium Tuesday.

Spanish Professor Scott Boehm, mastermind of the MSU event, wanted a nonacademic like Sagrans to help him flip a current events lesson into a blueprint for Spanish-style activism in the United States. Sagrans was campaign manager of Ready for Warren, a grassroots effort to draft U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to run for president in 2016.

Boehm is frustrated that the American news media has all but ignored Spain’s political revolution.

In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign, he wanted to “have a conversation about what a political revolution in the United States might look like.”

Sagrans will bring several lessons from her Spanish experience. One is that popular movements can work with established parties while keeping their own separate identity. Another is that women have a unique potential to reset the political system.

Colau was first female mayor of Barcelona, in the Catalonia region of Spain, where previously only 14 percent of cities were run by women.

It’s not just a matter of making sure half the population is represented in government. Sagrans said she wants to ditch the traditional image of a male leader “who speaks loudly and confidently and tells everyone what to do, and moving more towards a style of cooperation, discussion and listening.”

Sebastiaan Faber, a Spanish professor at Oberlin College and a correspondent for The Nation magazine, is also a featured speaker at the MSU event. Faber, who writes about political transformation in Spain for the U.S. media, sees a lot in common between American and Spanish politics.

“There’s widespread disenchantment with the political class and the way politics operates,” Faber said. “Approval ratings for politicians are at historic lows in both the U.S. and Spain.”

In Spain and the U.S., ethnic and racial factors come into play in different ways. Spain is a patchwork of distinct nationalities with a proud history that has no real equivalent in America. At the MSU event, philosophy Professor Tacuma Peters and pre-law student Alexis Adams will talk about a different fault line: the tricky interplay between the Black Lives Matter movement and Bernie Sanders-style populism.

“You can’t have a conversation about political revolution in the U.S. without talking about Black Lives Matter,” Boehm said.

Could a Spanish-style political revolution happen in America? Faber urged caution and patience, two quantities that are in short supply these days. Faber has watched electorates in many countries, from his native Holland to the post-Obama United States, swing from extreme hope to extreme disappointment.

“Even among my students at Oberlin, there was amazing enthusiasm for Obama, and after a year they were saying ‘See? He’s not who we thought he was going to be,’” he said.

Despite remarkable success in the cities, the wave of progressive politics in Spain has largely stalled at the national level, where the government has been in gridlock for a year, unable to form a coalition.

“It’s not clear what’s going to happen in Spain, but every day that passes in deadlock benefits the establishment parties, especially the conservative party,” Faber said.

Boehm admitted that there are “a lot of dark headlines” all over the world. When he taught a course on the Spanish Civil War last semester, the name of Donald Trump kept coming up whenever they talked about Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

“We debated the fascist label, and it’s a legitimate debate,” he said.

But Boehm sees “pockets of light” all over the world, not just in Spain. Recent elections in Berlin and Peru have pushed progressive leaders into the spotlight.

“Rome elected its first woman mayor in history, coming from a similar popular movement,” Boehm said.

Closer to home, Sagrans cited the rise Chicago mayoral candidate Jésus “Chuy” Garcia, who forced Mayor Rahm Emmanuel into an unprecedented runoff election, then won 44 percent of the vote in his losing bid.

“Cities have the most fruitful grounds for this to begin in the U.S.,” Sagrans said.

To that end, Boehm has reached out more than usual to promote the MSU event, in the hope of generating a city-wide dialogue instead of another ivory-tower academic conclave.

“We have an important role to play in terms of how we understand, critique and ultimately transform our society,” he said.


olitical Revolution? Lessons from Spain
Conversation with Sebastian Faber and Erica Sagrans
5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11
S107 S. Kedzie Auditorium