Catalan and Spanish Nationalism from a political psychology perspective

My name is Miquel, with a q. It’s a Catalan name, the Catalan version of Miguel, or Michael. I speak Catalan but do not know how to write it. I was born in Madrid and lived there until I was around 20. My city is Madrid. During all my childhood, people in Madrid often called me Miguel and I always corrected them: “it’s Miquel, with a q”. People were often visibly unhappy that I insisted to be called Miquel instead of Miguel. Some of my teachers when I was a schoolboy never got around to call me Miquel, some out of inattentiveness, some out of principle. During the Franco era, regional names were banned, and apparently some people had not fully adjusted yet.

For these personal and other ideological reasons, I always felt extremely negative towards Centralist Spanish (or Castillan) nationalism. It always amazed me how deep it ran in Madrid. People in Madrid would get extremely emotional and upset when it came to discussing Catalan issues. Quiet people that would generally not be very vocal about politics would get incensed when it came to Catalan issues. People of relatively conservative ideologies, who would be suspicious of government spending and redistribution, would invoke all sorts of equity considerations when it came to regional economic disparities within Spain: inequality within regions was no problem it seemed, but between regions it was.

I had relatively little contact with the other side of the story, with the Catalan nationalism side. Whenever I met Catalans they were very friendly to me. I think they may have found it cool that being form Madrid I spoke Catalan. When Catalan nationalism came up, I generally didn’t feel uncomfortable. Only once I recall witnessing an aggressive-victimistic version of their nationalism. Of course, the Catalans I met, I met them abroad, so they were quite a selected sample: young academics doing their PhDs abroad mostly. They were interesting people, nice people.

Then I spent one semester teaching at the Autonoma University in Barcelona. I taught Economic Policy to undergraduate Political Scientists. Many of my students were vocally nationalist. In some sense I was amazed at the self confidence of their nationalism. You could feel they felt in the right, and that they felt powerful. Mostly they combined Catalan nationalism with a left wing redistributive ideology. In some ways I found them sympathetic, but in another I didn’t. They thought they were a “critical” bunch, but it turned out they were selectively critical. As an example: I dedicated a whole lecture to inequality, showing trends in income inequality indices in Spain in previous years. It turned out inequality had decreased somewhat. But they wouldn’t register it: As everyone knew, the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer…

I left Barcelona feeling less sympathetic towards Catalan nationalism than when I arrived. But I never felt about Catalan nationalism as as bad as I did about Central Spanish, (Castillian) nationalism. Of course, part of it is that Spanish nationalism is inextricably associated with the Francoist dictatorship. However, there’s more than that, and what we have witnessed on the referendum day I think reflects this.

Catalonia has always been a high status region in Spain. They are rich. They did industrialize! They are sophisticated. It felt as if Catalans had a more “European” spirit than the rest of Spain. In the words of the Fiske, Cuddy, and Glick papers, they are the competent ones. Castillans are stereotyped as warm, but Catalans as competent. They have high status.

I always had an issue with Catalan nationalism from a “leftist” perspective. It Is hard for someone that cares about inequality to really agree with the nationalism and desires of independence of a high status group. Sorting increases inequality. I’m no expert on Catalan history so can not evaluate claims about historical relations between Spain and Catalonia. But I do know that it is not comparable to what colonized people have suffered in terms of exploitation and discrimination from their colonizers in other parts of the world. It is hard to feel a priori sympathetic to their plight…

…if it weren’t for the Spanish Centralist Nationalism.

If the Catalans have status, the Castillans have power. And, as Fast, Halevy and Galinsky 2012 found, power without status is destructive. It is used to demean others. As they mention: “lacking status makes one feel disrespected and unappreciated, which can trigger aggressive compensatory behaviors aimed at boosting self-worth”.

This is what we have seen on the referendum day. It was not necessary for the police to intervene violently. It was not necessary politically for the Central Government to make a statement of force, a display of their power to demean. As people commented in twitter, It would have been enough to let it go through and then claim that the referendum had no legitimacy. But the government needs to satisfy a base that maybe welcomes a show of power that compensates for their perceived low status.


Fast N.J., Halevy N., Galinsky A.D. (2012): “The destructive nature of power without status.” J Exp Soc Psychol, 48:391-394.

Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Glick, P. (2007). “Universal dimensions of social perception: Warmth and competence.” Trends in Cognitive Science, 11:77–83.


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