When I attend dinner parties, my status as a dual citizen of Spain and the United States often becomes a source of interest and discussion — a reflection, I’ve found, of a broader American fascination with all things European. I have come to expect and find amusement in questions about bullfighting legislation, the Spanish community of expatriates, the secret language of fan performance, Flamenco lessons and recipes for tortillas.
Last Saturday, however, the commentary on my Spanish heritage took an unexpected turn: “Your new king’s coronation is this week, isn’t it?” one colleague casually remarked. “How … backward.”
Backward. The word took me aback. I have endured many a battering comment about the alleged inadequacy of the Spanish crown. I have been told that my now-former king, Juan Carlos, is a corrupt power-monger, an enemy of the environment for his elephant-hunting hobby and a tactless diplomat, as demonstrated by his 2007 televised recommendation that Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez “shut up.” Never, however, had I been told upfront that the Spanish kingdom — along with its supporters — is regressive.
What left me stunned was the realization that flowed from a cursory interrogation of the people in the room and a quick search of the Web: Most Americans apparently would agree that a monarchy is archaic.
I, along with a majority of Spaniards, disagree — and it would seem that an explanation is in order.
The most common criticism I have heard in favor of abolishing the Spanish monarchy stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what that monarchy is.
American accounts of King Juan Carlos and his reign often paint a picture of an autocrat enacting laws at will, draining the funds of the treasury and suggesting his people quiet down and eat their cake.
In reality, the Spanish Constitution of 1978 established a parliamentary democracy with a king as a largely ceremonial head of state. In a majestic shift in the balance of power, European monarchies have adapted to the democratic waves of the 19th and 20th centuries, awarding royal families a fixed salary and subjugating them to the will of the people.
This version of a monarch effectively creates a groomed figurehead who is neither swayed by electoral blocs nor sworn to push a fixed platform, granting him the liberty to align his support with his beliefs rather than his political interests.
Furthermore, a constitutional monarchy distributes the political power of the country between a head of government and a head of state — a distribution whose value as a brake on the exercise of authority is recognized by most governments in the Eurozone and beyond.
The potential for a Spanish monarch to check abuses of power became a reality in 1975. Upon Francisco Franco’s death, a changeover period began during which Juan Carlos — named Franco’s successor four years prior — was expected to give continuity to the dictatorship. Instead, the Bourbon king declared himself a firm supporter of Spain’s transition into a modern democracy and proceeded to play a pivotal role in installing Prime Minister Adolfo Suarez in 1976, drafting the Constitution of 1978 and liberating the country from fascism.
Whatever the actions of individual rulers, the principal reason Spanish royalists continue to support a monarchy is for its capacity to symbolize the unity of the nation. In a country plagued by secessionist sects, ethnic rifts and a gaping socioeconomic divide — reflected by a staggering 25 percent unemployment rate — a monarchy that represents longstanding national values often provides the sole common ground for antithetical interest groups.
It is by virtue of this continued need for a unifying force that the kings of Spain, England and 24 other monarchical governments are anything but backward — they are a bridge between the true-and-tested traditions of the past and the changing world of the 21st century.
Felipe VI, the newly crowned king of Spain, is the first to recognize the responsibility of the monarchy to adapt to a new generation. During his coronation Thursday, Felipe outlined the updated platform of the monarchy, citing his conviction to eliminate racial discrimination and promote new technologies, entrepreneurship, gender equality and environmental cognizance. The king also will uphold the 2007 Royal Assent in support of same-sex marriage and has vocally supported absolute primogeniture, which will allow his firstborn daughter Leonor to ascend the throne after centuries of male precedence.
Progress and tradition can go hand in hand, each helping a nation navigate a world undergoing exponential change.
Rocio Cara Labrador is an intern in the Post-Gazette business department this summer (firstname.lastname@example.org). She will return to Dartmouth College as a senior in the fall, majoring in classical archaeology and government.