Spain and the U.S. are allies with very different societies and cultures, but they increasingly resemble each other in at least one respect: each country's political arena features a new and energized conservative movement ready to wage battle to take back cultural ground lost to the Left in recent years.
And, in both countries, this new combative Right must contend with conservatives happy to accept the Left's gains and simply promise to manage the economy better.
Into this landscape has just stepped Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who was this month anointed leader of the traditional conservative party, the Partido Popular (PP). Most people expect him to be a competent steward of the economy—in fact, the backhanded compliment one always hears of him is that "es buen gerente"—he's a good manager.
Feijóo will have to demonstrate to his critics that he is also willing to wage a battle of ideas, because nipping at the PP's heels is another conservative party, Vox, that is lustily embracing the cultural battle, and being rewarded for it. The PP and Vox are polling well, at 23 percent and 19 percent respectively. These numbers are large enough that the two are closing in on an absolute parliamentary majority, but small enough that one can't do without the other.
Such a PP-Vox governing coalition has just been formed in the Castille-Leon region, to the great discomfort of socialists in Madrid and Brussels, who grumble that Vox's embrace of cultural issues should put it out of bounds. This will sound familiar to many Americans who heard the same thing during the Trump era. Vox is a party where Senators Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio would feel right at home.
The similarities with the U.S. are no coincidence. The ongoing rebellion by American parents against critical race theory and gender ideology in schools has inspired many Spanish parents who want to stop the indoctrination of children that Spain's extreme left imported from America starting in the 2000s. Glenn Youngkin, who became governor of Virginia after finally embracing a parents' crusade, has fans in Spain.
After 10 days touring the country—during which I met with top leaders and many everyday Spaniards—I heard Youngkin's name over and over. No sooner had I returned to Washington than I started receiving emails and WhatsApp messages from people I spoke with on initiatives parents are undertaking to protect their children.
Enter Feijóo. The long-serving leader of the Galician region launched his bid for the PP's leadership when its outgoing chief, Pablo Casado, had to step down after losing a well-publicized scrape with the very popular president of the Madrid region, the PP's Isabel Díaz Ayuso.
Trouble is, many fear Feijóo will eschew the battle of ideas and concentrate on pocketbook issues. Galicia, a rainy, Celtic region with misty mountains and valleys echoing bagpipes, has a reputation for producing cautious, non-committal people—in a country known for rewarding audacity even when it borders on recklessness.
These are stereotypes, of course. Spain is a multi-faceted place where the matador is but one of many icons, along with the fashion designer and the philosopher. Nor are Galicians uniformly vague and evasive taciturns.
But it is an unavoidable reality that the stereotype comes up constantly. In late March, a TV commentator said that Feijóo "must avoid reminding the country constantly that he's Galician." To which a fellow panelist shot back to her, "I'm a Galician! What is wrong with it?" She gave him a knowing smile.
Feijóo, it is thus feared, may shy from leading a "Reconquista" against draconian gender laws and revisionism about the 1936-39 Civil War—an eerie echo of the falsehoods spread stateside by the 1619 Project. Vox, however, will keep pushing the PP to go on the offensive. Ayuso is also a fighter.
There is real fear that the EU would intervene in the event of a conservative victory in next year's elections, and pressure Feijóo not to form a coalition government with Vox. Brussels could, for example, ask the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party to abstain from a vote of no-confidence, thereby letting the PP govern Spain with a minority without Vox. That would be gross interference in the affairs of a sovereign country, but such interference is what the EU habitually does. It would be one more reminder of how lucky the U.K. was to escape the EU through Brexit.
The table is thus set for Feijóo. If he fails to grasp the moment—and the importance of valores, or values—and walks away after voters give him the opportunity to form a coalition with Vox, he could destroy the PP forever. It would show Spain that, no, he wasn't a good manager. And it would offer a lesson for American conservatives who shy away from cultural battlefields.
This piece originally appeared in Newsweek