It has probably already been said everything (or almost everything) that had to be said about a potential amnesty from a criminal and constitutional law point of view. The dozens of opinions published in recent weeks have seen a heated debate over whether a potential amnesty would fit into the 1978 Constitution. Everyone will know what they defend, what their motives are and whether they do so in conscience or in self-interest. In particular, I am with the thesis defended until yesterday by many of the members of the Government in office, led by the President. Amnesty will be or will not be, but it certainly should not be.
But beyond the debate on whether a potential amnesty is appropriate, I want to reflect on a growing phenomenon that worries me because it affects something much deeper: Citizens’ trust in democracy. I am referring to the progressive normalization of arbitrariness as a way of doing politics. What we have recently come to call “changes of opinion”, when ours do, or “lying”, when others do.
That a political leader defends a position today and tomorrow the opposite is not much less a novelty, except for someone newly arrived from the planet Mars. Of course, changing your mind is healthy and smart people do it often. As the proverb says, to rectify is wise. Only fools spend their whole lives thinking the same thing. What is unusual, however, is that changes of opinion are not accompanied by a justification, even minimal. Even more so when these changes of opinion occur in a very short period of time, being human and reasonable to think that there is now (or there was then) a lie, or worse, a possible spurious interest.
In his well-known novel 1984, Orwell defined doublethinking as “the ability to hold two contradictory opinions simultaneously, two contrary beliefs at the same time.” And later he goes on to explain the way in which this tool of social engineering works: “Telling lies while sincerely believing in them, forget everything that does not fit to remember, and then, when it becomes necessary again, remove it from oblivion only for the time that suits, to deny the existence of objective reality without leaving for a moment to know that there is that reality that is denied […]. In short, thanks to doublethink the Party has been able – and will continue to be for thousands of years – to stop the course of history.”
Does this dystopia look anything like what is happening in the public space? I am not a friend of the apocalyptic theses and frankly I think that we are still very far from living in that Orwellian world, no matter how much certain events make us hear distant echoes of tyranny. But then the question is forced: Why do so many citizens begin to see as normal that the ruler acts capriciously?
Undoubtedly, we are witnessing a dangerous process of trivializing the lie. That truth that once constituted a value to preserve (to a greater or lesser extent) has passed to the background. The priority now is not to serve ideals, but to use them for the sake of particular interest. Undoubtedly, it is perfectly possible that two years ago they thought that an eventual amnesty would break the rules of coexistence and today they think, on the contrary, that such a measure constitutes the quintessence of democracy. But to operate on that change of mind, you must explain to us what change of circumstances has occurred or what powerful reasons have led you to make a one hundred and eighty degree turn. Obviously, if no explanation is given, it is legitimate and reasonable to think that we are being shaved.
In our private lives, changes of opinion on everyday issues do not require excessive doses of motivation. Sometimes even certain fickle people who are around us can seem to us as funny. Of course, if we want to be taken seriously and considered to be balanced and reasonable people, his thing is to give some reason when we affirm today that something is black and yesterday we said it was white. But in public space things change, at least in democracy. If the one who commands says one thing every day and those who obey do not ask for any justification, then we are before an exercise of capricious power. Then the mere whim of the ruler is imposed and we fall on the slippery slope of authoritarianism.
In a very interesting essay published recently, Natalia Velilla reflects from various angles on the concept of authority and points out: “We increasingly resort to potestas as an easy form of government, without an effective critical mass rebelling against the excesses of power.” (The Crisis of Authority, 2023). Some of this there is, no doubt. The citizen is no longer interested in auctoritas and is satisfied that the elected person exercises his formal power (the one who commands is mine, and that is enough for me). Ultimately, if we end up reducing the concept of democracy to the childish idea of “voting every four years,” there is no obstacle to the ruling party’s arbitrary decision-making.
In relation to this, dangerous speeches are also beginning to be heard that contradict law and democracy, implicitly assuming that democracy would be above the law. On this issue is the article by Segismundo Alvarez, published a few weeks ago under the eloquent title “Without law there is no democracy” (22/9/2023, The Objective). As Ortega already pointed out when defining liberal democracy, “public power, despite being omnipotent, limits itself to itself and seeks, even at its expense, to leave room in the state that prevails so that those who neither think nor feel like it, that is, can live. Like the strongest, like the majority” (The Rebellion of the Masses, 1930). The submission of the majority will to the laws is therefore consubstantial to the very idea of democracy.
There may also be a certain indifference to political issues seemingly alien to everyday life. A good friend argued the other day that nothing about amnesty was going to influence his day-to-day life and that his concerns were centered on charging at the end of the month and paying rent. Indifference to the public is not new or something unique about our country. And this apathy is usually accompanied by phrases such as “All politicians are the same” or “No matter what you vote because everything will remain the same”. The danger of this type of approach is evident: If the citizen is detached politics, it is foreseeable that politicians, sooner or later, end up detached from the problems of the citizen.
Finally, in a scenario of extreme polarization, I believe that fear of others is playing an important role. A few days ago, another good friend -a PSOE’s voter in the last elections- told me that amnesty is a real barbarity but that much better to cope with Vox in a hypothetical right-wing government. This way of thinking also involves a very significant risk. If we allow ours to cross all the red lines, what will prevent others from doing the same when they rule?
I could go on theorizing for eternity on why we have come to this situation, because I am sure the causes are complex and very varied. But the initial purpose of this reflection was much more modest and what has been said so far allows me to conclude. Answering the question posed in the title, I believe that the current debate on amnesty is nothing more than a symptom (perhaps the most visible at the moment) of a disease that puts democracy at serious risk. We citizens can accept that our rulers change their minds as often as necessary, as long as we are exposed to reasonable grounds to justify that change. But what we can never accept, under any circumstances, is the arbitrary exercise of power by those who govern us.