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The Mexican Election and the Hinge of History

What does Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s rise to the presidency mean for global liberal democracies?

Paul Berman
July 02, 2018
Photo: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images
Andrés Manuel López Obrador salutes attendees after his virtual victory in the elections for the Presidency of Mexico in the Media Center at the Hilton Hotel on July 1, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico.Photo: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images
Photo: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images
Andrés Manuel López Obrador salutes attendees after his virtual victory in the elections for the Presidency of Mexico in the Media Center at the Hilton Hotel on July 1, 2018 in Mexico City, Mexico.Photo: Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images

Does the victory in Mexico of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, aka AMLO, count as one more wave in the tide of populist triumphs over liberal democracy across the world?—an event akin to the populist successes in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy, and sundry other places, unto our own benighted place, except left wing instead of right wing?—an event with global meaning, therefore, echoing and strengthening all the other events? Maybe so. I am skeptical about the global meaning, though. And I do not think that, in Mexico’s case, the election has to be a catastrophe.

It is certainly not true that López Obrador is another Hugo Chávez. Outright madness was Chávez’s appeal. I attended a speech of Chávez’s in New York many years ago, and it was wild. He was the leader of the worldwide revolution, he was the fulcrum of world history—and that was Chávez on a good day, trying to impress the Americans. Normally he was worse. To see Chávez at his basest—to appreciate demagogy at its lowest, in a version deeper than anything even Donald Trump has attempted—to appreciate, in short, Mussolini—you should take a moment to watch a video of Chávez ranting, “I am no longer me, I am a people,” to an enormous crowd of flag-waving Venezuelans, with oratorical flourishes invoking “love” and “socialism” and “Christianity” in palpitating vibrato. And, sure enough, Chávez and his loyal heir, Nicolás Maduro, did what anyone would have predicted from the vibrato palpitations, and they took one of the richest countries in Latin America and wrecked its democratic institutions, and wrecked the oil industry, and wrecked the larger economy, and reduced the masses to actual starvation, and sent millions of Venezuelans fleeing into exile, as if escaping a forest fire.

The one time I had the opportunity to attend a speech by López Obrador, which was early in his national career in Mexico, the tone was pleasingly different. This was at a big synagogue in the Polanco district of Mexico City, where López Obrador was warmly received, if only because, in those days, he was a follower of the historic leader of the Mexican left, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, who was very warmly received. López Obrador’s speech at the synagogue was tedious and flat. But neither was it insane. He went on to become mayor of Mexico City, and his mayoralty was likewise not insane. And yet, over the years López Obrador adopted a more grandiose tone, precisely in the way that Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, in the past, had always refused to do.

It was Cárdenas who launched the modernization of Mexico, and he did so back in 1988 by offering the first plausible electoral challenge to the old dictatorship of the Party of the Institutional Revolution, or PRI. Probably Cárdenas won that election, too, or, at least, a great many people thought so, which meant that, after the results were announced and Cárdenas was declared the loser, he could have called for an uprising. Units of the Mexican army appeared to be nervously stirring about, either preparing a coup, or preparing to put down a coup, which could have led to a civil war—a real possibility for a few days. But Cárdenas chose to accept his defeat. Cárdenas was a great man. López Obrador, by contrast, ran for the presidency in 2006 and was declared the loser by half a percentage point, which made it easy to suppose that he, too, might have been defrauded (though without any convincing evidence). But López Obrador decided to do what Cárdenas had refrained from doing.

López Obrador proclaimed himself the legitimate president and filled the Zócalo plaza and the main avenue in Mexico City with enormous crowds of his supporters, and he kept the crowds there for many months, which was an obvious effort to inspire crowds in other parts of the country to stage their own protests and uprisings, surely in the hope that ultimately the army officers would join, as well. But what would military intervention have achieved? A Mexican civil war in 2006 could have outdone Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution” in its dreadfulness. Maybe some corner of López Obrador’s soul is, in fact, a bit like Hugo Chávez.

He went back to being a good citizen. But a certain grandiosity of tone remained with him, such that, in the election just now, he presented himself as the leader of the fourth turning point or revolution in Mexican history, after the Independence from Spain in 1821, and the Reform War of 1857 (which set out to abolish feudal-type institutions), and the Revolution of the 1910s (which established the fundamentals of a democratic culture). But that is not so bad. Mexico could use a fourth revolution, which is why people voted for him. He ran his campaign in a respectable manner. A great many politicians and activists on the local level around the country were murdered in the course of the campaign—as many as 137 people, which is one more shocking crime statistic, on top of many years of shocking crime statistics in Mexico—but those people were killed by the criminal gangs, and not by López Obrador’s movement.

None of his plans make sense, though. He wants to address the problems of the poor, who are 40 percent of the population, and he proposes worthy programs of every kind. But he has not come up with a way to pay for any of it. He proposes to reduce Mexico’s economic relations with the rest of the world, to retreat in some degree into Mexican isolation, and especially to reduce the oil industry’s reliance on world trade. He wants to get rid of the foreign oil workers and experts, as in times gone by. But the economics of the past are not likely to do much in the future.

He proposes to find the money by cracking down on corruption. But he has made himself the enemy of the very institutions in Mexico that might have a chance of cracking down on corruption. Mexico needs independent courts and a spirit or élan of the rule of law, which means something of a cultural change. But López Obrador wants to concentrate power in himself, which means a spirit or élan of presidential centralization. The spread and growth of the crime syndicates presents a ghastly threat to society at an astounding level. The effort to defeat the crime syndicates with military force has not been a success. López Obrador proposes an amnesty for some of the criminals, which is probably a good idea, under the circumstances. But the only long-term solution has to mean a culture of law, and this is not his own project.

Fundamentally his project appears to be a return to the days of left-wing populism under the PRI in the 1970s, when the president was Luis Echeverría. The presidency of Echeverría was, however, corrupt, violent, and authoritarian. It may have been the Good Old Days for the oil-workers union and various other people, but it was not a success for Mexico as a whole. The reform movements that got underway in the next decades were meant precisely to undo the corrupt old authoritarianism of those years. López Obrador appears to be undiscouraged, though. In this respect, instead of resembling Hugo Chávez and the Chavista madness in Venezuela, he may resemble Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, whose own idea in recent years has been to reconstitute the old Somoza dictatorship of Nicaragua, in a version that calls itself left wing. But Daniel Ortega has not been having a lot of success with that idea lately.

It is of course understandable why the Mexicans have voted for López Obrador. The Mexican economy has been advancing at a level of 2 percent, which is not terrible, except that both of those percents have gone to the northern part of the country, and to certain classes of people, with everyone else left out, which is not good. And democratic liberties have likewise been advancing at a rate of 2 percent, when 10 percent would be preferable. So the people, infuriated, have decided to throw the bums out, which is good, even if the new bum is a bit dubious. At least it can be said that, by voting overwhelmingly for López Obrador and his party, the people have given the man a real chance, and whether he proves to be another bum or the fourth revolution of Mexican history is, in some degree, up to him. Ultimately, López Obrador’s victory does not seem to me to be an event of worldwide significance, though, and that is because of a peculiarity of the Mexican political culture. Mexico is the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and, from Aztec and Maya times onward, has always possessed the makings of a major world civilization. But Mexicans have never thought of themselves as a force in world history. There was a moment during the 1930s when the Mexicans, under the greatest of their leaders, who was Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’s father, President Lázaro Cárdenas, responded to the Spanish Civil War by offering aid to the valiant Spanish republicans. But the aid did not amount to much, and the Mexicans in later years never repeated the effort.

The Mexicans are different in that respect from Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan fulcrum of the universe, and different even from Chávez’s hero from 200 years ago, Simón Bolívar, whose international ambitions were vast. The Mexicans are different from the late and well-remembered Máximo Jefe of poor and oppressed Cuba, who was likewise a fulcrum of world history; and different from the Nicaragua of Ortega’s Sandinistas, who entertain global ambitions of some kind even today, perhaps through (it is rumored) relations with Hezbollah. The Mexicans are different from the various European movements of the radical left that display an interest in international solidarity and the world revolution—all of whom, in Europe, combine an ardent sympathy for the leftists of Latin America with a still more ardent sympathy for the anti-Zionists of the Middle East (viz., Jeremy Corbyn, with whom López Obrador is not too convincingly compared; Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France, whose ardor for the heritage of Hugo Chávez is unmatched anywhere around the world, and who likewise cultivates an ardor for the anti-Zionist cause; and the Podemos Party in Spain, ardently pro-Chávez and more zealously anti-Zionist than everyone else, such that cities all over Spain are abubble right now with animosity to Israel).

López Obrador and his political movement, by contrast, appear to entertain no foreign policy ambitions at all, apart from the necessity of retaining Mexico’s dignity in the face of the bully of the White House. Not even the cause of defeating Zionism seems to engage López Obrador’s sympathies. On the contrary! One of the curiosities of the Mexican election has been a vogue for left-right coalitions, which has meant that López Obrador’s opposition on the right, or what is said to be on the right, was actually an opposition by the right-wing National Action Party in coalition with the old left-wing party that used to be Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas’, the Party of the Democratic Revolution. And, in the same spirit, López Obrador’s political ticket actually consisted of his own left-wing party, called Morena, in coalition with a still more left-wing party, the tiny Labor Party, which is Maoist, and with one other tiny party, the Social Encounter Party, which is right wing and evangelical Protestant. (There have been rumors that López Obrador himself has taken up evangelical Christianity, which he denies.) And the Social Encounter Party, as it happens, is adamantly pro-Israel. Perhaps I should mention that López Obrador’s victorious candidate for mayor of Mexico City is a woman named Claudia Sheinbaum, who, after overcoming a couple of corruption scandals, has become, I believe, the first Jew ever to be popularly elected to high office in Mexico. Sheinbaum had to fend off a lot of old-fashioned anti-Semitism in the extremist style, too. Sheinbaum is not big on proclaiming her Jewish identity, though. I wonder if the Social Encounter Party’s enthusiasm for Israel doesn’t count for more, given the vitality of the evangelical movement in Mexico, among poor people and the middle-class strivers alike.

The meaning of López Obrador’s victory for world events, then—what is it? I think that, from a Mexican standpoint, the question is absurd. Octavio Paz, the greatest of the Mexican writers, observed that Latin America as a whole is not in sync with history in the rest of the world, which is true. And his observation is doubly true of his own country. For Mexico is not the vanguard of world history, nor is it the rearguard, nor is it the mean average. Mexico is a universe of its own. Mexico is deep. It is ancient. It is beautiful. Its calendar is somehow the Maya calendar, and not anyone else’s, which the rest of the world will have to accept.


To read more of Paul Berman’s political and cultural criticism for Tablet, click here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.