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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/The Landslide in Mexico: national democracy and the decline of neoliberal politics

The Landslide in Mexico: national democracy and the decline of neoliberal politics

Marco Torres

Platypus Review 109 | September 2018


The Mexican general election of July 1, 2018 may be described, without exaggeration, as the broadest, most authentic expression of electoral democracy in the country’s history. Fifty-seven million voters—more than 60% of the electorate[1]—cast their ballot in a contest for more than 3,400 offices at all levels of government: by far the largest number of votes ever cast for the largest number of candidates in the country’s history. Despite widespread and warranted distrust of electoral institutions, and despite media alarmism of election-day unrest, voting was orderly and uneventful. People came out and waited in line patiently in an attitude of self-assured determination. Everyone knew exactly what was happening: this time the choice was truly in the hands of the nation, even if it went against the plans and preferences of a political establishment that—having squandered its last shred of legitimacy—simply did not dare intervene.

The overwhelming victory went to Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his newfangled political party, Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional (Morena). Along with this unwieldy coalition of longtime collaborators, recent converts, and hangers-on the popular candidate went from embattled opposition to the establishment to near-complete control of the national government. AMLO won the presidency in all states but one. Morena took four state governorships, an absolute majority in congress, and the mayorship of Mexico City.

The landslide did not merely defeat a rival party or throw an administration out of office; it buried an entire party-political establishment. In the two decades since the dismantlement of the single-party regime, Mexican elections offered three main options: PRI, the official party of the old regime, remained strongest through this period, followed by the right-wing PAN and the putative center-left PRD. Despite their different histories and bases of support, these parties grew increasingly indistinguishable from each other politically and rhetorically with each passing electoral cycle.

In these twenty years, the country fell into a crisis of social dislocation, political alienation, economic decline, violent criminality, and in some regions, low-intensity civil war. Politicians of the PAN, PRI, and PRD have proven themselves unable to ameliorate these problems and largely unwilling to take responsibility. Instead, elected officials along with unelected administrators doubled down on deeply unpopular policies of upward wealth redistribution and police despotism. Each of the last three presidential administrations barely made it to the finish line amid scandal and disgrace. The governments of Vicente Fox (2000-06), Felipe Calderón (2006-2012), and especially Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) left a sense of bitter political disenchantment and a near-universal contempt for politicians regardless of party: viewed by nearly everyone as a class of careering gangster bureaucrats following no program beyond their self-interest and serving no constituency beyond the highest bidder.

Since he came to national prominence in the early 2000s, AMLO’s mass popularity was built on a principled anti-corruption stance and a narrative of neoliberal reform as plutocratic plunder. In the ever-more conservative political environment of the ‘90s-2010s, supporters as well as detractors viewed this rhetoric as Leftist rabble-rousing. But by 2018, society grew so indignant that AMLO’s gospel became a self-evident truth.  In the recent election, AMLO was no longer the candidate of the left, but the representative of society’s rejection of the political class as a whole.

This impressive example of regime change by election was met with lukewarm bemusement in the Anglosphere:  liberal, progressive, and “left” commentators did not know what to do with it. The story did not fit the current narrative.

Democracy in Mexico: 1857, 1910, 1938, 2018.

Back in 2000, the election of Vicente Fox was internationally celebrated as a “transition to democracy.” Liberal opinion viewed as part of the larger process of post-Soviet liberal globalization. Since those exuberant days of late ‘90s peak-neoliberalism, the idea that the end of history had been brought about by free markets, free elections, and free citizens became unsustainable. In the years since, establishment opinion has gradually become less sanguine about democracy. The leading ruling class ideology has moved on to an anti-democratic and deeply pessimistic belief in data-driven rule by expert administrators managing delicate economic systems always on the verge of collapse. Since 2016, this technocratic worldview has taken an explicitly apocalyptic and misanthropic turn as it has grown more and more committed to the notion that the very basis of everyday sociability is constantly at risk of being torn asunder the violent and provincial ignorance of the masses.

Thus, after a couple of half-hearted attempts to paint AMLO as a dangerous “populist,”[2] or alternatively as a potential ally of the anti-Trump #resistance,[3] mainstream liberal opinion more or less lost interest. The Mexican situation did not fit into their anxious monologue. Meanwhile, progressives and “leftists” did what they always do and presented the remote phenomenon as a victory for themselves. A handful of articles in Jacobin projected its editorial board’s “democratic socialist” nostalgia for mid-twentieth century welfarism onto the president elect, his party, and the millions who voted for him. In his post-election article “Dreams of a better Mexico,” Roger Lancaster wrote: “I’ve always maintained that Mexicans are nostalgic for the days when the PRI was a center-left party, implementing some social-democratic and business-friendly programs that produced the Mexican miracle: forty-some years of continuous economic growth with redistribution.”[4]

These good old days of the PRI are a figment of Lancaster’s imagination. The Party was neither “center-left” nor “social democratic,” but a sprawling and ramshackle machine of political patronage. Its vague nationalist-developmentalist ideology was little more than rhetorical decoration for whatever political machinations were taking place at any given time. The Mexican economy did see some “miraculous” post-war growth—as did many other countries. But the government’s “business friendly programs” consisted of keeping unions docile and labor cheap in order to court investment—especially from the United States. PRI “redistribution” was a narrowly clientelistic affair and never meant to lift the great majority of the population out of poverty. This kind of “democratic socialist” nostalgia for the twentieth century is a truly bizarre phenomenon. This was the century that began with the collapse of mass-based internationalist social democratic parties; when total war became the main political motivation for developmentalist policy, and when organized labor became a pillar of the Cold War order. Nothing for the Left to be nostalgic about, especially after the 1930s.

The tens of millions of Mexicans who voted last July were not caught up in backward-looking fantasies of “growth with redistribution.” Their motives were far healthier, more realistic: Despite the hopeless horizons of late neoliberalism, the electorate defied the nihilism of its ruling elite and exercised its sovereign right to throw them out of government.


Lopez Obrador and Morena’s defeat of the three-party political establishment was not really a victory of the Left over the right, but of the many over the few. AMLO’s politics have little to do with anti-capitalism, socialism, or class-warfare. His political vocabulary owes little to any recognizable strand of the historical Left. He is self-consciously moderate in his vision of social change, and to his credit, this moderation has nothing to do with the typical reconstructed ex-radical who “matures” into centrist pragmatism. That is to say, he has never moved to the right because he has never been much of a leftist. He was too young for the student activism of the 1960s and too remote for the hothouse world of Marxist journals and revolutionary sects of the 1970s. Neither does he come from a background of labor militancy or social movement activism. Unlike many of Mexico’s key political figures of the 1980s and ‘90s, AMLO did not begin his career in the opposition at all. His school of politics was the rickety machinery of the provincial PRI, and it was only when the Party began to dismantle this machinery in earnest that he came to oppose it.

Between the 1940s and the 1980s, all political life in Mexico happened within or around the PRI.  But contrary to the mythologies of 1980s-90s “democratic transition,”  the Party and the state were never one and the same. The state was run as a dictatorship of the executive concentrated in the presidency and radiating out to state governors and an ever-expanding archipelago of administrative agencies. Congress was little more than a rubber stamp, and elections played out as pre-arranged ceremonies. It was inside the Party’s dense thicket of political patronage and interest representation that political contestation and competition actually took place.

The Party was always corrupt and authoritarian. Like all bureaucracies of this sort, it was an ideal environment for ruthless careerism, favoring inertia over reform, and rewarding opportunistic maneuvering over principled political behavior. And yet its internal politicking was genuinely porous and open ended, competitive and unpredictable. While on the one hand, the state apparatus was a deeply anti-democratic inheritance of the praetorian cliques that came to power immediately after the Revolution, the Party’s machinery was a product of the radical labor and agrarian mobilizations of the 1920s and their integration as agents of national governance in the 1930s. So, while everyone with state power was in the Party, most members of the Party had no state power. In the almost complete absence of effective suffrage and parliamentary representation, the PRI functioned as the connective tissue between civil society and the state: transmitting political pressure and loyalty upward; projecting concessions and authority downward.[5]

In the PRI’s version of democracy, elections were fictional but mass participation was very real. This kind of arrangement was very short lived and only workable thanks to the massive expansion of the economy in the middle decades of the century. By the late 1960s, however, the system was falling victim to its own success. The exploding population, uncontrolled migration into the capital, and the emergence of a newly minted middle class overflowed the Party’s political integration capacity. Grievances abounded and dissent grew in every corner of society. The regime had long thrived on co-opting such discontents, but as protest grew, its coercive impulses became more reckless. As was common everywhere in the 1960s, this kind of coercion gained mass public attention only when it was aimed at the urban middle class.


After the infamous student massacre of 1968, the regime spent the 1970s clumsily switching back and forth between carrot and stick. On the one hand, it waged a long and brutal dirty war against organized opposition, especially in the countryside. On the other, it tried to bolster its “revolutionary nationalist” legitimacy by conspicuously spending on impressive-sounding but wasteful and misconceived social programs and development projects. These ad-hoc attempts to restore order succeeded only in alienating everyone. The PRI had once been an aspirational path of upward mobility for ambitious Mexicans, a respectable career. But by the late 1970s, it had lost much of its institutional prestige and came to be generally viewed as a bloated and corrupt bureaucracy. In the eyes of its left-wing critics, the Party had betrayed its revolutionary origins and turned into an implement of a repressive, authoritarian state. From the standpoint of the private sector, Party politics had become a drag on the administration’s ability to adapt to a changing global landscape. Both criticisms were true. But while the ever-eloquent Left of 1968 failed to organize itself into anything more consequential than social science research departments, the demands of capital were, as usual, well publicized and effectively organized to take advantage of the political crisis.  And the crisis came in 1980-82, when the administration fumbled its reaction to the compound shocks of oil price collapse and sovereign debt default, leading to capital flight, runaway inflation, and ever-louder calls for democracy.

The ensuing austerity lasted throughout the 1980s, starving the Party’s grassroots and transferring political power to unelected policy experts and financial administrators. Within the PRI, this change played out as an assault of a new generation of “técnicos” on the “politicos” who traditionally controlled the party apparatus. And in these early days of the neoliberal revolution, history was on the side of the technicians. This political current was represented by a small group of young policymakers led by the cabinet’s secretary of budget and planning, Carlos Salinas de Gortari. Like so many revolutionaries in history, Salinas and his vanguard party-within-a-party came from wealth and education, but not from the higher rungs of the establishment. While their political consciousness was set in motion by the discontents of the ‘60s, their policy mindset was shaped by the cutting-edge social science of the time: neoclassical economics. Their writings from the 1970s are thus a curious infusion of New Left impatience with petrified revolutions, and on the other, a technocratic conviction that society could be economically re-engineered by the power of their own Ivy-educated cleverness. Unlike their epigones of the 2010s, the technocrats of the 1980s had big plans. And to achieve them, it would be necessary to push the Party out of the way.[6]

Técnicos and políticos finally had it out in the leadup to the 1988 presidential election. Against the wishes of a majority of the Party’s old guard, the 40-year-old Salinas got himself nominated. His plan was to use the over-powered presidency to break down the Party, and even before the campaign got going, the break-up was already underway. A large contingent of anti-Salinas políticos abandoned the PRI in support of the independent presidential campaign of Cuauhtemoc Cárdenas, the 53-year-old son of Party founder and national hero Lázaro Cárdenas. Presenting his candidacy as a democratic break from single-party politics and a return to his father’s popular nationalism, “neo-cardenismo” was a success, attracting to itself the disorganized elements of the post-68 Left and mobilizing long-held frustrations with the regime’s old heavy-handed authoritarianism and new tight-fisted austerity.[7] By all accounts, it was Cárdenas that won the most votes. By all accounts, that is, except the one that counted: Salinas still had the state and the Party on his side, so it was easy for the authorities to simply declare him the victor.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari is today reviled as the villainous mastermind of Mexico’s kleptocracy—a more or less well-deserved reputation. And yet the first few years of his presidency remain impressive in their outsize ambition. While previous administrations had already begun to implement austerity programs and dismantle the PRI’s popular machine, they had taken these steps in a spirit of retreat. Salinas, on the contrary, turned this drift into a mission. In 1989-91, he credibly presented his reform proposals as facilitating the emergence of an energetic and entrepreneurial civil society from under the yoke of the old Party’s stifling cronyism.[8] “International community” liberal opinion was pleased to see Mexico developing its own non-Thatcherite flavor of neoliberal reform: Mexico’s own “Salinastroika.”[9]

The new administration’s reform platform was a scorched earth program to remake Mexico into an exemplary member of the emerging post-Cold War global order. Its goal was, first, to gain IMF support to restructure national debt. Second, to liquidate the regime’s rickety infrastructure into fuel for an energized private sector. And third, to mobilize these new resources as the basis of Mexico’s entry into the new global order: NAFTA. At every step, this strategy demanded an assault on the Party’s undergirding structure. Recalcitrant labor and ‘campesino’ bosses were selectively (and often deservedly) prosecuted for corruption. The constitution was amended to dismantle the system of collective land petitioning around which rural politics had been organized for decades. PRI-affiliated unions were not allowed entry into the new free-trade zone manufacturing centers. Dozens of state-owned companies and state-subsidized cooperatives were privatized or liquidated. These kinds of businesses had long been managed by PRI-affiliated functionaries and staffed by PRI-affiliated union labor. They bought and sold commodities produced by PRI-affiliated smallholding farmers. They were linchpins of the Party, often operating at a loss in exchange of political loyalty. In economically isolated areas, these kinds of organizations represented the only channel communicating local grievances and national political institutions.

Neoliberalism in Mexico, like everywhere else, was largely about facilitating increased mobility for capital and enforcing new kinds of flexibility for labor. In the context of the Salinas administration, this meant a complete overhaul of national politics: a deliberate dismantlement of the Party apparatus that had linked state and civil society. In this sense, the “democratic transition” that got underway in the mid-1990s can best be understood not as democratizing politics, but as redefining democracy in exclusively electoral terms. Electoral reform made multi-party competition possible, but only once the traditional channels of political participation—established in the first half of the twentieth century—were shut down for good. The Party was dying as a mass political organization. Following the 1994 Peso Crisis, the party fragmented even further, balkanizing into a loose network of local machines.

In the 1990s, with the PRI rebranding as a “center” party and working closely with the PAN to its right, the opposition concentrated in the new Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD). The PRD grew powerful in Mexico City, but remained in third place at a national level. It’s politics remained an ever-weakening continuation of the 1988 neo-cardenista campaign, based on the highly politicized and socially progressive majorities of the capital. With the fragmentary remains of twentieth-century grassroots machinery still linked to the PRI, the PRD could only carry along a handful of dissident labor leaders and single-issue social movements. Ideologically, its mild anti-neoliberal, 1930s-nostalgic nationalism was colored by a diffuse Neo-Zapatista-inspired, multi-culturalist, anti-globalization, eco-friendly (that is to say “chairo”) “leftist” sensibility. Meanwhile, party leadership tended to be based on a single charismatic figure, and once Cárdenas stepped away from the spotlight following his third and weakest presidential bid, the position went to Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador.


From its inception in the 1930s, the PRI’s mechanisms of participation and accountability simultaneously channeled and contained—expressed and curtailed—the demands and aspirations of Mexico’s working masses. There is no doubt that the single party democracy was despotic, and severely limited political horizons. But even in their decadence, Mexico’s twentieth century rulers would not have dreamed of actively excluding civil society from politics as has been done by their twenty first century counterparts. The “democratic transition” of the late 1990s brought electoral competition just as these mechanisms were being taken apart. Meanwhile, the parallel process of privatization and deregulation seeded the fortunes of a tight-knit post-PRI oligarchy that would become the main clientele of the new three-party political establishment.

The authoritarian, bureaucratic Party of the Revolution was not defeated by democratic acclaim. It was dismantled by the executive power in fulfillment of membership requirements imposed by far more powerful authoritarian-bureaucratic political organizations: GATT, IMF, WTO. As Quinn Slobodian argues in his recent intellectual history of neoliberalism, these institutions were the result of a deeply illiberal post-imperial project to “insulate dominant global economic forces from democratic rule and popular accountability.”[10] In this new landscape,  a generation of politicians and administrators were faced with a new set of priorities. As long as they proved themselves diligent regional managers of the new rules of global governance, their work would be well-rewarded and their position more or less secure. The old idea that politicians were duty-bound to represent their political constituencies no longer offered such rewards. Duty to the voters thus became an eccentricity and a liability. The new politics called itself liberal, but was in fact the exact opposite: Not about deregulating markets, but about regulating politics; not about freeing civil society from government, but about liberating government from civil society.

From his rise to national prominence as mayor of Mexico City in 2000 to his presidential victory in 2018, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador built a loyal mass base as a tireless critic of this kind of governance. There was nothing particularly leftist about his policies as mayor, which amounted to a moderate version of contemporary “global city” style development: investment in service industry and tourism, spectacular infrastructure projects, strategic gentrification of fashionable neighborhoods and crime reduction via “broken-windows” policing.[11] It was not his modest programs supporting low income students and pensioners that won him his anti-establishment bona fides; it was his relentless campaign to publicly expose the incompetence and corruption of the Vicente Fox administration. For Five Years, AMLO’s City Hall became a muckraking platform hurling near-daily denunciations at the office of the federal executive housed in the National Palace a few hundred yards across the ancient city square. In AMLO’s inquisitorial narrative, President Fox’s repeated and barely hidden acts of petty embezzlement and nepotism were surface signs of a corruption that went far deeper than any particular politician or party. Once and again he indicted politicians of the PRI and PAN as technocratic servants of oligarchical interests ascended in the Salinas administration. These claims about a “Mafia del Poder” having taken the reins of government were pitched in conspiracy-minded, black-and-white terms, but they were not false. Most of his supporters did not have to follow AMLO down this kleptocratic rabbit-hole filled with cases such as dummy corporations syphoning public funds meant for financial bailouts in exchange for PRI and PAN campaign funding. It was not the specific crimes or the  fine-grained details, but the growing sense that such profiteering had become the main activity and central priority of the political profession, and the primary motivation for collaborative efforts among its practitioners.

As the 2006 election approached, AMLO’s anti-Fox campaign came to occupy the center stage of national politics and was widely recognized--and applauded--as a presidential bid. The counter-attack only made AMLO stronger. A Fox-led operation to use a legal technicality to push the popular candidate out of the race painted him as an embattled underdog standing up against an elite that threatened to kill Mexico’s fledgling new democracy. PAN and PRI were hard pressed to find anyone with a clean enough record--let alone the popular support--to run against AMLO. The nomination went to Felipe Calderón, a middling functionary in Fox’s cabinet with no experience running for office, with deep family connections to the old far-right Catholic roots of the PAN. Despite his Harvard University credentials, the candidate was so individually unappealing that the campaign had no choice but to go negative. The resulting anti-AMLO scare campaign was inescapable, irresponsible, and incredibly effective. As these kinds of fear-based campaigns often do, it appealed to the traditional middle-class anxiety (held by people of all classes) that standards of propriety are under threat by the easily misled revanchist rabble. This anti-social fear of the poor was euphemistically reimagined as fear of “populism,” a catch-all term for any kind of politician not committed to the new regime of post-Cold War political regulation.  This post-Soviet red scare was highly alarmist and deeply dishonest, spreading deranged scenarios such as the idea that, just like Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, AMLO would expropriate rooms in middle class homes and force upstanding members of society to live with poor people. Working families with little to lose were frightened into thinking that they would lose everything. High-minded leaders of respectable opinion offered cultural and psychological speculations about the “atavistic” popularity of the candidate, replacing political analysis with platitudinous historical references and racist innuendo designed to flatter middlebrow snobbery.[12] Among the provincial upper classes of conservative places like the city of Monterrey, speaking the name of the candidate became, for a few months, a literal taboo.

Civilian volunteer brigade aiding government rescue efforts after September 2017 Mexico City earthquake

This socially corrosive culture war was mind-numbing enough to weaken AMLO’s campaign, but not to kill it. Election day looked like a 50/50 cliffhanger. The establishment had no recourse to the old PRI’s well-oiled election-rigging machine, so the party of order had to rely on a variety of localized ad hoc manipulations. In an environment of unprecedented social tension, Calderón came out victorious by a mere fraction of a percentage point. AMLO called for a recount, and three million protesters came out in his support, occupying central Mexico City and bringing it to a standstill that lasted more than two weeks. Any revolutionary would have interpreted this as a clear demand to take power on the streets. But AMLO is no revolutionary—he is not a radical. He is a sincere democrat and an expert mass mobilizer, but his commitment is first and foremost to order. After passionately condemning the new administration as illegitimate, he asked his followers to disperse.

Having no talent for politics, President Felipe Calderón tried to legitimize himself by force of police. In the months following the election, tens of thousands of troops were deployed across the country in counter-insurgency operations meant to arrest and assassinate drug cartel leadership. A petulant scheme carried out thoughtlessly, this new war on drugs triggered a process of escalating violence that changed the country forever. Criminal organizations fragmented and scrambled to secure territories and markets, going to war with each other and with the government. Multiple regions of the country fell into a state of military (and cartel-paramilitary) siege. In the U.S., the Democratic congressional majority led by newly elected President Barack Obama funded the process generously, rewarding Mexican security officials with over two billion dollars in aid. These donations increased the scope of the violence but failed to motivate the armed forces to come up with a realistic strategy, as they continued to rely on intelligence gathered by kidnapping and torturing thousands of suspects. Obama, who on his part wanted to keep dangerous Mexican criminals from entering his country illegally, deployed the National Guard to the border and doubled the size of the Border Patrol. These policies choked the flow of  commodities and undocumented workers across the border, and incentivized the cartels to diversify their operations: extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, human trafficking, and human smuggling. Obama and Calderón’s anti-trade and anti-immigrant approach to national security may have hurt the cartels’ bottom line and killed several bosses, but the people most affected were the border communities, migrant workers, and local business owners, who were often left with no choice but to do business with the violent and unpredictable criminal organizations who were burrowing into the nooks and crannies of society.

The Calderón administration was thus tremendously successful in dampening the democratic demands of the “democratic transition.” As the 2010s began, the interminable recession and paramilitarization of social life created an environment that favored individual self-preservation over political participation and basic social solidarity—bad conditions for AMLO to run again. AMLO is good at politics but bad at marketing: he knows how to address an engaged public, not a passive audience. His corny 2012 slogan, “A loving republic,” earned him well-deserved eyerolls and a second place against the multi-media spectacle of Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign, the most expensive political advertising effort in the country’s history. The campaign presented Peña, a blandly photogenic semi-literate playboy, as the savior of a nation in a time of crisis. It offered no supporting argument for this claim except for state-of-the-art TV ads and the acronym PRI: still in 2012 a powerful symbol of social stability.

But the much talked-about “return of the PRI” could not be, for the simple reason that the PRI was no more. There was no mass party, only loosely connected local rackets. But since Mexican society found itself in a drug-war-induced state of shellshock, this did not matter much. The new Peña administration was committed to railroading the most ambitious neoliberal reform package since the early 1990s. And since murder-induced public passivity seemed to have exempted them from all political commitments or popular accountability, PRI, PAN, and PRD joined together in a united front to push the legislative project through. The reform package supported by all three parties contained a “labor reform” to loosen restrictions for subcontracting and part-time hiring, an “energy reform” meant to open up the oil industry to piecemeal privatization, and an “education reform” meant to make teachers easier to fire and undermine their still-powerful union. The propaganda for this congressional maneuver presented it as a tri-partisan push to get Mexico back on track. Like everything else in the Peña administration it was very expensive and completely perfunctory. Social media had already become the main source of political information, so the old-fashioned, PRI-style, television-based monopoly on political narrative was gone for good.

The administration faced deep public skepticism from the very beginning, but it did not lose its weak grasp on legitimacy until the 2014 disappearance of 43 rural school trainee teachers from Ayotzinapa, Guerrero. The investigation that followed was like uncovering a sewer… and then finding out that the investigators themselves lived in that sewer. No one was free of guilt. Local police, the PRD affiliated mayor of the town were the students were attacked, the federal armed forces—they were all implicated. Dozens of mass graves with no direct relation to the case were discovered as the investigators looked for the remains of the young victims. The officials offered up one horror story, and then another one, and by the end they themselves appeared nauseated and confused by their own lies. The widespread indignation was a moment of clarity. The protest slogan, “La culpa es del estado,”[13] crystallized what most people already knew: The murder epidemic was not the work of a criminal element external to polite society. It had become an integral part of how the country was governed. The government could no longer disguise what it had become: one gang among many. The country’s rulers had simply come to accept that the brutal, anti-social character of public life was the new condition of normality under which business ought to proceed as usual. Drug war-style violence was just another tool in their toolkit.

As 2018 approached, AMLO’s old anti-corruption message had not changed much, but the intolerable state of things had proven it to be far truer than anyone suspected. To be sure, the crisis had all kinds of deeply ingrained social problems driving it, but how could they ever be addressed by even the cleverest, best-intentioned policy, when the political class was so completely, criminally, checked out? A whole generation of public servants had come up in an environment that incentivized self-seeking negligence; a cohort of elected officials had been trained and vetted in their belief that democratic politics are no more than a “populist” atavism and a tropical eccentricity. In this new light, the 2018 version of AMLO’s candidacy  shed the last remnants of ‘90s PRD-style “left” anti-neoliberalism to reveal a simple core of republican common sense: “Exposed to the same miseries by government which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer.”[14] Everyone knew it was time. When the campaign finally launched, the message was very simple: the corruption of bad government had to be uprooted in the interest of the nation as a whole, and this could only be achieved by the sovereign people.

The brain-dead rival campaigns offered ample evidence that the rulers had broken all ties with the ruled and proven themselves unfit. PRI, PAN, and PRD had become such toxic brands that the candidates had to go negative… against their own parties! The PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade—finance minister under Peña Nieto—turned his own lack of PRI membership into a talking point. Ricardo Anaya of the PAN ran in coalition with the now acephalous post-AMLO PRD. This “left-right” alliance was meant to be seen as “reaching across the aisle” but was obviously a sign of desperation.

Anaya’s campaign in particular was a vivid illustration of the senile dementia of late neoliberal technocratism. The Economist wrote him up as a “modernizing presidential candidate [who] has the best chance of defeating the Left-Wing populist.” But he never stood the slightest chance. Resented inside his own party for his backstabbing maneuvering and under federal investigation for money laundering, the 39-year-old candidate was nothing but a typical member of the country’s political class. Like the younger members of this class, he was driven by an ambition to rule devoid of all political content. Too “modernizing” to possess a basic knowledge of the politics and history of his country, his only framework for understanding what the electorate wanted was the entrepreneurial aspirationalism of the Ted Talk. His overclocked speeches were filled with tech-themed nonsense that insulted the electorate’s intelligence, such as the idea that Mexico ought to transcend manufacturing and move to a “knowledge economy.” This kind of jargon may be well-represented on international airport bookshelves, but for the great majority of working Mexicans (who understand labor markets better than Anaya), it just sounds like layoffs. As the weeks went by and his numbers failed to take off, Anaya went on a manic “populist” fugue, making fantastic promises left and right, threatening to put everyone in prison, and generally expressing himself like someone being dragged away in a straightjacket.

Establishment journalists and rival candidates once and again criticized AMLO for refusing to discuss his policy proposals in detail. But everyone knows that picking policies apart is easier than proposing them, and even AMLO’s biggest defenders accept that fleet-footed wonkery is not one of his strengths. The candidate’s soft-spoken refusal to be dragged into debate was more effective than any PowerPoint presentation about policy. AMLO had spent the previous two decades making his case and earning people’s trust. Unlike the other candidates, he had published books about the issues and offered a consistent account of what went wrong with Mexico and how to fix it. Why would he give himself over to the news cycle? This kind of credibility is very rare, and it was most clearly on display in AMLO’s approach to Donald Trump.

The other candidates made a big show of their outrage at Trump’s disparaging comments about Mexicans. But when prompted, AMLO insisted once and again that he hoped to establish a productive working relationship with the U.S. president based on the kind of mutual respect befitting two sovereign nations. Trump is with good reason an unpopular figure in Mexico. But AMLO knew very well that most voters were far more enraged at the venality of their own political class than they were triggered by Trump’s disrespectful remarks. AMLO’s rhetoric on the issue is a lesson in mass political messaging. In the presidential debate of  April 22nd, while elaborating on his theme of cutting down on unearned privileges enjoyed by government officials, he quipped: “We will sell the presidential airplane. I have already offered it to President Trump. As we all know, Mr. Trump is a big showoff (muy presumido), but even he doesn’t get to fly around in a 225-million-dollar airplane.”[15] Trump’s new Air Force One contract with Boeing is of course, many times larger, but AMLO was speaking a truth nearly every Mexican could agree with: the Peña Nieto administration had forfeited the privilege of spending millions of dollars in taxpayer money to travel abroad and rub elbows with the international ruling class.

The Trump administration’s treament of immigrants from Mexico and Central America may be draconian, but they are a direct continuation of long-term security policies promoted by Democratic and Republican administrations since the early 1990s. This goes deeper than, say, Obama’s policy of separating families by deporting thousands undocumented parents of underage U.S. citizens.[16] Border hawkishness is a structural component of economic relations between the two countries as re-established in the 1990s. The flood of migrant workers from Mexico in that decade was a direct and predictable result of economic dislocation precipitated by the structural reforms that led to NAFTA. And it was around this time that Bill Clinton, always anxious to be perceived as “tough on crime,” passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, introducing a new era of hyper-punitive immigration policy. This was the time when mandatory detention and the threat of deportation became a routine tool for policing the poor.[17] Bush II and Obama’s “War on Terror” policies fanned the flames of the Mexican drug war, and as is now well known, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s cavalier intervention in Honduras triggered a mass exodus from that country. Donald Trump’s assaults on Dream Act recipients and his criminal prosecution of parents crossing the border with children are awful new episodes of this story; his appeals to his base on immigration have lowered all kinds of standards of propriety. It must be said, however, that it was under President Obama that things got worse for immigrants than ever before, this despite the fact that he was a president who valued standards of propriety above all else.

Unlike his rival candidates, AMLO was actually interested in governing. So he understood that any hope of mitigating the immigration crisis would be based on bilateral politics, not multilateral politesse. As president elect, one of his first gestures was an open letter to Donald Trump regarding potential collaboration on matters of migration and trade:

“Regarding migration, I must comment that the most essential purpose of my government will be to ensure that Mexicans do not have to migrate because of poverty or violence. We will try to make emigration optional and not necessary. We will strive to ensure that people find work and wellbeing in their places of origin, where their families, their customs, and their cultures are….

“I believe that the migration problem should be addressed in a comprehensive manner, through a development plan that includes the Central American countries, where millions of inhabitants do not have job opportunities and are forced to leave their villages to seek life and mitigate their hunger and poverty.”

The letter concludes:

“Regarding politics, I am encouraged by the fact that we both know how to fulfill what we say and we have faced adversity successfully. We managed to put our voters and citizens at the center and displace the political establishment.”[18]

While Peña Nieto’s own overtures to Trump were repudiated by most Mexicans as spineless appeasement, AMLO’s accumulated credibility permits him to negotiate in good faith. With immediate and startling effectiveness, the election has already reframed Mexico’s approach to the United States: After months of stalling in favor of the international status quo, Mexico could now negotiate on behalf of a democratically mandated national interest. Thus energized, the recent U.S.-Mexico renegotiation of NAFTA added, among other things, new provisions for higher wages and legal protections for unionization. The interests of Mexican voters employed by U.S.-owned plants were thus prioritized over those of Canada’s tariff-protected dairy industry.[19]

These adjustments are, of course, not particularly progressive. They have nothing to do with the radical Left—but neither are they omens of the far-right national-populist Ragnarok feared by the always-panicky mouthpieces[20] of the foreign policy establishment. What is new here is not what is being done, but under whose mandate. Not policy—but politics. This is the spirit of AMLO’s proposed reforms: they are aimed at changing the conduct of politics, not at “fixing” society. They are, eccentrically, more akin in spirit to nineteenth-century republicanism than to twentieth-century social engineering: a tentative attempt to re-introduce popular accountability by injecting a microdose of old-fashioned Jacobinism into a decadent technocracy.

Civil society wants to be represented, not merely administered. Over and over again the working majorities call for more rights, more equality, better government.  The technocratic fantasy of dispensing with mass politics is falling apart because the demand for popular sovereignty is woven into the very fabric of capitalism. Across all nations the revolt of the Third Estate is, and will remain ongoing. Unfortunately, having lost its internationalist leadership somewhere in the twentieth century, democracy will have to remain, for better or worse, merely national.

For now, the first stirrings of AMLO backlash are making themselves felt. Criticisms of the president-elect’s conciliatory treatment of old rivals and of Morena’s over-centralization and infighting are already being made—as they should be. There will be much to object to, valuable critical contributions amid a changing landscape.[21] But criticism on whose behalf? This is not a technical question; it is political. |P

[1] This percentage indicates much higher turnout in Mexico than it would in a U.S. election. Voter registration is nearly universal in Mexico, where registered voter card issued by the National Electoral Institute functions as the basic form of photo identification.

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] Although political scientist Roger Hansen got the system more or less right back in the late 60s, many of these kinds of insights were muddled by the “democratization” discourse of the 1990s. Roger Hansen, The politics of Mexican Development (University of Alabama Press, 1971).

[6] Manuel Camacho, “El Poder: Estado o ‘feudos’ políticos,” Foro Internacional 14:3, (January-March 1974).

[7] Carlos Monsivais, “From 68’ to Cardenismo” Journal of International Affairs 43:2 (Winter 1990).

[8] A clear example of the New Left origins of neoliberalism: Salinas never saw himself as a conservative. It was personally important for him to be accepted by Mexico’s left intelligentsia. He invented his own variety of leftish neoliberal ideology: “social liberalism” whose inspirations can be traced to anarchist interpretations of the Mexican Revolution, French Maoism, and post-Marxist “Gramscianism.” In practice, however, “social liberalism” programs turned out to be little more than small business stimulus programs and micro-credit schemes.

[9] See:

[10] Stephen Gill, quoted in Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism (Harvard University Press, 2018).

[11] In a strange, largely forgotten episode, AMLO invited Rudy Giuliani to participate as a crime reduction consultant for Mexico City in 2003.

[12] Most famous among these:

[13] “The fault lies with the state.”

[14] Thomas Paine, Common Sense.

[15] See:

[16] See:

[17] See:

[18] See:

[19] See:

[20] An excellent description of the kind of intellectual, journalistic, and funding environment that creates this panic:

[21] Also by Quinn Slobodian, an interpretation of emerging bilateralism: