The Plebeian Populism of López Obrador
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is a populist, anyone knows that. The question is what kind of populist. Contrary to the opinion of those who reduce him to a demagogue (which he is), AMLO is actually a plebeian leader in the republican tradition: a leader of a segment of the population that is, or feels, politically marginalized. He refers to this sector as “the people of Mexico,” clearly it is not all of it, but it is a part.
The definition of populism as plebeian politics is provided by Camila Vergara, Professor of Law at Columbia University, New York. In an article published on April of this year entitled “Populism as Plebeian Politics: Inequality, Domination, and Popular Empowerment,” she defines populism as “an electoral type of plebeian politics [that] springs from the politicization of wealth inequality in reaction to systemic corruption and the immiseration of the masses, an attempt to balance the scales of social and political power between the ruling elite and the popular sectors.”
Vergara traces the origins of plebeian populism to Ancient Rome, where the plebs constituted a differentiated group from the nobility and the caste of the patricians. Plebeian politics politicizes the social and economic differences between the haves and have nots. That is precisely what AMLO has done throughout his long political career. And he has plenty of material to work with: Mexico is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America.
Who are the plebs today by the way? Vergara responds that, generally speaking, they are “a coalition of those who are being increasingly oppressed by the oligarchic state, those who share a similar degree of socioeconomic oppression. In addition to precarious workers in the service sector and the nascent gig economy, who receive low pay, no benefits, and no job security, the plebeian ranks could be filled by those in debt and struggling to pay mortgages, student loans, and healthcare bills.”
Is this the case in Mexico with AMLO? I am not entirely sure about it. Rather, it seems to me that AMLO is the leader of social groups that were favoured until 1982 by the state paternalism of the hegemonic Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). I am talking about informal workers, unions, urban organizations, indigenous peoples, middle-income sectors, etc., who were affected when oil prices plummeted and cuts in the public sector began. Of course, there are new groups that identify themselves in the message of AMLO, but it seems to me that these traditional sectors are the ones he is trying to rehabilitate politically and integrate into the government’s sphere of influence —as they were until 1982. Before that year, during the populist six-year terms of Luis Echeverría Álvarez (1970-1976) and José López Portillo (1976-1982), public spending skyrocketed to the benefit of these sectors coalesced within the PRI.
These are the roots of AMLO.
Giving a cursory glance to his biography one will see it. In 1976 he joined the PRI and his first position was as director of the Indigenous Coordination Center in his home state, Tabasco, between 1977 and 1982. The oil boom of those years allowed him to finance public works for the local indigenous people, the Chontales. His current obsession with the idea of rehabilitating the state-owned company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), now bankrupt, is no accident. He explains in his autobiography titled “This is who I am”: “The best ranches were acquired to give them to those who took shelter in the lowlands or swampy areas. Schools opened, literacy became a priority, health centers and houses were built, production and transport cooperatives organized, and credits with no questions asked granted to agriculture and cattle raising.”
But although these are AMLO’s roots, him and his populism have a different political DNA.
The emergence of AMLO’s plebeian populism would be a democratic corrective to the collusion between capital and the political class to maintain their privileges and keep conducting businesses.
Echeverría and López Portillo were lawyers born and raised in Mexico City who climbed the ranks of the PRI along a similar path. Their formation led them to be institutional, loyal partisans who successfully competed for power under single-party rules. For them there was no conflict between the people and the existing institutions, nor between the people and the ruling class (“the revolutionary family” in the politically de rigueur language of the time). These men were, in effect, revolutionary and institutional.
AMLO in contrast is, as Héctor Aguilar Camín puts it, “an outdoors and public square politician” whose populism places the people above the institutions. Many times he has referred to them as the "bureaucratic apparatus" and for this reason he does not have problems eliminating them one by one with a stroke of a pen. This is consequential for the type of clientelism he favours: without institutional mediations between him and the beneficiaries. During the PRI’s tenure, clientelism was used to strengthen the party. With AMLO, clientelism strengthens him as the social leader he always wanted to be: the one who distributes the bread to the poor and offers them an edifying example of living. Little else matters to him. Not even his party, the National Regeneration Movement (MORENA), which he has abandoned in the hands of low-level officials.
There is another key difference here between AMLO and Echeverría and López Portillo. The “people” in the discourse of the last two appeared as a whole and complete entity given the hegemonic nature of the PRI. Let us remember tat all social sectors were represented under the corporatist arrangement of the party: workers in the Confederation of Workers of Mexico (CTM), peasants in the National Peasant Confederation (CNC) and a myriad of urban-popular sectors in the National Confederation of Popular Organizations (CNOP). That is not the case with AMLO. It is clear from his discourse that when he talks about the “people” he is referring to a specific sector of the population: the plebs, following the language of Vergara. It is this sector to which AMLO wants to give a voice and represent.
And when I say represent I speak politically and theatrically. That explains some of his antics: the beaten up Nissan Tsuru, his worn out shoes, the flights in economy class, the tamales in official receptions, etc. He is staging “the people occupies the National Palace,” and by doing so he sends a message: “we are here.” In a society divided in classes like Mexico, AMLO seeks to make the plebs visible and include them as a principal actor in national politics.
He is not entirely misguided in this objective.
Following Vergara's ideas, the emergence of AMLO’s plebeian populism would be a democratic corrective to the collusion between capital and the political class to maintain their privileges and keep conducting businesses. This is a natural tendency in any democracy. Or is it not the case that this happens in Mexico under governments of all parties? Vergara explains: “the populist project aims at finally realizing the promise of democracy by delivering the necessary means for the popular sectors to exercise the rights that until then had been only formal, only enjoyed by a wealthy minority.”
Who could disagree with this project? But beware: the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Trying to raise “the people” socially, plebeian populism competes with electoral democracy for the legitimate popular representation. To wit, AMLO proclaimed himself Legitimate President of Mexico in 2006 when he lost the elections by a handful of votes. The tension between populism and democracy is evident and can lead to institutional decay and even a democratic backsliding. This is hardly a new debate. Rousseau expressed it when he talked about a general will that transcends what citizens actually decide together in assemblies or elections. Going back to Vergara: “The project of popular empowerment demands an extraordinary authority that goes beyond the electoral legitimacy conferred by ordinary forms of representation."
In the case of AMLO, his electoral legitimacy gets confused right now with his popularity: he is the president with the greatest electoral support since the democratic transition concluded in 1996 and, undoubtedly, he enjoys popular support. But here Vergara sets a red line: the condition for the populist-plebeian leader to work as a democratic corrective and not as a project of tyranny is that his actions cannot go beyond the liberal democratic framework. Is this the case of AMLO? That depends on your politics and normative preference for democracy.
His plebeian populism is also not a fad: he and the the social sector he aspires to represent will not go home when his term ends in 2024
As an opponent, he famously declared once “to hell with institutions!”, he has vilified the electoral authorities, falsely and shamelessly accused them of accepting bribes, failed to recognize two constitutional presidents, etcetera —there is no need to repeat here what we all know. Conversely, AMLO's political career has always been conducted within the party system. He was in the PRI for twelve years, in the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) for 25, and has been in MORENA for six. Reluctantly and fuming but he has bowed to the decisions of the electoral tribunal. And, it must be said, he never rejected all these years the generous public funding from the National Electoral Institute (INE).
But all this happened when he was as in the opposition. What about now that he is the incumbent president? The answer may be known in July 2021 when midterm elections will be held. Right now, his electoral and popular legitimacy overlap, but if they were to separate they could come into conflict. A president inflamed with anger, revived as a plebeian leader, could once again exclaim “to hell with institutions!” Let us remember that AMLO rises against adversity and is quick to rush headlong into alternative narratives based on lies and half-truths.
That is for democracy. As for the economy, nothing guarantees that the plebeian irruption will improve the material conditions of the country. Examples of this abound in Latin America. Let us look at the case of Alberto Fujimori, president of Peru between 1990 and 2000, who after leading a plebeian revolt ended up imposing a model of austerity that suffocated the economy and doubled poverty. AMLO's so-called “republican austerity” is moving in the same direction.
Let me be clear: plebeian populism is an epic story but not without drama.
Breaking into institutional politics is an achievement and, indeed, can serve as a corrective to a stagnant democracy dominated by powerful groups. But beware: the corrective medicine may be worse than the disease, particularly for the middle class (so self-conscious of their position in society). Vergara herself points out in the conclusion of her article: “our current constitutional frameworks seem ill-prepared to effectively enable and constrain the power of the populist, to channel populism's positive, egalitarian energy towards further democratization while at the same time avoiding the pitfalls of corruption and tyranny.”
AMLO is the leading Mexican politician since 2000. Much of what happens in Mexico can be explained as a reaction to him. At the moment there is no other political leader in the country that can compare to him. His plebeian populism is also not a fad: he and the the social sector he aspires to represent will not go home when his term ends in 2024. The same can be said about economic inequality, precarious working conditions, job insecurity etc. Furthermore, AMLO's populist-plebeian style will remain as an example for other politicians who want to politicize inequality around them. Whatever happens, plebeian populism is here to stay, as is the polarization that AMLO creates around him.
Here is an important lesson for Mexican opposition parties: the 2018 electoral result was not a historical mistake made by a bunch of clueless people, but a social eruption that needs to be evaluated with great care. We will find out soon if they were up to the task.
In memory of Carolina de Miguel Moyer, Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto.
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