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Changing Models of Mexican Politics: A Review Essay [1976]

Donald J. Mabry, "Changing Models of Mexican Politics: A Review Essay," The New Scholar, V:1 (1976), 31-37.

Scholarly views of Mexican politics are undergoing a revolution. Being rejected is a model which casts Mexican politics into a "liberal" mold, a model long favored by the Mexican government and its apologists, on the one hand, and by North American academics on the other. Mexico was evaluated as to how much "democracy" (functional, parliamentary, or whatever) it had and praised when the system seemed to show signs of becoming more democratic by Western criteria. The Revolution was cast as the progenitor of what would ultimately become a socially just, democratic state. However, in recent years, particularly since the violent repression of the student movement in 1968, a re-examination of the democratic model has been occurring. Events provoking this re-examination were both Mexican and foreign-electoral fraud, increased guerrilla and terrorist activity, the hardline conservatism of the Gustavo Díaz Ordaz government (1964-70), the military takeovers in Brazil (1964) and Argentina (1966) which seemed to result in neo-fascist states, the rise of the New Left, and crises in the world economy. In this context, the student movement of 1968 triggered a new look at Mexico.

This short essay does not pretend to deal substantively and at length with all of the recent scholarship on Mexican politics. Mexico has been well-studied and even a bibliography would outstrip the space available. Instead, several basic works supporting the traditional ("democratic") model will be sketched to establish the parameters of the model and some of the newer works will be presented. In particular, the essay will focus on a recent suggestive book which reflects the new approach to the study of Mexican politics. At the end, the essay will suggest some topics which need study if we are to understand Mexican political reality.

The Mexican government has repeatedly stated that the goals of the Revolution were to achieve national independence (political, economic, and cultural), social justice for the masses, and democracy. Independence includes nonintervention in Mexican affairs by foreign powers (especially the United States), an independent foreign policy (as a leader of the Third World), and economic development, which would reduce Mexican dependency upon developed countries. Social justice included mass education, fair wages, income redistribution, health care, equality of opportunity, and equality under the law. Economic development was going to pay the costs of these changes. Political practices would be democratic, guaranteed in part by prohibitions on re-election. A national revolutionary party was created in 1929 and transformed into the Partido de la Revolucion Mexicana in 1938 with functional sectors (farmer, labor, military, and popular) to assure that the "people" would always be represented. In 1946, the Revolution and its party (PRI) were formally institutionalized. Thus, according to the government, Mexico, under the leadership of patriotic revolutionaries, has been progressing towards the accomplishment of these goals since the Revolution began in 1910.

This is also essentially the view of a number of North American scholars. The late Frank Tannenbaum, friend of Cárdenas and longtime admirer of Mexico, attested to Mexico's revolutionary credentials and influenced numbers of students through his classes and writings.(1) The late Howard F. Cline adopted the government view with only minor deviances.(2) It was from this Tannenbaum-Cline tradition that most scholars wrote about Mexico. All agreed that Mexico was not as dictatorial, repressive, and atavistic as the Mexico of Porfirio Díaz (1876-1910) nor as chaotic as Mexico during the days of Santa Anna. Moreover, Mexico had begun to move economically, as 6-7% annual increases in the Gross National Product attested. Scholars admitted that the country still had enormous social problems but were quick to point out that she was finally able to feed herself and that educational budgets were larger than military budgets. Mexico was making progress without establishing a dictatorship or constant political upheavals.

Leading this interpretation were four political scientists. Robert Scott(3) saw the political system evolving into a Western (democratic) model. Frank Brandenburg(4) rejected the Westernization model, arguing that the President was really a liberal Machiavellian, that decisions were made by a Revolutionary Family, and that the poor, as usual, were paying the price of Mexico's economic growth. L. Vincent Padgett(5) compromised--there was more democracy than Brandenburg suggested but not as much as Scott wanted to believe. Martin Needler(6) gave high marks to Mexican governments for trying to fulfill Revolutionary goals in the face of enormous obstacles. An historian, James Wilkie,(7) confirmed this progressive view by informally correlating federal direct expenditure budgets since 1910 by presidency with the stated goals of the Revolution: these expenditures seemed to affect the level of poverty, which dropped, though Wilkie did note that many of the social gains occurred during the pro-capitalist government of Miguel Aleman, not the reformist government of Cárdenas. Key to the strength of the Mexican state was "the dynamic of Mexican nationalism" which moved the society forward.(8) The strength of Mexican nationalism and the belief in the Revolutionary myth denied Communist groups any hope of influencing domestic affairs.(9)

Thus, the general consensus of both official apologists and scholars was that Mexico, though imperfect, was rapidly solving her problems, fulfilling the promises of the Revolution and guaranteeing civil liberties if not some kind of democracy. Unlike the United States and Western Europe as she might be, Mexico was becoming more like them in general patterns.(10)

Because the United States had confidence in her and because so much profit could be earned in her dynamic economy at minimal risk, foreign capital in the form of private loans, private investment, and governmental credits poured into the country. Mexican credit was excellent; the peso was one of the strongest currencies in the world. Mexican financial policies assured these investors that they could repatriate their capital at will. In short, Mexico, though she ran most of her own internal affairs, had become almost like any other state in the United States economic orbit.

One could easily overdraw this model or mislead the reader into believing that there was little or no dissent. There was. Opposition political groups pointed out that the Mexican miracle was coming at a high price, that the Revolution had been sold to small groups of Mexicans and foreigners, and that the political system was not open or competitive. Mexican intellectuals sharply criticized the Mexican miracle, noting that the changes in the country were not particularly miraculous or desirable.(11) In the glitter and fanfare of government pronouncements and of North American adulation, these small beams of light were ignored. The government labeled its opponents as reactionary, or disloyal, and dismissed them with a wave of the hand, asserting that since the organized opposition to PRI was so tiny and pro-government vote totals so large it was obvious to everyone that the people supported the government and believed in the Revolution. Only cranks believed something else.

Two approaches to the question of politics in Mexico thus present themselves. If what the apologists said was true (which needs validation), how does the government do it? This is an important question since all governments would like to have the support of ninety percent of the population and all capitalists would like to have a government provide them with cheap capital, cheap infrastructure, low taxes, a disciplined labor force, and high profits. From the perspective of the democratic model, one examined voting returns, governmental and PRI structure, ideological consensus, propaganda techniques, national planning, and the internal dynamics of decision making to understand how Mexico's esoteric democracy worked. If one did not accept the apologetic view and believed instead that Mexico was not democratic, one would examine how the population is controlled. One would look beyond official pronouncements to determine who was actually benefitting from the operation of policy decisions, why the majority's share of national income is declining, why the countryside is still depressed, how dissident groups are controlled, and why Mexico can proclaim revolutionary goals while conducting reactionary programs.

In the last decade, these have increasingly been the questions asked. The successes of the Cuban Revolution, the repressive policies of President Díaz Ordaz(electoral fraud, the 1968 killings of students), and the erosion of confidence in established procedures signaled by the rise of the New Left created a receptive audience for more critical looks at Mexico. Since 1968, the number of books and articles pointing out the authoritarian nature of Mexican politics and the unrevolutionary or reactionary economic policies has proliferated. There have been so many, that only a few will be used to indicate the direction of current scholarship.

In the United States, a cluster of works appeared within a few years of each other that began pointing out that the emperor was not wearing clothes. Kenneth Johnson,(12) in an emotional book which used fugitive sources, charged openly that the Mexican government was elitist, repressive, out of touch with reality, and facing revolution. What had been hailed as great advances for the common man were not great and were designed to buy off the masses. Johnson's work sold well and caused him difficulties in Mexico, even though North American scholars found its evidential base and tone hard to accept. Roger Hansen,(13) however, came to many of the same conclusions in his study of the political economy of Mexico. The overriding consideration in Mexico had been economic growth; social reform and democracy were granted only when absolutely necessary. Hansen's work has become the obligatory starting point for all current studies of Mexico. It was widely accepted because it was well-done, dispassionate, based on traditional sources (including Mexican government sources), and published by an establishment university press. Scholars working on other topics confirm this newer interpretation of Mexican politics. A recent book on Mexican business organizations buttresses the view that government and business actually work close together although in a friendly adversary relationship.(14) Elite studies indicate that political leadership of the country is self-perpetuating and entry into it is restricted.(15) My own recent study of the major opposition party (PAN) demonstrated the most insuperable difficulties of a well organized, talented, political party in breaking the government monopoly of elective posts.(16) Nor is this reinterpretation restricted to the present. A recent study of the Church-State conflict and the accompanying cristero rebellion rejects the traditional view that the"people"supported the government.(17)

A just-published book(18) by Evelyn Stevens on government responses to protest movements illustrates the on-going revolution in the interpretation of Mexican politics. It will be used not because it answers all the pertinent questions nor because it is the best single book on Mexican politics but because the author reflects the changes in interpretation and implicitly suggests the directions that future scholarship must take.

Professor Stevens asserts that Mexico is an authoritarian state which controls political mobilization to forestall any interference with the continuance of political control or with the dynamic growth of the economy. The stability of Mexico rests largely upon the ability of the governing elite to control events and keep the economic motor running at a high rate. The economic promises have to be fulfilled fast enough to assure capitalists a high return on their investment, to assure the government sufficient revenue to coopt talented people and potential rivals into public service, and to assure the distribution of enough material benefits to the masses to satisfy the most pressing demands while giving some substance to the promise of future rewards for the others.

To prove these assertions, she examines three protest movements (the railroad workers' strike of 1958-59, the doctors' strike of 1964-65, and the student strike of 1968) to show why protest occurs and how the government controls all political mobilization because it cannot tolerate independent political action. That she has chosen these events, that she places them in the context of information flow and national psychology, and that she places them within the context of an authoritarian state reveals the changes taking place. Neither of the first two protest movements, important as they are, had been adequately studied before, nor had anyone tried to understand why these movements failed.

Several factors enable the government to control events. One is belief in the myth of the Revolution--the myth that a great social revolution took place in Mexico from 1910-1920 and that this revolution will create a socially just democratic state if its leaders are given the time to bring it to fruition and are not hindered by outsiders or disloyal Mexicans. Another is the control of information flow.

Because information is a potentially dangerous weapon, it is a carefully controlled commodity.(19) Laws, regulations, subsidies, custom, and propaganda insure that little hard data reaches the population (of which only 16% form the audience for political and economic news). Rumor, though it distorts reality and encourages conspiratorial views of actions, assumes high value. Since such a communications network is dysfunctional for governmental decision-making and because government officials fear hat they cannot control, spies, informers, infiltrators, and agentes provocateurs are used.

Professor Stevens, therefore, places these protest movements into the context of an authoritarian government which recognizes the dangers of the free flow of information and which manipulates the existing communications network with a "mix of controls and permissiveness . . . which has enabled [the decision makers] to pursue a relatively steady course toward the achievement of economic goals." Because the government is permissive when it is not threatened. it claims that Mexico enjoys freedom of the press, protection of civil liberties, and democracy. Most threats are never allowed to reach the public arena, however, because the control system is so efficient.

The three cases in Stevens' book are examples of the breakdown of the control system when the government had to use other measures to discredit and disband these movements, even though the protestors were from groups which were relatively privileged. Railroad workers had long been favored in Mexican labor and had formed one of the pillars of the labor sector of PRI. In 1958-59, they did two things which frightened the government: they organized into one national union under independent leadership and struck for higher wages at a time when the government is traditionally weak (during presidential succession).The doctors (interns and residents) struck for higher wages and better working conditions in government hospitals. The student movement had no immediate economic goals but escalated into a general protest against authoritarianism in Mexico. Because government bureaucrats began to sympathize with students(thus endangering the governing coalition), because the movement continued to within a few weeks of the Olympic Games (the hosting of which involved Mexican national honor), and because the students were better organized and more radical, the government saw it as the greatest threat and repressed it most violently.

In each case, the government followed a similar pattern: the differences were dictated by the particular circumstances. The government publicly stated that it would engage in dialogue with the protestors but privately stalled while it built public support and laid the groundwork for the repression to follow. The media were used to discredit the protestors who were not allowed similar access to respond. Government spokesmen and "private" groups attacked the protestors as unreasonable in their demands, unfaithful in the"bargaining"process, and influenced/led by outside agitators. Once the stage was set, the government began to use the most efficient instruments of repression available, including death. Once the furor was gone and events were fading from the public memory, the government quietly granted some of the demands but always so that they were treated as gifts.

The implications of Stevens' book are clear. Mexico is neither democratic nor is it becoming such. That these three protests were scattered through a recent decade certainly indicates that little has changed. Civil liberties are honored only so long as they do not constitute a threat to the continuance of an authoritarian system. Some groups have become powerful enough to force their way into the bargaining or decision-making process, but all groups that have any potential for political participation are controlled, directly or indirectly. Such control is never absolute, however, and even the weak are not totally helpless but they have to use extraordinary means to gain attention.

Neither this authoritarian interpretation nor the democratic interpretation which preceded it sufficiently explain Mexican politics. Although the authoritarian model seems more defensible, a more thorough re-examination of the political system is needed. Such are examination must be grounded in the roots of contemporary Mexico. More scholars need to follow Arnaldo Cordoba's lead and look to the Revolution for answers. Cordoba's work(20) thus far is important and suggestive. He sees the Mexican Revolution not as a social revolution but as a peculiar kind of political revolution with populist overtones. What emerged was a leviathan state capable of controlling society. Cárdenas corporatized Mexico in the 1930s in the interest of controlling rivals. The Revolution and Cárdenas made promises to the masses which could not be ignored but which did not have to be implemented fully. The Revolution created adynamic, corporate state which brooks little opposition but which is dependent upon the flow of international capital to sustain rapid economic growth and political stability.

Since the student killings at Tlatelolco in 1968, it has become fashionable to assert that Mexico is either facing a major crisis or a revolution. Doomsayers point to such factors as student alienation, terrorism, rampant inflation, and increased dependency as indicators of serious trouble. In large measure, the switch to the authoritarian model is the result of this doomsaying rather than the inutility of prior explanations. Some of the doomsayers want Mexico to undergo what they think will be a true social revolution. We do not have sufficient evidence nor an interpretative model adequate enough to know what is going to happen in Mexico.

The gaps in our knowledge are vast and varied. We need to know at least the following: who controls Mexico politically and economically; the relationships between economic and political elites, the degree of dependency upon international capital and its significance, how one acquires a position of influence or power, a better chronology of twentieth century Mexican history so we can identify the events and decisions which created present Mexico, how political socialization takes place and how it affects public affairs, what recent terrorist and guerrilla activities mean, the extent, growth, and importance of violence, and how ideas are transmitted. In short, we need to know almost everything. Some of these topics are being studied but none have been monopolized; opportunities abound.(21)

While new evidence is being uncovered and new conceptual devices are being used, the debate within the scholarly community and within Mexico will intensify. The debate indicated in the few works surveyed in this essay has just begun but it promises to be lively.


1. Peace by Revolution: An Interpretation of Mexico (New York: Columbia University Press, 1933); Mexico: The Struggle for Peace and Bread (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1950).

2. The United States and Mexico (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953); Mexico: Revolution to Evolution, 1940-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963).

3. Mexican Government in Transition (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1959); "Mexico: The Established Revolution," in Lucien W. Pye and Sidney Verba, eds., Political Culture and Political Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), pp. 333-335.

4. The Making of Modern Mexico (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964).

5. The Mexican Political System (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1996).

6. Politics and Society in Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971 ) is his most recent lengthy statement.

7. The Mexican Revolution: Federal Expenditure and Social Change since 1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967).

8. The Dynamic of Mexican Nationalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

9. Karl M. Schmitt, Communism in Mexico (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965); Donald Herman, Comintern in Mexico (Washington, 1974).

10. Supporting the democratic view but not actually an apologia is Pablo González Casanova, La democracia en México (Mexico, D F: Ediciones Era, 1965), translated and published as Democracy in Mexico (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

11. Alonso Aguilar and Fernando Carmona, Mexico: riqueza y misería (Mexico, D F: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1967); Fernando Carmona, et al., El milagro mexicano (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Nuestro Tiempo, 1970); and Octavio Paz, Postdata (Mexico, D F: Siglo XXI Editores, 1970),translated and published in the United States as The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid (New York: Grove Press, 1972).

12. Mexican Democracy: A Critical View (Boston: Allyn& Bacon, 1971).

13. The Politics of Mexican Development (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

14. . Robert J. Shafer, Mexican Business Organizations: History and Analysis (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973).

15. . Roderic A. Camp, "The Cabinet and the Técnico in Mexico and the United States," Journal of Comparative Administration (August 1971 ), "The Middle-Level Technocrat in Mexico," The Journal of Developing Areas(July 1972), and "Education and Career Contacts of Mexican Governors Since Cárdenas," Journal of Inter-American Studies and World Affairs (November 1974); J. Cochrane, "Mexico's New Científicos: The Díaz Ordaz Cabinet," Inter-American Economic Affairs (Summer 1967); Wilfried Gruber, "Career Patterns of Mexico's Political Elite," Western Political Quarterly (September 1971); Donald J. Mabry and Roderic A. Camp,"Mexican Political Elites 1935-1973: A Comparative Study," The Americas [April, 1975, pp. 452-69]; Peter H. Smith, "Continuity and Turnover Within the Mexican Political Elite, 1900-1971," paper presented at the IV International Congress of Mexican Studies, October, 1973; and David E. Stansfield, "The Mexican Cabinet: An Indicator Or Change," Occasional Paper No. 8 (1973) of the University of Glasgow.

16. Donald J. Mabry, Mexico's Acción Nacional: A Catholic Alternative to Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1973).

17. Jean Meyer, La Cristiada, 3 Vols. (Mexico: Siglo XXI Editores, 1973-74).

18. Evelyn P. Stevens, Protest and Response in Mexico(Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1974).

19. Besides Stevens, see Bo Anderson and James D. Cockcroft, "Control and Co-optation in Mexican Politics,"International Journal of Comparative Sociology (March 1966).

20. La ideología de la revolución mexicana: la formación del nuevo régimen (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1973);La formación del poder político en México (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1972); and La política de mases del cardenismo (Mexico, D.F.: Ediciones Era, 1974).

21. A further indication of the current debate and directions needed are found in William P. Glade and Stanley R. Ross, eds., Críticas Constructivas del Sistema Político Mexicano (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973); particularly valuable is the essay by Fredrick C. Turner, "Mexican Politics: The Direction of Development;" also see Moreno Sánchez, Mexico, 1969-1972, Crísis y Perspectiva (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1974).