There is nothing older than resentment, above all of the poor toward the rich. Nor is it new to the politicians’ resource of exploiting and provoking grievances, real or imagined. Isocrates, one of the great Greek orators of the IV century A.C., accused hostility, but he recognized it as a typical emotion of democracy. What has changed, says Jeremy Engels,* is that while in a direct democracy citizens express themselves openly at the polis, today it is politicians who incite resentment as a governing instrument. Such a strategy, writes Engels, has limits and can easily revert.
The Greeks saw democracy as a fraternity of citizens dedicated to curbing tyranny. Their results, however, did not impress the Federalists, those thinkers who gave life to the American political system: for them, it was fundamental to avoid the “tyranny of the majority” because a democracy should similarly protect the minorities. The Federalists’ concern was very specific: once the fury is unleashed, nothing can contain a bloodthirsty mob.
The underlying problem is, and always has been, that there are natural differences among citizens: wealth, abilities, origins, preferences, education. Social differences comprise an inexorable part of the history of humanity and democracy is one way of making decisions that permits all citizens to participate equitably, independently of those differences. It is the public policies that the democratically elected government adopts that should attenuate the differences and equalize the opportunities.
Resentment is a knee-jerk reaction to the contrast between the promise of equality inherent in democracy in the face of the flagrant inequities in the results of the political process or when disparities between poverty and wealth are major. The degree of disparity is providential material for politicians and special interests devoted to profiting from social differences and the privileges enjoyed by some as a means of advancing their causes: gaining popular backing and, more commonly, manipulating the population. The resentment that is inherent in human society ends up being an instrument of power to control the population: the quintessential strategy of demagogues like Perón, Chávez or Trump, the same as that of corporativism, of sad memory in a good part of the Mexican XX century, and of the fascist system conceived of by Mussolini.
Confronting and agitating the population is the tactic that President López Obrador has employed to build up his base and solidify his project. The key question is whether this is a means to advance a constructive transformation that reduces inequity and that raises aloft the development to which the entire population can aspire, which is, at least in the rhetoric, what was proposed by the users of the same method of the old PRI; or whether it is a first step toward the destruction of the fragile social stability characterizing the country since the seventies. In the first case we would be speaking of a process of conformation of a regime of control to substitute for what characterized Mexico after the Revolution; in the second case, the beginning of a process of destruction of the frail Mexican democracy that has come to be built with penury, setbacks and reluctance in recent decades. In both cases, resentment as an instrument of power, not of the construction of a better future.
What there is not the least doubt about is that the President sees confrontation and animosity as instruments of governing. In this he is not differentiated to a great extent from other experiments throughout the world or in the South of the continent, all of which ended in failure, some due to the bankruptcy of their economies, others because they brought about violent responses. Chávez opted to invest in insurance against a tempestuous way out, on virtually transferring to Cuba the control of his country.** Whatever the method, none of those examples benefitted the citizenry or empowered their prosperity, but all impoverished the citizens and blemished their followers.
The problem is, once the anger is unleashed, returning to a world of concordance becomes nearly impossible. Venezuela, Argentina and Chile stand as examples where rancor has never perished.
The sole clear element is that the popularity of the President continues to be relatively high, not the result of his inexistent successes in economic matters, corruption or in social concord, but instead more probably the result of the hate that he has laid bare and that he might not be able to stifle. The evolution of perceptions among the citizenry of a leader who provokes but who does not get results is not obvious. Will another appear to capitalize on that very resentment?
When Lenin arrived at Petrograd after being expelled from Zurich, the Revolution had already begun but he had something unique in hand: a plan, which allowed him to take control and build a regime in his image and likeness. The Mexican reality is in such an agitated state that whoever arrives with a plan could become a new leader. The risk is that were the plan like that of Lenin, Chávez or Bolsonaro, Mexico would end collapsing, like so many other experiments in history.
*The Politics of Resentment;
**Maldonado, Diego G., La invasión consentida