Perspective on Democracy

Luis Rubio

When, in the seventies, the country began to adopt democratic reforms, the hope was that this system of government would gradually take on strength, creating conditions for the development of the country in a much more stable and permanent fashion. The successive electoral and political reforms, it was assumed, would be accompanied by an environment of civility that would permit a great leap toward democracy and civilization. From that time on, a profound connoisseur of Mexico, John Womack, warned that this was not natural: “Democracy does not produce, by itself, a decent way of living. It is the decent ways of living that produce democracy”.

Decades after the first wave of reforms was initiated, the country finds itself suffering from problems that are exceedingly serious –such as corruption, impunity and violence- whereas democracy has not achieved creating conditions for a participatory and accountable mechanism of making decisions and, on judging from the most recent electoral processes, nor in the form of electing our elected officials. The old ways of acquiring power and preserving it -clientelism, undue use of the public resources, the buying of votes- remain alive and kicking.

The old refrain says it takes two to tango: the same is true for democracy. While the population feels that it not represented and has no access (indirectly in the republican form of government) to decision-making, its best interest is to always obtain any benefit it can, independently of the consequences and implications. This is what explains popular participation in the siphoning off and distribution of gasoline and the population’s assistance to narcos operating in their communities.  When the government does not serve its purpose or earn its legitimacy, the population exploits any opportunity presented to it, to the degree that the electoral processes end up being a game:  what’s in it for me in exchange for my vote. Another way of expressing this lies in the old maxim: “They pretend to pay me and I pretend to work.” The life of the society becomes a pastime of engaging in exchanges in which no one entertains an incentive for improvement of the whole.

Today it is clear that democracy does not create itself: to progress, it requires conditions that are not common in Mexico and throughout history in general. Two scholars, John Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth, recently published an analysis of the history of democracy that annihilates any hope of its advancing on its own. Perhaps the best way of summarizing their conclusion is that democracy cannot prosper while those invested with the power can continue exercising it without furnishing anything in exchange. Democracy advances, say the authors, when the rich and powerful perceive themselves as obliged by the circumstances to share the power with the poor. And, state the authors, that only happens when there is a war.

It is the threats from outside that make the powerful recognize that the poor are valuable; historically this occurred because in order to preserve a society’s independence soldiers are required and the rich are never adequate for that. In the authors’ words, “the emergence and consolidation of democracy depends on warfare, and on a particular kind of warfare, at that.” The rich and powerful prefer to stay the way they are and are only willing to share the spoils when they find the status quo imperiled. It is the terrible “alchemy of iron and blood” that produces democracy. “As long as the monarchies could buy armies with money, blood did not buy voting rights, as it had in Athens and Rome.” It was not until the end of the XIX Century that the conditions came about, above all from the time of the French Revolution and later the European wars, for mobilization of the masses to acquire a fundamental political value.

The reading of Forged Through Fire: War, Peace, and the Democratic Bargain is not for dreamers because its realism literally derives from the bayonets, but it poses an evident question for Mexico: given the scant probability that our physical integrity as an independent nation will be endangered, how would it be possible to consolidate Mexican democracy? The authors themselves submit the query in a more conceptual sense: “When armies no longer need flesh and blood what can take their place to stabilize democracy?” According to the authors, democracy implies the sharing of power in an orderly manner and that only becomes possible when the circumstances demand it to be so.  That is, it is only when the powerful recognize that they are incapable of safeguarding their interests without the concurrence of the population in general; only then are they are disposed to share the power, and that is what opens the door to representative democracy.

Mexico is experiencing a stage that is exceedingly contentious and violent. Corruption has become one of the central factors in public discussion and organized crime constitutes a menace to those who hold the economic and political power. The latter is certainly true at the regional level, but could also become a national threat. Maybe therein, or from Trump, lies the opportunity to transform the country once and for all.