Plagues and Democracy

Luis Rubio

William H. McNeill, author of the famous book Plagues and Peoples, begins his text by telling us that he became interested in this theme on reading how a warring people that was so prepared and as numerous as the Aztecs, came to submit themselves so easily to the comparatively tiny troop of opportunists led by Hernán Cortés. The answer is simple: infectious diseases that decimated the Mexica.

Plagues and infections have accompanied humanity from time immemorial. Thucydides describes the impact of a virulent plague that attacked Athens midway through the Peloponnesian War as “the catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen to them next, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law. . .” In Pericles’s funeral oration, the famous politician extols the attitude of Athenians in the face of the crisis, despite Sparta’s ending up winning the war and imposing a dictatorial regime. However, viewed in retrospect, Athenian democracy survived and bequeathed to the world what Churchill denominated “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”

According to a study by Josiah Ober and Federica Carugati,* Athenian democracy persisted -and, in the long run, defeated Sparta- in spite of the wars and plagues that lasted for years, because the internal solidity of their society thus facilitated it. On emerging from the epidemic, people were intolerant of poor governmental policies and decisions and more demanding of their government.

The big question for Mexico is whether democracy will be strengthened or continue to languish (or worse). The response to the question depends on three factors: first, the strengths and weaknesses that characterize it; second, the quality of leadership: and third, the manner in which the citizenry learns from this crisis, which lessons it derives from it and how it decides to organize itself.

The nature of Mexico’s democracy is well known. Some eighteen years ago, in an official ceremony, a reporter asked each of the leaders of the main political parties whether Mexico was a democracy. The responses proffered were revealing: the then-president of the PRI affirmed that Mexico had always been a democracy; that of the PAN stated that Mexico had been a democracy since 2000; and the PRD president noted that Mexico had yet to achieve democracy. That is, the mere fact of democracy depends on that a party wins the election, not on the existence of a democratic way of governing, which would include components such as checks and balances, equilibrium among the three branches of government, freedom of expression, an independent and effective judiciary, a press independent from the government and boundless respect for citizen rights.

Measured by these criteria, it is clear that Mexican democracy is, rather, weak, which has been demonstrated by the ease with which the President and his party have taken control of all the instances of government, including those that theoretically would be key as counterweights. In a word, the point of departure is not praiseworthy.

In terms of quality of leadership, the panorama is eloquent. We have a President who, due to his not entertaining any association with the decisions of the past decades that he so sweepingly disparages, would be able to count on the elements and the legitimacy to carry out the reforms that Mexico in effect requires. However, his strategy and, in fact, his most basic instincts, lead him toward the opposite: confronting, disqualifying, attacking and moving backward. In building, he dismantles and rather than adding, he subtracts. Not much can be expected of the current leadership, but a pivotal question is what kind of alternative leadership might surface for the future, beginning with next year’s midterm elections. The announcement that the Mexican private sector had secured a huge credit from the IADB to fund small companies during the pandemic is a great beginning.

At the end of the day, what is crucial lies in the citizenry, the latter having been submitted, controlled and pummeled during nearly a century. The entire party and institutional structure was built for control and nothing –including freedom of expression and alternation of political parties in the government- has eroded it in major fashion.

That has produced a peculiar phenomenon, which was illustrated in a study on justice in Latin America of a few decades ago: on comparing the factors that influenced justice among the diverse nations of the region, Brazilian investigators found that Mexico followed very distinct guidelines. In comparison with a much larger universe, the results manifested that there were closer similarities between some ex-Communist nations and Mexico, not in ideological terms, but in the manner in which the dominating and controlling party system had diminished the citizenry.

One generation later, there are innumerable organizational efforts, many very innovative, on the part of the citizenry but there still persist many ancestral political forms, starting with the whole structure of the governing party.

George Bernard Shaw, the English dramatist, said that “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” I fear that Mexicans find ourselves there, at least for now.

*Economist, March 28, 2020