The discourse, body language and tone are increasingly more intolerant and revealing of a growing despair. Verbal radicalization was on the rise throughout last year, culminating in indiscriminate attacks against educational institutions, journalists and individuals, many of whom, paradoxically, have been the bulwarks and even backers of the President himself and certainly of his causes. The change in his demeanor with respect to the beginning of the government is plain and, however, none of that has altered the devotion bestowed on him by his electoral base.
Specialists in surveys bend over backward to explain the phenomenon of the elevated popularity despite such pathetic results and, especially, the distance between the numbers that his government receives with respect to those of his own. In the words of Francisco Abundis, one of the most accurate forecasters, “the perception of the economy, the critical variable traditionally employed to consider presidential approval, does not appear to be a determinant indicator. It seems that the population pays attention to other indicators such as social programs… The phenomenon is very similar to that which was observed with ex-President Fox. When supporters of the present Mexican head of state are questioned on his administrative errors, the response frequently is to pin the responsibility on his team or on those around him, but never on the president.”*
In his three-year midterm “report,” the President exhibited what could be a new strategy for the remainder of his administration: if what matters to his base (and to his popularity) are not tangible results measured by traditional gauges (such as growth, employment, security, etc.), then what proceeds is personal promotion, exactly the content of the massive convocation to Mexico City’s Zocalo on December 1. That is to say, the presidential rationale gives the impression of metamorphosing toward a consecration not of the project but of the person as a myth.
The response and reaction of those present at that massive act in the Capital’s center, as well as the popularity tallies, suggest that this is not a bad gamble. Conventional yardsticks do not appear to apply to this president because he has achieved identification as the champion of certain causes and as the incarnation of accumulated resentments that transcend the demand for the usual material or tangible satisfiers. The electoral base does not exact those results because its devotion entails a more religious explanation, one fundamentally more faith-based than rational. In a word, it is a distinct phenomenon that should be categorized in its own terms.
In the history of the world more leaders aspire to become mythical figures than those who attain it. Some are converted into myths for erroneous reasons (such as the Kennedy assassination), others for having transformed their societies, for good or ill, such as Mandela, Mao or Stalin. The excessive power conferred by Mexico’s political system on their presidents often lead them to believe that they can be transformer leaders who come to resolve, with or without an adequate project, all of the country’s problems in less than a six-year term of office. Many attempted it and practically all ended up in history’s dustbin, if not worse.
A few decades ago, Thomas Frank* argued that people vote against their interests: people grant privilege to values above interests and associate with leaders who promote causes that are not material, immediate or necessarily “rational”. In the specific case, the electorate of regions such as Kansas prefer to vote for candidates who reject abortion and favor the availability of arms for personal use rather than those who promote economic development, education, better jobs and other time-honored benchmarks.
The point is that not all electoral preferences can be codified, or even understood, with established categories of analysis. Heads of state who are effective employ myths to advance their enterprise and oftentimes win over the loyalty of the population not due to their programs but to factors that would appear “irrational” under the prevailing measures. Fidel Castro became a mythical figure despite impoverishing his population and keeping it oppressed for more than a half century. Xi Jinping governs an extremely successful nation and, nonetheless, resorts to Mao, another mythical ruler who oppressed the citizenry, as a source of ideological support.
In contrast with those nations (and many more), the moment of AMLO is not propitious for the consecration of a mythical figure. Access to information and the grandiosity of the population’s expectations that this information permits create a point of comparison that renders it very difficult to preserve coherence between poor results and grandiloquent holding-forth. What is certain is that three years are in the offing of unredeemed self-promotion. That may end up consecrating the myth. But as suggested by the evaluation of Abundis cited at the beginning of this piece, what happened to Fox can happen again, this time to AMLO. Fox unleashed extraordinary expectations and hopes that, on not materializing, had the effect of drastically demythologizing the figure, turning him into the very opposite of a myth: a fiction, a sophism or, simply, a failure…
*Milenio, December 1, 2021, **What’s the Matter with Kansas?