What kind of society do we want?

Control or responsibility: That, as Hamlet would have said, is the question. But this is not a literary digression; rather, it is a central question of the nature of power, the responsibility of those of who govern, and their relationship with the citizenry. For some, the citizen is a mere peon in the social dynamic: for others, the citizen is the touchstone of this latticework. The difference is not small; thus, the profound controversy. What is at stake in the discussion concerning the modifications to Article 41 of the Mexican Constitution is precisely this: the leading role of the citizen in the development of the society.


The question is whether the citizen is just one of many components of democracy or its raison d’être. This dilemma defines it all. Some argue and defend the notion that the Mexican voter is a minor, unable to decide about the great affairs of our reality. Others, including myself, believe that these are complete citizens who have the right to drive the value of their perspective and to be at the center of decision-making on transcendental publics affairs. For the former, the function of the government and its institutions is to control, regulate, influence and shape the information so that the voter would know what is convenient and desirable for him. For the latter, the citizen is fully capable of deciding for herself and does not require the information to be filtered. Here lies the difference between a subject and a citizen.


According to Charles III, king of Spain in the XVIII Century, subjects are born to “to be silent and to obey and not to reflect nor opine about the high affairs of government”. Act II, it is imperative to filter –if not shape- the advertisements, commentaries, opinions, or criticisms that can arise from a very diverse society: little information, duly supervised. This is the perspective that inspired the 2007 electoral reforms in which society’s freedom to express their ideas, purchase media time, or receive information by means of publicity was curtailed. This reform raised the political parties, together with the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE), to the rank of the official and absolute controllers of the information that citizens should receive. Nothing other than what these entities produce, manipulate, or exert an influence over can be read, seen, or heard by the citizens.


Mark Twain, the great philosopher of life, had another idea: for him, “Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get away without it”. This is the tessitura that we have run up against: do we want a free citizenry that develops and that makes itself responsible for discerning and choosing among the postures that are presented to them, or do we want a set of voters who are incapable of anything except receiving instructions. I recognize that I am being absolute in this distinction, but I have no doubt that this involves a fundamental, even foundational, definition. The theme is whether we wager on a citizenry capable of discernment, or on an inert mass that only receives messages and acts according to the instructions implied therein.


This is not a lesser debate. Terms such as “controlling State”, “directed democracy”, and “strong government” were used throughout the PRIist era to legitimatize the abuse that the authoritarian system imposed on the citizenry, always considered as minors. During this era, the government was there to substitute for the supposed absence of an organized society, one capable of assuming itself to be the heart of the future. The current paradox is that the future is unviable without a strong citizenry. Restrictions such as those of the Reform of 2007 do nothing more than subjugate, submit, and control the citizenry. How is it possible for more transparency and account-rendering to exist if citizenship does not? Unless the objective comprises making up a group of experts (most assuredly integrated by those who support this vision) to conduct surveillance over the information and judge for the citizens, a democracy without citizens is not conceivable. The pretense that it is sufficient for the political parties to participate in the election and for citizens to be mere spectators says it all.
Stalin once affirmed that the persons who deposit their vote in the urn do not decide anything: those who decide, stated the Soviet dictator, are those who count the votes. The reconfiguration of the IFE at the mid-nineties attempted to respond to a quasi-Stalinist reality: the supposed Mexican democracy did not allow for certainty in the counting of votes. With the citizen IFE, Mexican democracy began to flourish in the electoral terrain. The IFE achieved what had appeared impossible: winning the trust of the electorate. But Mexican democracy was not designed for the citizenry. In present-day Mexican politics, sovereignty lies in the political parties. Citizen disillusionment has to do with this fact: the monopoly of power in the hands of the political parties and the corruption inherent in the control that they exercise. The average citizen may not have deep knowledge, but they understand perfectly that the vote is theirs and that it should be exercised with responsibility. Attempting to mold the information impedes this from occurring.


The 2007 Reform would have made Stalin proud. The autonomy of the IFE was left behind, along with public discussion, and electoral propaganda and opinion regarding the election were severely restricted. From once being an independent referee, the IFE was relegated to an auditing role. Heretofore the IFE’s concerns would not be concentrated on the equity of the election, but instead, on the content of political messages, the duration of spots, and the imposition of fines and admonishments on a growing number of actors. In another Stalinist fit of pique, everyone could be subject to an electoral crime. It was a new way of recentralizing power, not under the presidential yoke, but under that of the political parties and their administrators. This could be anything, but democracy it is not.


The dilemma is very simple: do we want a society structured and controlled by the political parties, or do we want a strong citizenry that is capable of demanding accountability and deciding on who would govern it. For some, the dilemma is equivalent to choosing a car in a dealership, but in reality it is about a fundamental difference: coming as we do from an authoritarian system, we require the entire force of the citizenry to discern without conferring so much power on the political parties. The parties are key entities in a democracy, but no substitute for a strong citizenry, capable of exercising the vote in serious, responsible, and informed fashion. Restrictions to freedom of expression are noxious to a citizenry that is alive and desirous of growing and transcending.