One of the great paradoxes that military dictatorships exhibit, reflects Tom Stevenson,* lies in that they in the last analysis make their own troops less effective because of their imperious need for protecting themselves from a blow that would wind up in their removal. The paradoxes of power are always obtuse because their rationality proper is opposite to fortifying the conditions and circumstances that rendered them possible. Power is a Herculean-magnitude aphrodisiac but, when it fails to confront limits and counterweights, it is finally sustained on exceedingly flimsy moorings. The greater the concentration on power, the greater the contradictions and fragilities of the pillars bolstering it.
Unlimited power constitutes a threat for those not possessing it, the reason for which the evolution of societies, from traditional to modern, incorporates a parallel process of institutionalization. Those lacking the high dungeon of the powerful can be very distinct among themselves, but all share the same common denominator. When Robespierre denounces ever more persons, including many of his coreligionists, as traitors to the Revolution on the famous 8th day of the Thermidor in 1794, it gives rise to the union of the entire convention, with his subsequent decapitation two days later. It took France three hundred years to build the institutions that govern it, one of whose central characteristics, similar to those of the whole modern and civilized world, is the institutionalization of power.
The creation of the National Revolutionary Party (PNR), grandfather of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), nearly a century ago responded precisely to that institutional rationale. The Revolution had concluded, but the country was without a functional governmental structure; additionally, many of the disputes of the day continued to be resolved in gruesome fashion, a period that concluded with the death of Obregón, President-Elect at the time for a new term of office. That provoked the decision of Plutarco Elías Calles to build mechanisms that would guide politics and bring the era of political violence to an end. The mechanism served for what it served during various decades, with the contribution of two great virtues and an enormous defect: the virtues comprised stability and economic growth; the defect was its extraordinary inflexibility, which ushered in the crises of the seventies, eighties and nineties and to its dramatic finale with the government of Peña Nieto.
The question today is, once again, how to institutionalize power but in a flexible manner that allows for the alternation of persons and political parties in government, all the latter ensconced in their capacity of abuse and imposition. Much of this was being constructed in this regard from the eighties, but everything has come to fall like a house of cards during these last few years, evidencing the immense fragility of the institutions that were developed with the purpose of channeling power and curbing its worst outrages.
Today we know that all that scaffolding was insubstantial and much of it unsustainable. Step by step, the President has been dismantling each of the scaffolds that purported to institutionalize the power. He has executed this by hook and by crook, never losing his sense of direction. From the beginning of his six-year term, the President changed the game rules, ignored the existing ones and imposed his own, these very simple: I am in command. Little by little he eliminated the relevance of nearly all of them. He (almost) nullified the Supreme Court by means of appointments and menaces and the National Electoral Institute (INE) is presently up in the air, his claiming to de facto reincorporate its functions into the Ministry of the Interior (Secretaría de Gobernación). That is, as in other fields, he advances toward the recreation of that seventies fantasy world which, it shouldn’t be necessary to recall, ended up collapsing due to its unfeasibility.
Whoever watches the President’s daily early-morning media rants would immediately doubt the risks stifling the country today. In that novelesque and supernatural scenario the control of perceptions is unlikely, but absolutely real. The President fills the space for news and converts his obsessions into dogmas of faith. Like with a religious act, the message is profound and takes root in the consciences of millions of his fellow citizens who see themselves represented there. People believe in the President: that is his virtue, but also the breeding grounds of what easily could become in a not-so-distant future.
In contrast with other “hard” governments, which if they have anything in common it is a developmental spirit, the current government in Mexico procures solely two objectives: control and popularity. Both have made headway in this government, but neither counts on a fount of sustenance that could last. More to the point, the characteristic of those two elements, control and popularity, is their ephemeral and passing nature. Few Mexicans, encompassing the majority of those who approve of the President, want a regimen prone to abuse such as this one to be perpetuated. The error of many of those aspiring to govern is the contrary: they think that what is urgent is to return to what was resoundingly rejected by the electorate in 2018.
As Mexicans steadily approach 2024 the relevant question, the only transcendental one, is how to institutionalize the power in a way that those counterweights cannot be dismantled again, and, at the same time, avoid an inflexibility such that it paralyzes or makes the future impossible.
*LRB, v44 n19