Hangover: Mexico vs. USA

Alice in Wonderland, the novel by Lewis Carroll, was written by a professor who also wrote a book on symbolic logic. So it is not surprising that Alice encountered not only strange behavior in Wonderland, but also strange and illogical reasoning –of a sort too often found in the real world and of which a logician would be very much aware. In this context I ask myself what would happen if Alice were to visit the world of interpretations that today characterize Mexico’s politics: because not all are as logical as they seem.

A good example of schizophrenia is the contrast between the two nations: in Mexico as well as in the U.S. there’s talk of great political polarization and of a dysfunctional government. But the causes are not the same and the comparison is enlightening.

To begin with, the presidential system, which we adopted from the Americans, was designed to make any change difficult. Its structure was conceived of by the authors of The Federalist Papers as a system tailored to avoid the excesses and abuses of one branch over another. This fact has led many scholars and opinion pundits to conclude that the parliamentary system –designed to be flexible and to adapt with ease to the winds of change- is superior in terms of quality of government. The reality is that these are systems with very distinct logical dynamics. As Ferdinand LaSalle stated in his famous book on constitutions, each constitution reflects the concrete political reality, each system is in a dead heat with its society. The Americans did not construct a democracy but rather a republic because they wished to avoid potential abuses by private interests or the masses. That is what Mexico adopted in 1824 and thenceforth.

The discussion in the U.S., not very different from ours, boils down to: why its system worked before and doesn’t any more. The main similarity lies in the polarization that characterizes the two societies and that, despite manifesting itself in very different ways, has the effect of paralyzing legislative decision-making. The parallels are overwhelming. But the reality is less so.

Two likenesses explain the American reality. On the one hand, if one analyzes the opinion polls, far from being characterized by great polarization the citizenry of that nation experiences a normal distribution, as the statisticians would say, in which the majority is concentrated in the center and a few are polarized at the extremes. That is, the society is not undergoing any polarization, at least not extreme. If the society isn’t, why are there such a flap in the media and such paralysis in Congress?

There are two explanations or hypotheses for the phenomenon. One argues that President Obama’s management has been very ideological and that has generated enormous reaction. Those sustaining this position exemplify it with how the economic stimulus package was implemented, that it did not focus on areas of great economic impact, or with his decision not to accept the Simpson-Bowles Commission’s budgetary recommendations. According to this rationale, the Tea Party Movement, which produceda legislative majority to the Republicans in 2010, was none other than a reaction of the society to Obama. That is, the polarization is caused by what Obama has done.

The other explanation is of a structural nature. According to this view, the polarization derives from the way the legislative districts are assigned and that, thanks to gerrymandering, from the eighties, has exacerbated. Each state is distinct but, typically, it is the state legislatures that define the districts and every ten years, in response to the Census, these are reconstituted. A district in Georgia is 69 miles long and on occasion not more than a few meters wide, all this to ensure that a certain party remains there permanently. This logic has propitiated growing extremism from the right as well as from the left. The best proof of the latter is that this year new districts begin to function, the product of population changes registered in the 2010 Census: a powerful (and for some extremist) congressperson from Massachusetts, Barney Frank, decided not to seek reelection because his district was modified and he was not certain of winning. The system rewards extremism or, expressed in other terms, the source of polarization in the U.S. has to do with the manner in which electoral districts are assigned and not with a fundamental change in the reality of its society.

The great difference between the U.S. and Mexico resides in the strength of their institutions. Although the U.S. Congress is polarized, presidents come and go and the system endures come what may. The checks and balances are so solid that they impede abuse on the part of any individual. The price paid for this is that it is difficult to carry out relevant changes but, it could be said, that comprises the ultimate objective of its system.

On Mexico’s case the situation is very distinct. There the problem could be resolved with a redesign of the rules that determine the Congressional composition. In Mexico the problem is that there is no arrangement on how political power should be organized and distributed. There it’s a problem of structure; here it’s one of essence. There it could be corrected with a legislative decision; here what’s required is an institutional construction that resolves the problem from the beginning. These are very distinct orders of magnitude.

Mexico has a post-dictatorship hangover: years of excesses without institutional development. Different from the U.S., Mexico requires an enormous exercise of political interaction that joins together efforts for and submits ambitions to a common project. In the U.S. all they have to do is agree on something functional: their hangover is one night, Mexico’s is one of two centuries. With this I don’t mean to suggest that it’s easy there and difficult here: in fact, both entail an enormous challenge. What’s relevant is that the task awaiting us Mexicans is that of constructing the foundations of a functional political system and this implies the capacity and disposition for uniting wills, abandoning all-or-nothing positions and constructing a new arrangement of power.

The mission for Mexicans is one of transformation, not of continuity or retrospective. Whoever claims something distinct in not living in the real world. And what is in the wings can be nothing other than violent if it implies returning to the past, or intense if it implies moving on toward the future. Neither will be pleasant.