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Sheinbaum’s Win Demonstrates the Left’s Lock on Mexican Populism

In her victory speech, Claudia Sheinbaum emphasized that the Mexican presidential jet, a personal luxury for the chief executive, was not coming back under her administration. The president-elect said: 

Our commitment [is] to the well-being of all Mexicans, we will govern for all, but as the humanist principle of our movement says “for the good of all, but first the poor.”  We will be austere; corruption will not return, nor the privileges; the presidential plane will not return, nor the pensions of former presidents, nor the presidential staff.

In tune with millions of have-nots in her country, Sheinbaum was denouncing the Mexican version of the Deep State. Unfortunately, it is the political left south of the border that has won over this anti-elite resentment, and it is likely to hold on to it for many years. 

Mexican conservatism seems never to have seriously competed for these have-nots. Conservatism as a modern electoral force in Mexico was vaguely tied to the National Action Party (PAN), which overthrew the long dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), coming to power in the year 2000, when Vincente Fox was elected president. Although the PAN would elect a second president (Felipe Calderon), the party’s glory was short-lived.

Very much in the tradition of Bush Republicans in the U.S., Fox, Calderon and their PANistas appear, in hindsight, not to have realigned and democratized Mexican politics away from the PRI, but kept it largely in the hands of the elites. Like Bush Republicans, the PAN’s orientation towards business principles and economic interest, while valid issues, famously offered nothing to vast numbers of Mexicans, particularly the marginalized underclass, who are fully in the hands of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and now his protégé Sheinbaum.

An inability to reach the marginalized underclass is not only a significant challenge for conservatives in Mexico, but it is a problem all across Latin America, where some 80 million people still live in extreme poverty. 

In unpacking this challenge, let’s dive into Sheinbaum’s June 2 victory and what it means for Mexican politics.  It must be acknowledged that she campaigned skillfully, much better than her opponents, in connecting with the poor to win a landslide 60 percent of Mexico’s popular vote. It was an impressive victory, and certainly very much attributable to AMLO’s popularity. 

There is much speculation about what lame-duck AMLO has planned. When his six-year term is up in October, the president says he plans to leave Mexican public life and retire to his ranch. Many observers, however, believe the 70-year-old still has ambitions to run the show from behind the curtain, and that he intends to control Morena, the ruling political party he founded. Whatever AMLO eventually does, it is not likely to impact Morena’s continuing dominance, or slow down Sheinbaum. 

Claudia Sheinbaum should not be underrated as a politician in her own right. She successfully ran the government of Mexico City, a megalopolis with an unruly 25 million inhabitants, larger than most countries in Latin America. Making the point, grandmaster politician Lyndon Johnson once famously quipped that being a big-city mayor was a more demanding job than being president. 

Moreover, veteran Mexico-watchers will have noted the gushing praise that the international media and intelligentsia are showering on Sheinbaum, as the “first woman president in North America.”  The crusty AMLO, in contrast, always generated wariness in elite circles, particularly inside Mexico. AMLO regularly unleashed personal attacks against journalists, eventually driving the reporting class into the ranks of his most bitter enemies. 

Sheinbaum is far too crafty to follow that path, particularly as she surely senses the media’s infatuation with her, a valuable public relations asset. She is not likely to publicly battle the press and her opponents as a way to prove her populist credentials, as AMLO famously did during his daily morning press conferences. 

Instead, Sheinbaum is preparing to step into the role of the international left’s ideal, modern leader: an intellectual woman with a hard science PhD; a devotee of wokeism and the green agenda; a non-religious politician of Jewish heritage in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. In their eyes, Sheinbaum comes right out of central casting to challenge machista and sexist Mexican society. She must not be allowed to fail.  

Those who believe that AMLO has a future as Sheinbaum’s puppet master also underestimate the power of presidential incumbency. While the obedient Sheinbaum pays homage to AMLO, and she does owe him much, the exercise of executive power in a vast country like Mexico will inevitably propel la presidenta up on the stage all by herself. 

What is certain is that Sheinbaum fully understands, just like AMLO, that connecting with her country’s underclass, which makes up roughly a third of all Mexicans (with 7 percent in extreme poverty), is the real source of her political power. She will continue AMLO’s policies of generous social spending on behalf of that vast community (e.g., pension support, scholarships, housing subsidies), while combining a personal style of austerity and humility.  This is the Rosetta stone that unlocks Morena’s powerbase.

Mexicans told pollsters that “security”—meaning the country’s widespread and calamitous criminality—was their greatest concern. The crime situation across Mexico has certainly not improved under AMLO and by many measures (deaths and disappearances) is even worse. Criminal courts do not function, and police corruption is legendary, with no real prospects for improvement.

But voters refused to punish AMLO and Sheinbaum at the ballot box. In fact, Morena politicians even won supermajorities in the Congress and numerous state legislatures. It appears that most Mexicans do not think that their president, regardless who holds the office, can realistically do much about the criminality scourge that plagues the nation.

Similarly, most Mexicans probably believe, rightly, that widespread corruption is also beyond the capacity of one president to change, at least in the short term. Despite big talk from AMLO-Sheinbaum about “transforming” Mexican society, most of their countrymen understand how well entrenched the corruption devil is in their national lives. They see little recourse except to live with it. Sheinbaum certainly has no magic bullets for either corruption or criminality.  

But she still commands the moral high ground by serving in public office without using her influence to become personally wealthy. Whether true or not, AMLO largely succeeded in projecting the same powerful image. Nothing infuriated the touchy AMLO more than press charges that he cut dirty deals with narcos and took their drug money; it would seem most Mexicans did not find the corruption accusations against him persuasive.  

Thus, personal incorruptibility at the top of the party is an indispensable ingredient in Morena’s success. It is a lesson that Mexico’s old political establishment—the PRI and the PAN—never seemed to have really learned, as almost all the leading politicians in those parties were or became very wealthy.  The result is that many observers see the Morena political machinery, led by AMLO-Sheinbaum and the proteges they will develop, as likely to hold power in Mexico for decades. 

Conservatives, not only in Mexico, but across Latin America, must learn how to challenge the AMLO-Sheinbaum political coalition that has entrenched itself with the populist poor. Certainly, lack of progress on corruption and criminality remains a significant long-term weakness. Nayib Bukele in El Salvador and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have offered compelling law-and-order presidencies, which are highly popular in a region overwhelmed by criminal gangs. A Mexican Bukele may yet emerge.  

Conservatives in the Americas have also had success attacking corruption, as the compelling example of Argentina’s Javier Milei gives much hope. Milei is a product of the Atlas Network, which emphasizes a libertarian-oriented vision based on the power of individual freedom and markets. Free enterprise scholars, such as Hernando de Soto, also have reached many right-of-center opinion-makers in the region.

Theirs is a good message, but it is often hard to sell among the vast dispossessed populations in the Americas, where leftwing activists have been engaged in political spadework for decades promoting Marxist values. Their tilling is at least partly responsible for the so-called rising “pink tide” in the Americas, which now AMLO-Sheinbaum have brought all the way to the Rio Grande. 

Perhaps more than the libertarian message, a Burkean approach, retooled to tap into heavily Catholic, traditional societies, offers promise to reach the poor in our hemisphere. There are indeed significant Hispanic conservative traditions across the Americas that could be outfitted for the modern public square. Unfortunately, beyond the much-needed law-and-order message, few political organizers in the hemisphere have done very much in developing and spreading them.

One good example comes out of Chile, where the late Jaime Guzman did much in birthing a nationalist and social conservatism that promoted principles of subsidiarity and could connect politically with the poor. Politically smart, Guzman and his compadres realized that right-wing wealthy interests, often associated with the landowning classes, offered little to win over the underclasses. As The American Conservative’s Declan Leary explained, “Guzman brought together an eclectic blend of traditional faith, conservative government, and liberal economics” to help build an effective right-wing electoral force. 

There are of course vast differences between Mexico and the southern cone countries in South America. Yet this kind of outreach into the forgotten barrios is something that few conservative politicians in Mexico appear capable of convincingly undertaking. They need to go back to the drawing board. Somewhere between the ideas and policies of Jaime Guzman in Chile and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador there might be the makings of a new political force, a new modern conservatism, for Mexico.  



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