Children´s literary classics become so not only because of their appeal to young readers, but also because their themes, characters, dialogues and narratives can be constantly (re)discovered by very distinct audiences across time and space. We think of Dr. Seuss’ Lorax or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince as classics because they shed light on a rather complex set of issues. Leaning on Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, in what follows, I limn the contours of Mexican politics a year after Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) landslide electoral victory.
I intend to illuminate the struggle analysts, advocates and critics face when attempting to elucidate whether what’s happening in Mexican politics is having —or going to have— either positive or negative consequences. The reader should be aware that, if effective, this depiction of Mexico’s political chiaroscuro is bound to raise more questions than answers. For clarity, I first offer a brief synthesis of Lewis Carroll’s tale. I then draw parallels between AMLO’s governing style and three memorable characters of the story. Lastly, the conclusion reflects on how fiction might —or might not— overcome reality.
In Carroll’s sequel to Adventures in Wonderland, Alice enters once again a fantastical world by climbing into a mirror. Inside this reflection, Alice unknowingly becomes part of a chess game. As the story unfolds, she moves across the board, meeting memorable characters like the Red Queen, Tweedledum & Tweedledee and Humpty Dumpty along the way. Although in this world everything seems to be reversed, Alice manages to win the game and wakes up questioning whether her recent adventure or her sudden wakefulness are real at all.
In spite of dominating polls throughout the 2018 campaign trail, López Obrador’s victory shook pundits, critics and enthusiasts alike. Some have even claimed that MORENA’s (AMLO’s party) tsunami represents the first real rotation of political elites in almost a century, and that, just like walking through glass, was something that ex ante seemed or was thought of as impossible. Backed by 30 million votes, AMLO walked through the mirror. A decades-long stentorian opposition leader turned president.
One year in…
A year after the election, and seven months in office, close observers will quickly recognize how contemporary Mexican politics resembles several of Alice’s encounters and dialogues on her quest to win the chess match. The first and perhaps most dramatic example concerns time. Sworn to kick-start Mexico’s fourth transformation, AMLO is poised to beat Time.
Hailing ‘an overhaul of the political system’ rather than just a shift in administration, the pace at which AMLO’s government is introducing reforms and modifications seems to signal that for him and his cabinet, days necessarily have more than just 24 hours. AMLO’s government has been a true and tested example that time’s relativity is not only a physical phenomenon, but also a political one.
Examples of this precocity for change can be found across a wide array of policy dimensions and arenas: re-structuring of the federal budget, a deep (re)accommodation of the bureaucratic apparatus, the creation of the Guardia Nacional, an airport cancellation, as well as significant efforts to formally (or informally) stop most of former president Peña Nieto’s so-called structural reforms.
This re-interpretation of time has had, of course, drastic consequences. On the one hand, it has evidenced a lack of refinement and detail in the design and execution of governmental action. On the other hand, it has pressured an otherwise lethargic and feeble state apparatus to operate beyond its current capabilities. Recurring cabinet resignations and a media overload of information are additional symptoms of this change spree.
The advice the Red Queen gives to Alice upon entering the chess game can be closely linked to this stretching of time and accelerated transformation since, as the queen suggests, “if you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast”. The risk, however, as she first points out, is that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place”.
AMLO’s “Red Queen politics”, just like its counter parts in biology and marketing, runs the risk of trying to re-invent the wheel, launching new programs, creating new institutes and organizations and redefining policies, just so that Mexico —its economy and democracy— can (in the best scenario) remain the same.
That AMLO’s tempo is distinct and that he strives to foster ubiquitous change should be by now clear to anyone who has followed the president’s mañaneras. Every weekday by 7 a.m. López Obrador has a press conference in which, aided by cabinet members, he sets the agenda and has constant exchanges with media. While the image of an open, hard-working president has definitely helped Obrador to keep surprisingly high approval rates, these morning meetings have been marred by AMLO constantly rejecting criticism by retorting that he has “other information”.
When thinking about Mexico’s president alternative facts —or more broadly when thinking about the peculiar relation populist leaders from across the ideological spectrum have to data— I cannot help but remember Humpty Dumpty’s remark that “when [he] uses a word, it means just what [he] chooses it to mean”. When confronted by Alice –or the media— as the extent to which this conceptual stretching can go on, Humpty Dumpty replies that “the question is, which is to be master -that’s all”.
For the past year López Obrador has been master not only of the political agenda but also of the narrative and the language used to discuss politics in Mexico. His popularity and a majoritarian support in Congress, have allowed him to challenge and redefine the spectrum of what’s considered good or bad politics. His is the only effective truth and so far, no one has managed to challenge that.
With two years until mid-term congressional elections and five years left in the presidency, AMLO’s chess game has got a long way ahead. As it stands, the recent victory of MORENA in the state of Puebla exemplifies that the opposition has yet to find its ground and catch up with the times. To understand current Mexican political tidings, and perhaps to lessen polarization while enhancing the ability to articulate a critical alternative, it is necessary to grasp that AMLO’s government through its distinct looking-glass, has redefined the political coordinates of time, space and even language.
In the upcoming months, the Mexican landscape will consequently be redefined by an interplay between the opposition’s ability to rediscover its voice and AMLO’s maneuvering to overcome the limitations interwoven in (t)his “new” reality. In the meantime, advocates and critics continue to resemble Tweedledum & Tweedledee, the one saying that “if it [is] so, it might be” while the other one retorts “but as it isn’t, it ain’t”.
*All of the quotes from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass were taken from an online version of the text available at <https://bit.ly/1WF0SZH>.