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AMLO, Bernie, and the Structural Limits of Governing

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Mexico and the United States are two very different nations with different problems and different ways of governing. But both are deeply troubled and so both have attracted charismatic politicians who claim that can create major changes by themselves that can overcome the structural realities of government. Trump is one of those in his way, but he has most of the structural advantages on his side because of the Senate.

More to the point are two pretty similar figures, Bernie Sanders and Andres Manuel López Obrador, the president of Mexico. When the Latin American right–a bunch of fascists to be honest–claimed that AMLO was going to be the next Hugo Chavez, this was disingenuous and just stupid. He shares basically nothing in common with Chavez and never had any attention of governing that way. The person he has far more in common with is Sanders. Both are individualistic, independent, charismatic politicians who talk about major change and aren’t hypocrites about it. They really mean it. But once you get into power, how do you use it? Does all the institutions change just because you are here now? No. AMLO is learning that fast. And so would Bernie and his fans once he won the presidency.

After his landslide victory last year, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico promised a staggering transformation of his country — on par with independence from Spain and the Mexican Revolution.

But five months into his term, the new Mexico he says he is building looks an awful lot like the old one he swore to leave behind.

Corruption was a hallmark issue for Mr. López Obrador during the campaign, a national scourge he vowed to end. Yet his government has announced no major prosecutions of public officials or other prominent figures on corruption charges since he took office.

Beyond that, in his first three months, his government awarded more than 70 percent of its contracts directly, without competitive bids, according to Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, an anticorruption group — a sharp reversal from Mr. López Obrador’s promise to break with that tradition.

….

“He makes these grand statements: ‘Neoliberalism is over,’ ‘Corruption is over,’” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst in Mexico City. “He’s more worried about intensifying the message of change than actually embarking on the difficult and uncertain labor of making change happen.”

Mr. López Obrador has also alarmed many Mexicans with his threat-tinged attacks on the media, including his admonitions that reporters should “behave well” or “you know what will happen to you” — an ominous warning in one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a journalist. At least six journalists have been killed since he took office.

Over the weekend, about 6,000 protesters took to the streets to call for Mr. López Obrador’s resignation, frustrated with his polarizing language and leery of his administration.

Still, Mr. López Obrador remains wildly popular in the country: The most recent polling places his approval rating above 60 percent. That is largely because he understands the historical distance between the nation’s rulers and its people — and has vowed to close the gap.

He put the presidential plane up for sale and now flies coach around the country. He converted the presidential palace into a public cultural center. He cut the highest salaries for public employees and raised the lowest, and his office says all public servants are required to declare their assets and potential conflicts of interest.

These actions reflect his common touch, a rarity among the country’s leaders, whose excesses and indifference have been longstanding traditions.

A spokesman for the president said the new government had made other changes as well, including altering the Constitution to make corruption, fuel theft and electoral fraud serious felonies. More legislative changes are on the horizon, the president’s office says, in areas like labor law and education.

Mr. López Obrador has also announced a broad range of new programs for the poor, a central promise of his campaign. If successful, he says, his programs could lift some 20 million people out of poverty during his six-year term — despite widespread questions over how he will pay for them all.

“For the first time in decades, there’s a president who talks to the vast majority of Mexicans who not only felt excluded but despised,” said Carlos Heredia, an associate professor at CIDE, a Mexico City university.

The new president also has an immense advantage in the legislature: majorities in both houses. With the opposition largely broken, there are few checks on his power, which gives him great freedom to pursue his agenda but has also led critics to fret over his confrontational behavior.

His political dominance was on display early on in his tenure when he canceled a $13 billion airport project, a decision that cost the nation dearly because the bond holders who backed it were repaid.

But Mr. López Obrador has won over many Mexicans with his unusual accessibility, in particular the televised news conferences he holds every morning at 7.

From his podium, he answers questions on the day’s events and holds forth on everything from infrastructure to baseball. By contrast, his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, held only a few news conferences that allowed questions in his entire six-year term.

Minus the way he is treating reporters, which is more Trump than Bernie, AMLO is doing the best he can. But there’s no way one man can break corruption in Mexico. There’s no way one man can fix the human rights violations by the police or stop the drug cartels or cut down on the murders or anything else. He’s trying. And there’s nothing wrong with his populist approach. The problem is that there’s not much of a party behind him. Yes, he has a majority, but it’s not really clear what that majority really stands for in 5 years when AMLO is no longer in office. With the PRI and PAN completely discredited, if he fails, the future of Mexican politics is deeply murky, which is not great for a country that could turn more like Venezuela with less of a push than most Americans think.

But more to the point, if Bernie wins the presidency and not the Senate, what is he really going to accomplish? As much as he can, sure. He will have some powers and I have little doubt that he will use them well. But like AMLO in Mexico, his supporters are going to have a rude awakening when they realize that very little is going to change, especially with the Supreme Court ready to strike anything Democrats do down as unconstitutional based on the solid principle of “fuck Democrats.” This has to be a longer-term fight with more of an emphasis on structure than a single personality and I think too many of Bernie’s supporters–and the man himself–don’t really quite get that. I wish him all the best, but we face a lot bigger problems than just the wrong president.

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