There is nothing older than resentment and, above all, resentment of the poor towards the rich. Nor is it new that politicians use it as a resource for exploiting and provoking grievances, real or imagined. Isocrates -one of the great Greek orators of the 4th century BC- lamented the existence of hostility but he recognized it as a typical emotion of democracy. What has changed today according to Jeremy Engels is that while in a direct democracy citizens used to express their sentiments openly at the polls, today it is the politicians who incite resentment as a governing tool. Such a strategy, writes Engels, has limits and could easily revert itself (Jeremy Engels, The Politics of Resentment, 2015).
The Greeks saw democracy as a fraternity of citizens dedicated to curbing tyranny. Their results, however, did not impress the U.S. Federalists, the thinkers who gave life to the American political system. For them, it was fundamental to avoid the “tyranny of the majority” because a democracy should equally protect minorities. The Federalists’ concern was very specific: once the fury is unleashed, nothing can contain a bloodthirsty mob.
The underlying problem is, and always has been, that there are natural differences among citizens: wealth, abilities, origins, preferences, education. Social differences comprise an inexorable part of the history of humanity. Democracy is one way of making decisions that allow all citizens to participate equitably and independently of those differences. Public policies are the tools enacted by a democratically elected government that should attenuate social differences and equalize opportunities.
Resentment is a knee-jerk reaction to the disparity that exists between the promise of equality inherent in the idea of democracy and flagrant social inequities, either resulting from the political process or from major disparities between the poor and the wealthy. The size of this disparity between promise and reality is providential ground for those politicians and special interests -devoted to profiting from social differences and the privileges of some- as a means for advancing their cause: gaining popular backing and more frequently manipulate the people. Resentment, an emotion inherent to human society, ends up being an instrument of power to control the population. This is the quintessential strategy of demagogues like Juan Domingo Perón in Argentina, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Donald Trump in the US, the Mexican 20th century corporatist regime and the Italian fascist system conceived by Benito Mussolini.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has chosen to confront and agitate the Mexican population as his tactic to build up a political base and solidify his government project. The key question is whether this is a means to advance a constructive transformation of Mexico that reduces inequality and that increases development opportunities to which the entire Mexican population can aspire -just like the some in the old 20th century PRI regime proposed. Or whether it is just a first step toward the destruction of the fragile social stability that has characterized Mexico since the 1970’s. In the first case, it would involve the creation of governing mechanism of control that would be a substitute to that one that emerged after the Mexican Revolution in the 20th century. In the second case, it would involve the beginning of a process of destruction of the frail Mexican democracy built with penury, setbacks and reluctance in recent decades. In both cases, resentment is used as an tool of power but not for the construction of a better future.
There is not the least doubt that President López Obrador sees confrontation and animosity as instruments of governing. In this he is not different from other experiments throughout The Americas and the world, all of which ended in failure. Some due to economic bankruptcy and some because of the violent responses they brought. Hugo Chávez opted to buy an insurance against a violent way out by virtually transferring to Cuba the control of Venezuela (Diego G. Maldonado, A Consensual Invasion, 2020) Whatever the method, none of the examples above benefited the citizenry or empowered their prosperity, but rather impoverished their citizens and blemished their followers.
The problem is that once the anger has been unleashed, going back to a world of amity becomes nearly impossible. Venezuela, Argentina and Chile stand as examples where rancor has never perished.
The only thing that is clear today is that President López Obrador’s popularity continues to be relatively high. This level of support is not the result of an inexistent success in economic matters, anti-corruption measures or in social amity. Instead, the President’s popularity is more probably the result of the hate that he has laid bare and that he might not be able to stifle. It is not obviously clear how will citizens’ perceptions will evolve from having a leader that provokes resentment but who does not deliver results. Will a new leader capitalize on that very resentment?
When Vladimir I. Lenin arrived at Petrograd in 1917 -after being expelled from Zurich- the Russian Revolution had already begun but he had something unique in hand: a plan, which allowed him to take control and build a regime in his image and likeness. Mexico’s reality is in such an agitated state that whoever arrives with a plan could become the country’s new leader. The risk is that if the plan was similar to those of Lenin, Chávez or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Mexico would end collapsing, like so many other experiments in history.
* Luis Rubio is chairman of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations (COMEXI) and of México Evalúa-CIDAC. A Spanish version of this Op-Ed appeared first in Reforma’s newspaper print edition. Twitter: @lrubiof