A Crisis of Trust in Democratic Institutions

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The other day I took a a few taxis in Mexico City. Unlike rides in the United States, in Mexico conversations often turn to politics, economics, and trust in the government. After all, Mexico has a long history of distrust, with good reason. However, the conversation I had with several taxi drivers, I could have had at a libertarian rally or a Trump Rally. In fact, I had similar conversations with Sanders voters in 2016.

We have a crisis of trust in Democratic institutions across the Western World. This leads to the rise of populist governments, that promise to fix what ails these governments that failed the people. What is driving this is lack of transparency by governments, very real corruption and regulatory capture. It is also driven by the rise of monopolistic practices that leave consumers very little real choice in products they buy and have led to flat wages (for all intents and purposes) in many nations, not just the United States.

Like Donald Trump, Manuel Lopez Obrador painted himself as the savior of the nation. He was uniquely qualified to solve this crisis of governance and drain the swamp. His language was different, but in the end, it translates to the same. He also promised to lower the price of fuel, such as natural gas and gasoline. Neither of these has occurred, and in fact, they are still rising every month. For him, this was the equivalent of the promise to build the wall and get rid of Obamacare. Incidentally, Obrador also promised to deliver on true universal health care Mexico, and will, in the process, get rid of the Popular Insurance program that is closer to universal health care than anything that exists in the United States.

The reason I am bringing up his campaign promises is that people in higher social strata were not impressed, but the people were. Lopez Obrador, unlike Trump, was elected to the presidency in vast numbers. Mexico’s electoral college only certifies the election, and the presidency is by direct popular vote.

Granted, one of the drivers I spoke with has been a member of the PRI all his life, so not being impressed comes with the territory. I am also taking taxis in an area that is a stronghold of the PRI, to a lesser extent the PAN. This would be like talking to a yellow dog Democrat who will be critical of any Republican as a matter of course. The others did not reveal their political leanings, but the common theme is the same. Four months in, people are already talking about this administration as a failed presidency. My sample is anecdotal, and in actual polls, Obrador is above 80 percent popularity, driven by his fight against those stealing gas from the transmission lines. In Mexico, this is called Huachicoleo.

These drivers were all talking about something else. The government cannot be trusted, because they do not tell you how they spend the taxes they raise. Like people at any libertarian event in the United States, they also want all the services a good functioning government should provide, like roads, schools, medical care, etcetera, but they do not want to pay taxes for that. Unicorn farts to pay for services are universal, never mind that they are a fantasy.

There is also a sense that government workers act with impunity and the reality that these workers believe they can treat the taxpayer they serve as they please. Do not get me started with law enforcement, which is mistrusted across the board.

People also feed into conspiracies, like the government created the gas pipeline explosion in the State of Guanajuato. This happened on purpose. Why? The government wants to give a lesson to the huachicoleros who are stealing gas to sell in the black market. Remember, the costs of gas are high, and in a percentage of income, significantly higher than in the United States. Like the 911 attack, this is a new reality. In the United States, the attack came in order to get a wanted war in the Middle East. It was a way to enable a police state.

Both are driven by the same lack of confidence in the state. However, in Mexico, there is a reason for that, with the disappearance of tens of thousands of Mexicans over the last ten years. A conservative number is 50,000, and that includes the 43 students at Ayotzinapa in 2014.

I have yet to meet an Obrador hardcore supporter, but outside of the Trump hardcore base, the disappointment and even distrust in the current government are similar. Yet, from polling, we know this is a minority. Also, there is no scandal like the Mueller probe in Mexico, but the press conferences that Obrador gives every morning, like Trump’s tweets, are becoming an airing of grievances, with little evidence of the claims made. This is according to the drivers. I will have to stream a couple to judge.

Climate change or global warming (in Mexico both are used interchangeably) are something that is real. People in Mexico do not deny it. One obvious reason, temperatures in Mexico City are reaching the 90s in February. Heat waves are unprecedented this early in the year. There is no denying that it is happening. But…the new president wants to increase extraction and stop a lot of the renewables. Why? He claims it will lower the cost of gas and make Mexico energy independent (this should sound very familiar because it is the argument for clean coal that Trump made.) And this was repeated by the President in his speech to the nation on September 1.

Obrador’s energy policy is stuck in the 1940s. This is becoming a sore point with some of the drivers, who see the future in electric vehicles. Even if the cost of ownership right now is prohibitive. As one driver put it, the companies (like PEMEX or SHELL) could fuel vehicles with electric energy. The technical matters of bringing this energy through the grid and upgrading the grid is not part of the conversation. Yet, at least one of the drivers understands the concept of regulatory capture and why these companies do not want to keep the oil in the ground because of the wealth that will suddenly be zero.

This is leading to disappointment because these drivers have children and grandchildren and worry about their future.

As far as the PRI voter he was clear as to why he does not like Obrador, and it is a common refrain in Mexico. “Mejor ladron conocido, que ladron por conocer. It’s best to know the thief you already know that the thief you will know.”

I have heard similar sentiments in the United States, where multiple voters have noticed how members of Congress and the Senate have become multimillionaires with salaries that should not lead to that. In the United States OpenSecrets.Org is a very good source for PAC donations to those elected to federal office. There is a layer of transparency that does not exist in Mexico. However, both governments have a very serious problem with personal enrichment while in office.

Mexico, unlike the United States, has had a long-standing issue with deep corruption. Why many Mexicans also prefer the PRI because the political class will enrich itself, but let the people live, more or less. In the United States, corruption is becoming a major issue. While not yet at the levels of Mexico, in which case some of the structural issues go to the colonial period, it is deepening and this should worry Americans.

Incidentally, this is one of the root causes of the mistrust of institutions. Why when Obrador and Trump promised to drain the swamp, voters jumped on it. Never mind that both have installed creatures of the deeper swamp in their administrations. This will lead to disappointment by voters and even more distrust. This necessarily opens the way for more populist politicians who will run as essential men and will take over the government. Both are attacking democratic institutions. Both are on a rampage against democracy itself.

They are not alone. A similar process is happening in the United Kingdom. The BREXIT vote was driven by similar forces. The Right-wing Italian Government is coming from a similar place. The Yellow Vest demonstrations in France are due to similar conditions. The rise of far-right governments in Poland and Hungary are driven by the same.

The details may be different, but people feel their governments are corrupt, and their only recourse is to put in leaders that will also drive out the foreigner and care for the nation. Democracy itself is in deep crisis.

Written by

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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