Populist Rhetoric, Slanted Causal Stories, and Polarization in Mexico

In this article, Rodolfo Sarsfield talks about the populist ideology in the discourse of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), president of Mexico, and the deep polarization it is unleashing. AMLO has been described as an authoritarian politician without any fixed ideology who inspires cultlike devotion in his followers. How does he construct the idea of people and who is part of what he calls mafia of power? Who are the fifís and who are the chairos? How does the populist discourse change from opposition to government? Sarsfield answers these and other questions…

Enjoy the read.

Self-identified with the political left, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his party have regularly espoused radical populism. Since his first campaign as a candidate for the presidency over a decade ago (2006), AMLO’s rhetoric has constantly alluded to the Manichean opposition between a pure people and a corrupt elite that characterizes populism according to the ideational approach.


Although it exhibited a more moderate discourse when AMLO was mayor of Mexico City (2000–2005), from the 2006 presidential campaign and especially after his defeat in this electoral contest, AMLO’s narrative began to be characterized by references to a morally superior people, demands for its sovereignty, denunciation of a corrupt elite, depiction of politics as a good-versus-evil struggle between these two groups, and alignment of the candidate on the side of the people. Since then, the main slogan adopted by AMLO and his party MORENA (Movimiento de Regeneración Nacional) has been “For the good of all, the poor first” (“Por el bien de todos, primero los pobres”). In addition, and as a variation on the same idea, AMLO has constantly alluded to the phrase “Up with those from below, down from those on top” (“Arriba los de abajo, abajo los de arriba”). Thus, his political messaging is characterized by left-wing radical ideational populism.

After AMLO took office on December 1, 2018, his rhetoric increasingly emphasized his previous idea about the existence of a “mafia of power” (mafia del poder), which he identifies with what he calls the “PRIAN,” a word that he created from the combination of the names of the two parties that were in government before him, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) and the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional). Thus, a paradigmatic example of that rhetoric can be seen from the very beginning of his government when, in a conflict on the autonomy of the Energy Regulatory Commission (Comisión Reguladora de Energía), AMLO termed those who opposed the candidates he proposed for the Commission—candidates were people very close to him and without any expertise in the matter—the mafia of power who only sought to defend their privileges. This rhetoric seems to echo the old slogan of AMLO, in which he proposed “To hell with your corrupt institutions!”. Both the narrative of a mafia of power as well as that slogan seem to represent the role that AMLO’s rhetoric assigns to democratic institutions: such institutions are only a place in which the powerful exercises their privileges.

With the people everything, without the people nothing

With AMLO in charge of the government, not only has his populist rhetoric not changed but also his policies have followed very closely his populist campaign promises. An important example of this consistency between the campaign and the government was the cancellation of the construction of the New Texcoco International Airport (with an advance level of 30%) because, according to AMLO, this public work represented a manifestation of the widespread corruption that prevailed in the “ancient regime” among the elite (AMLO has insisted that his government represents not only a change of rulers but also a change of regime).

Instead, AMLO decided to build an enlargement of an old military airport—Santa Lucia International Airport—whose technical viability was questioned by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). For this policy decision, AMLO appealed to a “referendum” (consulta popular) that was irregularly organized and in which only 1,067,859 voters participated—less than 2% of the voter registration (electoral roll). Furthermore, and as an example of the irregular nature of this referendum, AMLO conducted it before taking office as the newly elected president of Mexico.

Both the rhetoric and the policy of AMLO seem to have unleashed a process of deep polarization. Although this polarization appears to have begun following the presidential election of 2006, the dispute was fueled during the presidential campaigns of 2018, in which AMLO sharpened his populist rhetoric. An important moment in this process of radicalization of AMLO’s rhetoric was his public declaration on one of the most respected newspapers in Mexico, the Reforma. In this statement, AMLO described the Reforma as a “conservative press” as well as “fifís (“smug, rich people”), a highly pejorative word that then began to spread rapidly in social media and everyday life. Since then, AMLO has used the word “fifí” for all those who have criticized his way of doing politics. At the same time, opponents of AMLO began to use the word “chairos (“resentful, poor people”) on social media, another highly pejorative term that alludes to his followers.

2021: AMLO bets on fossil fuels while curtailing clean energy.

One critical aspect that seems to contribute to polarization in Mexico is the use of certain specific (slanted) causal stories from part of the AMLO’s narrative. Causal stories are alleged claims about sequences of events between certain policies and certain outcomes in the social and political world. Causal stories are used to justify certain policies and for the entire policy decision making process. Populist rhetoric often contains slanted causal stories—that is, misinformation. It portrays issues in a biased way to make them fit their normative narratives. Slanted causal stories may seek to strengthen polarized sentiments among citizens. The analysis of these causal stories could help explain the consequences that López Obrador’s narrative has in terms of political attitudes. Exploring such a narrative could make possible to find the causal mechanisms that lead to polarization.

A first slanted causal story that AMLO has insisted on is that of affirming that corruption is the cause of all of Mexico’s problems, from criminal violence to poverty, inequality, and migration. As a central part of this causal story, AMLO has stressed that corruption is represented by “conservative” politicians—that is, all the opposition to his government—who, protected by the institutions, have harmed the “people” of Mexico. Consequently, ending the opposition is the true solution to the problems of Mexico. The defense of checks and balances mechanisms by the opposition or other branches of government—as has happened in response to AMLO’s attacks on liberal democratic institutions such as the National Electoral Institute (INE) and the National Institute for Access to Information (INAI) —it’s just “conservative” and “neoliberal” rhetoric, according to López Obrador.

A second causal story to which AMLO has appealed is about the very nature of politics: the exercise of government is portrayed not as a matter of knowledge or expertise but as a matter of a “pure” people that should be the guideline of policies. In other words, “good policies” come from the people, not from experts. A broad rejection of the role of experts in government emerges from this slanted causal story. Notions such as bureaucracy or technocracy acquire a profoundly pejorative meaning and they are conceived as representing—or even forming part of—the interests of “corrupt elites”. This slanted causal story seeks to justify AMLO’s harassment policy towards academic centers and universities, many of them public institutions, whose most notable case has been the authoritarian and illegal attack on the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), a process whose outcome is still open.

Both slanted causal stories are part of a rhetoric that seeks (an intentional) polarization. Framing politics in Manichean terms—an attribute of populism—requires slanted causal stories that give greater credibility to that rhetoric. AMLO’s objective—like other populist leaders—is to throw citizens to choose between “the good” —which they claim to represent—and “the evil” —embodied by traditional political leaders. For that goal, plausible-sounding arguments are required, especially among those who are not blind followers of the populist leader. At the same time, this type of argument maintains the activation of populist attitudes among the followers of the populist leader. Slanted causal stories contribute to the construction of the rhetoric that produces and sustains polarization from which populist leaders obtain political support.

Sarsfield Picture

Rodolfo Sarsfield is Professor of Political Science at Autonomous University of Queretaro, in Mexico. He obtained his PhD in Political Science from Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in 2004. Sarsfield’s research focuses on the study of the political psychology in Latin America, with an emphasis on the attitudes toward democracy, populism, corruption, and the rule of law in Argentina and Mexico. Also, he centers his research on concepts and methods in political science.

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