Charisma, Old and New


Mexican opposition presidential candidate Xochitl Gálvez. Photo: Google


“We Mexicans,” wrote the 20th century historian Cosío Villegas, “have fueled our democratic march much more with the intermittent explosion of unsatisfied grievance than with the outburst of faith in an idea or theory.”

This is what happened in 1910, when the popular will supported a leader endowed with that mysterious gift of legitimacy called charisma. After the Mexican Revolution, since 1929 the political system did not need charismatic leaders because it “routinized charisma” in the presidential chair and in the machinery of domination of the all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Seventy years later, in a world of increasing liberalization that revealed the anachronism of the “philanthropic ogre,” the citizen aggrieved by corruption and bad governments looked for a new charismatic figure to transition to a democratic regime in which free voting would finally be the sole source of legitimacy. That figure was former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

It hurts to imagine how Fox could have creatively used his popularity, exercising a democratic pedagogy that guided Mexicans to a mature and responsible civic life. It is even more idle at this point to think about the much more limited alternatives that his successor Felipe Calderón had to try, lacking, as he was, charisma and with then-opposition leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s (AMLO) shadow at every step.

And it is also useless to regret that former President Enrique Peña Nieto, whose election was practically uncontested, has not taken advantage of his cosmetic attractiveness — I am reluctant to call it charisma — to dedicate his weeks to governing with righteousness and his weekends touring the country, implementing or supervising effective social programs. He preferred to play golf. And the worst thing, he agreed to the attack against his party’s own candidate Ricardo Anaya, giving AMLO an absolute majority in Congress

All that is past. The fact is that AMLO, who took office in 2018 after a broad majority victory at the polls, appealed to deep fibers of a very broad sector of the electorate, showing once again that, in situations of historical grievance, the Mexican voter does not seek “the flush of faith in an idea or theory” but rather the person endowed with the charisma.

From the moment he assumed power, AMLO has dedicated himself to consuming that charisma. He has not invested it or “routinized” it productively in an institution: He has squeezed it with infinite vanity to the last drop. From his daily “mañaneras” press conferences, he not only decrees reality but reinforces the redeemer that he believes he incarnates, the man in whom millions of compatriots place their faith.

Without the possibility of contrasting his statements with the facts, without even suspecting that behind those statements there may be a lie (or thousands or tens of thousands of lies), that sector, in good faith, believes in him. And they believe even more when, despite those lies that they cannot even imagine, he receives cash benefits that also explain popularity and that, regardless of its distortions and limitations, would be foolish not to recognize.

But that sector of Mexican society, however broad it may be, is not all of Mexico. It never was, not even in 2018. The 47 percent of nonbelievers in 2018 has since grown considerably. And even if it had remained identical, that substantial minority should have been respected or at least listened to by the executive. It was not, and now that electorate — not just the middle class — harbors a new unsatisfied grievance.

As in all key moments in Mexican history, the aggrieved look for a leader. Sometimes they find one, sometimes they do not. This time he has found it in Xóchitl Gálvez.

Charisma has changed poles. López Obrador will not be able to use his because his name is not on the ballot and because charisma, by essence, is nontransferable. In that sense, regardless of who Xóchitl Gálvez’s counterpart is in the contest (AMLO has decreed it be his favorite Claudia Sheinbaum, but former Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has contested that inheritance of power), the historical terms have been reversed.

Gálvez does not believe she “incarnates” the people. She is a natural part of that community. That’s where her charisma lies. A woman above all, and of modest origin, indigenous and mestizo, subjugated, liberated by herself, student, engineer, businesswoman, public official, her biography is a metaphor for the Mexican who seeks a better life. Nothing more, but nothing less. Cheerful, brave, firm, she will not bend.

“Today, hope has changed hands. It is on our side and we are not going to let it go until we achieve the Mexican dream,” said Gálvez in his speech on Sept. 1. She is clear about the grievances that exist in the country, but she does not plan to deepen them, but rather overcome them by speaking without lies to all Mexicans, banishing hatred, promoting national reconciliation, the only possible basis to face the old and new problems of this beloved nation and those of us who writes its name with an X on a ballot.


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