Lessons from Mexico's election: Anti-establishment politics is our new normal

Lessons from Mexico's election: Anti-establishment politics is our new normal
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On July 1st, Mexico elected Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (known as AMLO) as president. On one hand, it’s a triumph of democracy with disillusioned Mexicans expressing their discontent at the two ruling parties and voting them out. On the other hand, it’s another example of the world entering a new political normal: one where the traditional order is being seriously challenged by voters frustrated with the status quo.

AMLO’s victory exemplifies this new political environment and its anti-establishment flavor. He describes himself as a champion of the “little people” who have been wronged by a corrupt, rigged system. In this new political milieu, irreverence and orneriness have a premium. It communicates to people that their champion is not beholden to elites. AMLO is the leftist mirror image of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump admin to announce coronavirus vaccine will be covered under Medicare, Medicaid: report Election officials say they're getting suspicious emails that may be part of malicious attack on voting: report McConnell tees up Trump judicial pick following Supreme Court vote MORE, he promises to run over any opposition, throw out any deal he doesn’t like, and bully those who object to his administration.


Now with AMLO’s election, two-thirds of North America will be run by leaders riding this anti-establishment wave. Combined with the successes of strong men winning control of governments in Europe, this wave seems poised to continue, perhaps in the upcoming Brazilian election.

We have been monitoring public sentiment around the world and have watched the public turn against their leadership. In our work, we note three distinct trends that all observers should note:

  1. People are fed up.

A 2016 Ipsos survey fielded in 22 countries found that on average 70 percent of people say that the economy is “rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful” and feel “existing political parties do not care about people like me.” Global public opinion also is profoundly distrustful of existing institutions ranging from politics to commercial activity. Widely, people believe that political organizations are in the pockets of the elites and are working contrary to the needs of average citizen.

In Mexico, this trend has been doubly powerful. That 2016 survey found 82 percent of people in Mexico feel the economy is rigged and 78 percent that existing parties do not care. AMLO has effectively taken advantage of that sense of public grievance to power his candidacy, much in the way Donald Trump used it to win in 2016. Ignoring or trivializing the public’s distrust of the system is a mistake institutionalists should avoid.

  1. Establishments have failed.

The public has been expressing their concerns with a wide variety of issues that the political establishments seem unable to address. In Europe and the United States, the rapid social change brought about by information technology, automation, and social liberalization has created a sense of anxiety about status and security. Centrists appear to have buried their heads by doubling down on “the wonders of globalization.” Demagogues on the right have channeled this anxiety into rage against the “other” and those on the left against the “1 percent.”

In Mexico, the successive PRI and PAN governments were unable or unwilling to address the massive discontent about government corruption and endemic crime and violence. Mexicans figured, “why not give an outsider a try? It couldn’t be much worse than what we got now.”

Mexico is yet another example that traditional parties and politicians need to evolve. Here, our counsel would be listen to the public’s concern, make concrete efforts to address them, and, most importantly, success speaks louder than words.

  1. Political structures matter.

By Election Day, most outcomes are foregone conclusions. For every upset like the 2016 U.S. presidential election, there are a dozen elections everyone can see coming like the 2017 second round election in France or this Mexican election. However, how we get to the final result can and does have massive impacts on the eventual results.

Electoral systems with plurality winner rules are more susceptible to populist candidates, particularly in instances with multi-candidate fields. In these systems, a candidate does not have to win 51 percent of the vote. Because outsider candidates tend to have very passionate, committed voters, they can win without the majority of the electorate.

In Mexico, until the last week, public opinion showed AMLO with a vote ceiling in the mid-40 percent range. It is conceivable that more compelling, anti-establishment candidate could have seriously challenged his election.

Systems with multi-round elections see these moderating effects. In 2017, in the first round, Marine Le Pen came in a close second to Emmanuel Macron. In the second round, she lost in a landslide because the French had a choice between two distinct flavors of anti-establishment candidates. In the U.S., Trump did not win a numeric majority but benefited from idiosyncratic electoral rules to ultimately win.

The primary takeaway here is that this “new normal” can take on multiple forms and follow distinct paths. Indeed, not every election will necessarily produce a rabid populist outcome.

That said, the root cause of this “new normal” is undeniably public opinion’s deep-seated discontent with the status quo and the inability of the establishment to deliver the goods as promised. Simply put, those that govern have fundamentally failed the governed.

We now are seeing public opinion’s reaction to this reality. Ultimately, there is no reason to think that this trend won’t continue into the near-future. Buckle-up!

Clifford Young is president of U.S. Ipsos Public Affairs and Chris Jackson is vice president of U.S. Ipsos Public Affairs.