Mexico's Perfect Dictatorship?

A History of Mexican Liberalism

A man takes part in a protest outside the government palace of Guerrero state in Chilpancingo, January 29, 2015. Jorge Dan Lopez / Courtesy Reuters

In 2014, “The Perfect Dictatorship” became the Mexican film industry’s number one box-office hit. It spins politics into a plot as over-the-top as a telenovela. In it, a state governor pays a TV network to distract attention from his stunning incompetence, corruption, and violence. In the end, he’s elected president of Mexico.

The story is suspiciously like that of a real governor named Enrique Peña Nieto. Seen as being close to the Televisa network—his campaign was even accused of paying Televisa for favorable coverage—he won the Mexican presidency in 2012. To underline the parallel, the film’s opening titles proclaim that all names are fictional but the facts true: “Any resemblance or similarity to reality is not mere coincidence.”

The film captured the public mood: angry after recent abuses of power. (A criminal cartel had just killed 43 students at the behest of a mayor to block possible disruption of a campaign rally.) Yet it seems like only yesterday that Time made Peña Nieto person of the year after he forged the Pact for Mexico with rival parties to pass fundamental political, educational, and energy reforms. “Every time I speak to someone else from another country—from Denmark, Italy, Spain, the United States,” Foreign Affairs quoted him as saying in early 2014, “They tell me, ‘What we need is a pact like in Mexico.’ ”

It is hard to reconcile Peña Nieto’s status as person of the year and gangster in chief. But, as a symbol of the Mexican state, he is indeed both. And, strange as it may seem, both aspects of state power derive from St. Thomas Aquinas’ medieval ideal of governance. He envisioned the Catholic Church, the oldest extant government, as inherently prior to the individual, uniting society for the common good. The individual was a mere hand or leg apart from the body of society. The Spanish carried this ideal (even if often violated) to the New World.

Conversely, the liberal ideals of John

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