Until 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) won every presidential election for some 70 years. This led the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa to mock Mexico as “the perfect dictatorship,” which perpetuated one-party rule through the ritual of rigged elections. This method of government is being perfected today by the so-called “electoral autocracies” such as Hungary, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Russia. Mexico under López Obrador is not yet in demothat same category, but going one step deeper through abusing the tools of direct democracy only camouflages in even brighter feathers a new way to perpetuate and consolidate the power of a president and his or her ruling party. A “perfect autocracy,” as Vargas Llosa might say.
In a similar vein, one might ask whether California is becoming “the perfect plutocracy,” where direct democracy, as the former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court puts it, “has become the tool of the very type of special interests it was intended to control, and an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process.” In 2020, Uber, Lyft and other companies placed a referendum on the ballot in California through a front group posing as citizens who favored flexible work. The real aim was to overturn a law passed by the elected state legislature that made contractors into employees. The gig-economy companies laid out a record $224 million for the persuasion industry to inundate the airwaves and social media sites to sway voters, successfully repealing the legislation at the ballot box. For the chump change they spent, their stock valuation was up $13 billion the next day.
The lessons from these two cases are clear: Participatory democracy unmediated by impartial institutions of deliberation or guarded against manipulation by the powers that be poses as significant a risk to citizen control of government as unchecked executive power or rule by those with the most gold. When plebiscitary practices are deployed from the top down to affirm the rule of a present regime, or hijacked by the most monied, instead of initiated from the bottom up, the very notion of citizen empowerment is nullified.