- Democracy in “Two Mexicos”: Political Institutions in Oaxaca and Nuevo Leon by Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera
In an old fable, several blind men touch different parts of an elephant and then discuss their ideas of what the animal is like. Since each man has touched only one part, they are unable to agree on an accurate description. A similar phenomenon can sometimes be observed among scholars of Mexican society and history. Is Mexico rich or poor? Modern or traditional? Democratic or authoritarian? The answer one gives depends on the part of the country one observes. And Mexico is so large and diverse that any simplistic answer fails to do justice to the complex nature of the whole.
Correa-Cabrera’s solution to this problem is to employ what political scientists call the “subnational comparative method,” which in this case means taking advantage of the obvious variation between some southern states like Chiapas, Oaxaca, or Guerrero on the one hand, and northern states like Nuevo León, Guanajuato, or Baja California Norte on the other. This is an excellent strategy, because a proper understanding of many political outcomes in a large country like Mexico requires that we pay close attention to the distinct political histories in the various states and regions. A national-level generalization will not suffice.
The book’s specific focus is on “active political factionalism” (APF), which is roughly equivalent to “extra-institutional protest politics and uncivil modes of political action,” and which varies considerably across Mexican states (p. 1). Correa-Cabrera proposes to explain this variation not only by linking APF to underlying economic and institutional factors, but also by identifying specific “causal mechanisms” and assessing “the relative weight of the different factors causing APF” (p. 20). She does this by studying several instances of APF in Oaxaca, such as the massive protest that shut down the state capital for several months in 2006, and then by contrasting these events to the relative lack of APF in the northern state of Nuevo León.
With a detailed theoretical discussion (primarily in chapter 2) and the clever juxtaposition of Oaxaca and Nuevo León (in several subsequent chapters), the book is poised to make a nice contribution to our understanding of Mexico’s distinct state-level political cultures. Yet the book delivers on this promise only partially. On the empirical side, the book presents interesting case material illustrating a range of APF strategies and the complex motivations of those who use them. Some historians might balk at the heavy reliance on secondary material, but for those who are unfamiliar with the events in question, the book offers useful summary accounts. At the same time, the analytical goals of the book are hampered by the fact that the study is basically a two-state comparison, with colinearity across a wide range of potential causal explanations. As a matter of logic it quickly becomes difficult to know which of the numerous differences between Oaxaca and Nuevo León is truly responsible for Oaxaca’s higher level of APF.
On the theoretical side, the promise of precision eventually gives way to a long list of contributing factors. APF is caused by economic factors such as inequality, institutional [End Page 761] factors like electoral exclusion, and additional factors such as the “organizational capacities available to rebellious groups” and “government reactions to popular protest” (p. 24). In later chapters, state-level cultural factors are added to the mix as well. High levels of APF in Oaxaca are partially attributed to “complex cultural aspects developed since pre-Hispanic and colonial times” (p. 107), while the culture of “hard work, savings, entrepreneurial mentality, and family values” works to preclude APF in Nuevo León (p. 133). From among all of these contributory causes, Correa-Cabrera argues that greater weight should be given to institutional factors (p. 148). But it is not clear how this relative weighting could be determined with any precision, especially since the institutional variation across states is at...