Cover image for Savage Democracy: Institutional Change and Party Development in Mexico By Steven T. Wuhs

Savage Democracy

Institutional Change and Party Development in Mexico

Steven T. Wuhs


$46.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03421-8

$30.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-03422-5

192 pages
6" × 9"
1 b&w illustration

Savage Democracy

Institutional Change and Party Development in Mexico

Steven T. Wuhs

Savage Democracy presents a provocative analysis of the perverse effects of internal democracy within political parties on the functioning of democracy at the regime level, based on richly detailed field research, extensive interviews, and internal party documents. Far too little attention has been paid to the political effects of the internal organizational choices made by political parties. Most research concentrates on external institutional constraints, such as electoral law. Wuhs does a nice job of highlighting how democratic decision-making norms constrain party leaders and lead to unanticipated consequences for the electoral fortunes of the parties as well as their behavior in power. Though based on a study of political parties in Mexico, it should be of interest to scholars of parties and Mexican democracy more generally. It is written at an accessible level and could be used for advanced undergraduate classes, but presents sophisticated arguments that scholars at all ranks should appreciate.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Mexico finally shed its authoritarian past with the victory of the PAN candidate Vicente Fox in the 2000 election. But the consolidation and growth of democracy in Mexico have been complicated by the institutional residues of the past. Steven Wuhs’s investigation of the PAN and PRD begins by depicting how the PRI functioned and then, in successive chapters, compares how PAN and PRD leaders reacted to the PRI’s institutions in choosing rules for selecting candidates to run for office, organizing their party’s bureaucracy, and linking to groups in civil society. What he shows is that “savage democracy has undermined the nomination of electable candidates, fostered intense intraparty factions and fights, and interfered with the development of party organizations capable of mounting effective campaigns.”
Savage Democracy presents a provocative analysis of the perverse effects of internal democracy within political parties on the functioning of democracy at the regime level, based on richly detailed field research, extensive interviews, and internal party documents. Far too little attention has been paid to the political effects of the internal organizational choices made by political parties. Most research concentrates on external institutional constraints, such as electoral law. Wuhs does a nice job of highlighting how democratic decision-making norms constrain party leaders and lead to unanticipated consequences for the electoral fortunes of the parties as well as their behavior in power. Though based on a study of political parties in Mexico, it should be of interest to scholars of parties and Mexican democracy more generally. It is written at an accessible level and could be used for advanced undergraduate classes, but presents sophisticated arguments that scholars at all ranks should appreciate.”
“Steven Wuhs fills a huge gap in the literature on Mexico’s emerging democratic regime with this systematic comparative study of party development of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s two challengers, the National Action Party and the Party of the Democratic Revolution. Drawing on the vast scholarship on political parties and his extensive field research, Wuhs shows how the PAN’s institutional development allowed it to best the PRD in the quest to oust the PRI.”

Steven T. Wuhs is Director of the Salzburg Program at the University of Redlands.


List of Tables and Figures

Preface and Acknowledgments

List of Abbreviations

1 . What Is Savage Democracy?

2. Before Savage Democracy: Authoritarianism in Mexico

3. Origins of the Democratic Imperative

4. Selecting Loyalists Versus Picking Winners

5. Partisan Mystics Versus Political Professionals

6. Affiliation Versus Alliance Versus Absorption

7. The End of Savage Democracy?

Epilogue: The Legacy of the Democratic Imperative





What Is Savage Democracy?

The democratic struggles of this party have created a savage democracy.

—PRD Deputy, 2000

The idea of democracy held Mexico’s attention for decades, long prior to its democratic transition in 2000. Cries for democracy were heard from student protestors in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square in 1968, when they publicly challenged the Partido Revolucionario Institucional’s (Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI) monopoly of power and encountered violent repression by the regime. Democracy was quietly whispered throughout the 1970s, as activists on the left and the right took up arms against the regime, quietly moved to fledgling opposition parties, or worked to reform the PRI from within. As Mexico entered financial crisis in the 1980s, demands for democracy were made openly, and they garnered widespread public support. The presidential election of 1988 saw the first serious challenge to the PRI’s authoritarian rule. In that contest, PRI member and former governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas split from the party to head the broad left front that, despite losing the election, transformed into the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution, PRD) in 1989. Cárdenas was not alone in challenging the PRI that year: the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), the PRI’s longstanding “loyal opposition,” mounted an aggressive campaign around charismatic businessman Manuel J. Clouthier. Although PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari assumed the presidency that year, the public calls for democratic change continued, and for the following twenty years, democracy would be the most divisive issue in Mexican politics.

Democracy permeated life inside the PAN and PRD, both of which sought to be the standard-bearers of democratic change in Mexico. The historical and contemporary leaders of these parties were ideologically committed to democracy, and their members and Mexico’s activists and citizens hungered for what democracy promised. The strength of those commitments led the founders of the PAN and PRD to build their organizations on avowedly democratic foundations. Inside the parties, leaders were intent on the construction of vibrant party democracy. In the absence of competitive politics between parties, PAN and PRD founders aimed to maintain spaces where activists could participate and their interests could be represented within their organizations. PAN and PRD leaders also sought to democratize Mexico at the regime level by ousting the PRI regime from the presidency. Those two priorities and their organizational manifestations formed a powerful institutional “democratic imperative” that dramatically affected future party development. Although the goals of party democracy and regime democratization seem complementary, and this institutional “democratic imperative” appears virtuous, they held surprisingly vicious consequences for party life. Democracy was thought to promote stability, respect, tolerance, and equality, and to some extent, it did. However, it also unleashed savage forces within the parties, fostering intense intraparty factions, undermining the nomination of electable candidates, and interfering with the development of effective party organizations. This book demonstrates how the meanings that political actors attach to ideas like democracy can influence the developmental trajectories of institutions and can result in both expected fortuitous consequences as well as problematic, unexpected ones. Specifically, in the case of Mexico’s PAN and PRD, it explains how institutional commitments to democracy have resulted in counter-democratic practices. Phrased differently, it seeks to explain why savage democracy occurs.

Party Leaders and the Politics of Institutional Change

The key to explaining the origins of savage democracy lies with the historical and contemporary leaders of the PAN and PRD. Party leaders—including the elected heads of parties, their allies, and their rivals in party committees and councils—faced a series of difficult decisions as the Mexican political landscape was repeatedly shaken by changes in electoral law, in the behavior of the PRI regime, and in the structure and performance of the Mexican economy. In both the PAN and PRD, leaders faced a trade-off that crossed arenas of party life: they could work to build their organization into a competitive political force and advance their goal of regime democratization, or they could turn inward to preserve their internally democratic systems. Unfortunately for those leaders, the benefits of those options were largely mutually exclusive, and each entailed significant political costs. Building an electorally competitive party meant strengthening the central party office’s administrative capacities, weakening its ties to activists and the rank and file, and nominating good candidates who might not be good partisans. But for both the PAN and the PRD, a weak party office, strong ties with activists, and the nomination of loyal panistas (PAN partisans) and perredistas (PRD partisans) were part and parcel of party democracy. Party leaders had unenviable choices to make, decisions that would privilege only one of the two sides of the democratic imperative.

Those leaders carefully weighed the potential benefits and costs of their decisions. Their choices were ultimately influenced not just by their assessment of the opportunities presented by their environments, but also by the decision-making autonomy they had from other party actors and the character of their parties’ preexisting institutions. These institutions figured especially prominently in leaders’ decisions. The profound democratic imprints left on the PAN and PRD by their founders limited the possibilities for institutional development as institutional legacies were created that favored rules, practices, and customs perceived as “democratic,” while delegitimizing other institutional forms. Because the founders of the PAN and PRD held diverging conceptions of what democracy meant, their paths of institutional development differed. Despite those differences, though, both parties evidence the pathologies of savage democracy.

Savage Democracy situates leaders’ choices about party life within party life. Blaming the leaders of parties, trade unions, and social movement organizations for slouching toward oligarchy when they pursue their own interests over those of their rank-and-file members may be elegant, but it is too simplistic (Michels 1962). Leaders’ choices are shaped by their social and political surroundings, both at moments of institutional design and during subsequent processes of institutional development. To best account for the decisions that leaders made when confronted with the trade-offs of the democratic imperative, I incorporate elements of both historical institutional and rational choice approaches. Explaining leaders’ decisions about institutional design demands not just an assessment of their relative bargaining power and the position of veto players but also a consideration of how existing party institutions and other environmental influences shaped those factors and the preferences of the involved actors. Likewise, the insights of both rational choice and historical institutionalisms are needed to elucidate downstream processes of institutional development. Although historical institutionalist work has shed considerable light on why institutional continuity occurs, without an actor-centered explanation, we cannot explain the advent of critical junctures that place institutions on long-term developmental paths. For example, crucial institutional changes in the PAN in 1989 (relating to professionalization) and the PRD in 1995 (concerning internal elections) occurred as a result of deliberate, strategic actions by party leaders. Still, to account for those leaders’ decisions, we must also recognize that they were acting under the influence of particular institutional and political circumstances.

Bringing together those two schools of institutional work in this way mitigates against two limitations of institutional studies. The first is the assumption that leaders are strictly electoralist. In reality, plenty of parties and party leaders eschew vote-seeking. Leaders of green parties and protest parties, for example, often prefer staying loyal to members’ goals to maximizing their number of parliamentary seats (see, for example, Kitschelt 1989), and for many years the PAN rejected vote-seeking in order to safeguard its democratic credentials (Loaeza 1999). Party leaders prioritize not just vote-getting but also representing their base, advancing party programmatic goals, and the like. As politicians, party leaders are indeed ambitious, but it is crucial to consider how the organization they lead, and the institutions structuring life within that organization, shape the ambitions they have and objectives they pursue. A related limitation is the assumption that organizational elites like party leaders are unconstrained in their actions. They clearly are not, and Robert Michels’s oligarchs need to be embedded in the organization and amid the institutions where they allegedly reign. Party leaders come and go, but institutions tend to stick. If organizations are as oligarchic as they are often argued to be, that condition results not from individual leaders’ preferences or from inevitable pathologies of organizations, but more problematically, from institutions that facilitate the concentration of power and enable leaders to act with impunity against members’ interests.

Although this book is devoted to explaining leaders’ institutional choices, the particular institutions I examine are internal to political parties (candidate-selection rules, party bureaucracies, and party-society linking practices), and the individual institutional changes I explain are constitutive of broader processes of party development. For that reason, Savage Democracy straddles two related literatures (one on institutions, the other on parties) and draws from both. Kathleen Thelen (2003, 217) reminds us that drawing a distinction between organizations (like parties) and institutions is important, something that becomes clear through the questions asked here of the comparative literature on parties. Often, this body of work divorces itself from leaders and other individual actors and instead relies on structural explanations for party change. Much of the recent literature on the subject, for example, has attempted to establish the environmental factors that underpin how and why parties change, highlighting the influence of new communications technology, opinion polls, independent funding for parties, reduced citizen interest in party organizations, economic crisis and reform, and more flexible patterns of party support.

Those macro-level explanations are doubtless important to understanding contemporary party organization and democratic rule, but there are important missing links in many of these accounts. Parties are not organisms that respond isomorphically to changes in their habitat, nor do they undergo actorless processes of institutionalization. They are complex bureaucracies featuring individuals and institutions that weigh into how parties are adapted (rather than “adapt”) to new environments. Although some authors examine the effect of mechanisms of accountability, like leadership-selection rules (see Kitschelt 1994; Levitsky 2003; and Samuels 2004), or the “punishing power” of rivals (Burgess 2004), work on parties too often pays inadequate attention to the logic of the actors who make discrete institutional choices about party development, and to the political forces that influence those actors. Leaders are clearly present, operating behind the scenes, but the influence, the complexity, and the contingent nature of their decision making is undersold. Furthermore, the transformations that party scholars examine rarely result from a singular shift at a particular moment. Instead, they reflect the cumulative effects of numerous actions by leaders over time.

Leaders’ institutional choices are shaped not just by environmental shifts and “veto players” but also by the institutions that surround them. Herbert Kitschelt and others examine one narrow set of party institutions—mechanisms of accountability. In reality, a wide array of party institutions constrains leaders’ actions. Doctrines and ideologies shape the goals that leaders have for their parties; statutes and by-laws structure decision-making processes; and long-standing practices often favor certain types of decisions over others. Those institutions, many of which are implanted at a party’s “birth,” develop powerful reproductive tendencies and shape the logics of future institutional designers by favoring some institutional forms over others. This book explains those processes of design and development in the PAN and PRD and their implications for Mexican democracy.

The Logic of Savage Democracy

Many recent studies of both political parties and democratization in Mexico have attempted to account for major breakthroughs or the sudden appearance of new political actors. This book explains how over the course of decades, opposition party leaders and activists labored to build institutions that, in their view, would hasten democratic development in Mexico. The changes considered here tend to be the result of specific, intentional action on the part of party leaders. For instance, PRD leaders in the early 1990s concluded that conventions were less effective mechanisms for candidate selection than a system of primaries would be, and so they pushed for a change in the party’s formal selection rules. However, the collective effect of a series of smaller, intentional changes may be unexpected. Institutional change is a complicated process, and even the most carefully considered processes of institutional design may yield unintended outcomes. The PRD’s commitment to inclusive participation in candidate selection enabled the PRI to colonize local party offices and “steal” legislative seats from the party faithful. It is likely that the commitment to inclusive participation also undermined public confidence in the PRD. Its ideals of participatory democracy thus had unanticipated, backhanded antidemocratic outcomes—an example of savage democracy.

That PRD example highlights the connections suggested earlier between the micro level of institutional change and broader patterns of party development. After explaining discrete decisions made by party leaders about the stability and adaptation of existing party institutions, I pool those micro-level accounts, bearing in mind two goals: First, bringing those explanations together enables me to advance more compelling analyses of the conditions that facilitate institutional stability and change as well as identify broader patterns of institutional development. Second, I draw on those micro-level explanations to make more general statements about the development of the PAN and PRD as political parties and thus about the development of Mexican democracy in the early twenty-first century. Although some recent studies have focused on important transformations of party “type” occurring in Europe and Latin America, my interest lies in understanding the internal institutional world of party politics and its implications for party organizations, party systems, and democracy. As a result, my conclusions are geared toward suggesting how the institutional infrastructures of the two parties relate to the quality of representation in Mexico’s new democracy.

I collected the bulk of the data during fifteen months of fieldwork in Mexico City from September 1999 to December 2000, including the campaign season for the 2000 federal elections (a blessing in many ways, but a curse in terms of setting up interviews). Follow-up research was conducted in 2004, 2005, and 2007. I elected qualitative research methods because they are particularly well suited for studying the organizational decision-making patterns and processes of longitudinal change that I examine (Kitschelt 1989, 302–3). This book includes a broad set of observations across three arenas of party institutional life (candidate selection, bureaucratic development, and linking with civil society), thus building greater reliability into the data and the conclusions I draw from them.

I conducted more than 150 open-ended interviews with a variety of Mexican party elites, selected in order to incorporate as broad an array of accounts of party development as possible. My interviewees included higher- and lower-level national party bureaucrats, senators and deputies elected by different formulas (both houses have seats elected through first-past-the-post, single-member districts and through proportional representation, multi-member districts), local party leaders in Mexico City, candidates and former candidates for office, and government employees who were party militants. I also worked to incorporate regional differences of opinion by seeking out legislators from all across Mexico and pushing for their local versions of national developments. Finally, I attempted to cover the different factions in each of the parties, a particular challenge in the PAN since many panistas deny such divisions. Besides the interviews—by far the most laborious part of my data collection—I pored over the PAN and PRD archives in Mexico City: the Fundación Preciado Hernández (for the PAN) and the Instituto para el Estudio de la Revolución Democrática (for the PRD). Both archives, but especially that of the PRD, contained many of the documents cited throughout this text. I also collected press accounts of institutional change from four Mexican national newspapers (La Jornada, Reforma, El Universal, and El Norte) and from the U.S. press.

My analysis of those data unfolds over the next six chapters. In chapter 2, I present the character of Mexico’s authoritarian regime. This is a vital point of departure for this study, as both the PAN and the PRD were born in response to that regime, albeit fifty years apart. I argue that PRI authoritarianism had a powerful effect on the nature of PAN and PRD organization—indeed, the PRI is the source of the democratic imperative. The regime’s institutional architecture shaped the logic of institutional design in both parties, since its control of the state allowed it to dictate the rules governing political competition over its seventy-one-year reign. Understanding the PRI is also crucial to understanding party leaders’ efforts to adapt their institutions to best capitalize on changes in their political environment, since those changes were primarily wrought by the regime’s diminishing capacity to contain the opposition and its gradual retreat from power. Chapter 3 then develops the “savage democracy” argument by re-examining the foundations of the PAN (1939) and the PRD (1989). From their respective establishments, those parties and their leaders adopted the democratic imperative—the twin desires to be internally democratic and to bring democracy to Mexico. Beyond re-interpreting the accounts of the two parties’ foundations, this chapter uses party doctrine and other primary documents to identify the different meanings the parties attached to the idea of “democracy.” The chapter also articulates how that idea shaped future processes of institutional development—the subject of my empirical chapters.

As noted earlier, I focus on multiple types of party institutions in this book. Each of the following three chapters focuses on how party leaders, weighing the maintenance of party democracy against the construction of a democratic regime, made decisions about institutional design and change. Chapter 4 documents how the democratic imperative conditioned formal institutional development inside the two parties through an examination of the selection rules parties used for legislative, presidential, and gubernatorial candidates. I continue my focus on formal institutions in chapter 5’s study of the development of the “central party offices” of the parties in Mexico City and their state and municipal counterparts throughout the country. Chapter 6 demonstrates how the parties’ linking institutions reflected leaders’ efforts to forge ties with Mexican civil society while sidestepping allegations of corporatism, one of the cardinal sins of twentieth-century Mexican politics.

I begin the concluding chapter by examining processes of change across different types of party institutions and identifying patterns that emerged as party leaders chose to adapt those institutions. This chapter also explores the implications of those institutional changes for the development of Mexican political parties and for the future of democratic politics in Mexico. I raise serious questions about the consequences of increasing party centralization and the de-linking of parties from their rank-and-file members. Lastly, I highlight the core intellectual insights of Savage Democracy for comparative politics—specifically, the centrality of ideas to institutional analysis and the importance of deeply embedding institutional design and change in time and space. The book closes with an epilogue that discusses the continuing influence of the democratic imperative on Mexican politics through an examination of the tumult that followed the July 2, 2006, presidential contest between PAN candidate Felipe Calderón Hinojosa and PRD leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Mailing List

Subscribe to our mailing list and be notified about new titles, journals and catalogs.