Did you catch Josh Hawley’s latest jeremiad about the corrosive effects of social liberalism? Speaking on the fentanyl scourge last month, the GOP firebrand blamed the “disintegration of families” and a prevailing “individualism” that had resulted in a breakdown of “family values.” Hawley’s remarks came on the heels of his repeated attacks against feminism, which he rarely fails to frame as an elitist conspiracy that seeks to erase “women’s role” as “caregivers” and thus represents a pernicious threat to the natural family, “the most important social-security institution” in the nation.
Actually, it wasn’t Hawley who said these things—but Mexico’s leftist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known by his initials, AMLO. His irrepressible social conservatism is a reminder of an ideological formation that is almost impossible to imagine in the United States but that flourishes south of the border. It combines a leftism focused on uplifting working people on the economic plane with a decent respect for their traditional opinions on matters familial and religious—indeed, a leftism that sees “family values” as an indispensable shelter against the ravages of market society.
Writing in American Affairs last year, the scholar Juan David Rojas described AMLO’s ideology as leftism without progressivism. Another label might be conservative leftism. Latin-American politics abounds with examples historical and contemporary. But AMLO’s version might be the most successful, both electorally speaking—a huge majority swept him into office in 2018, and he remains broadly popular—and in its humaneness and eschewing of the more thuggish methods too often adopted by conservative leftists in places like Nicaragua and Venezuela.
His triumph at the polls after decades of neoliberal misrule should have surprised no one. Rushing headlong into NAFTA—a move AMLO strenuously opposed—Mexico had exposed its farmers to unwinnable competition against subsidized US agribiz. True, some of Mexico’s agricultural losses were offset by the post-NAFTA mass relocation of US auto factories to cities south of the border. But then China’s entry into the World Trade Organization struck a far worse blow. “Mexico’s preferential access to the US market languished,” Rojas notes, “as Mexican exports entered into direct competition with Chinese equivalents.”
This neoliberal one-two punch, struck by US administrations of both parties in collusion with Mexican elites, was the proximate cause of the illegal migration that was the subject of so much justified right-wing vituperation in the United States (more recent migration waves originate mostly from Central America). AMLO, for his part, has long lamented the outmigration of Mexico’s peasant class as a source of national shame—the handiwork of “technocrats who govern our country badly and do nothing but copy the bad from abroad.”
In response, AMLO in office has combined efforts to shore up the countervailing power of Mexican workers with a blunt economic nationalism. On the labor front, he has boosted the minimum wage (without significantly raising unemployment) and promoted independent trade unionism. He has invested generously in the state oil company after years of neglect and messy marketization, resisted further privatization of the electricity industry, and stunted renewables competition—all to predictable howls of rage from Global North environmentalists, the Biden administration, the Brookings Institution, and The New York Times.
AMLO’s resistance to Global North green-ism is a telling indicator of his leftist heterodoxy. In this as in many other arenas, he subverts the expectations Anglo-American conservatives and progressives alike have of what it means to be on the left. The differences are even more pronounced when it comes to social issues. While he has personally identified as a devout Catholic, his ruling coalition includes an evangelical junior party, and his government has extended federal funding to biblical-studies programs—a gentle tweak to the laicism that is one of the pillars of the modern Mexican state.
It’s true that abortion became legal in Mexico under AMLO. But the decision was handed down by the Supreme Court, over which he has no control. AMLO himself has publicly neither welcomed nor deplored the outcome. Yet before the high-court ruling, the president had floated the idea of putting the issue to a vote, knowing well that the Mexican electorate wouldn’t permit legalization. As Rojas reports, moreover, AMLO is “rumored to have consulted with former ministers of the court regarding the possibility of overturning the Mexican court’s decision using arguments from the conservative wing of the US bench.”
AMLO isn’t a feminist (to put it mildly), and Mexican feminists have arguably proved more ferocious than even the business community in opposition to his brand of conservative leftism. “AMLO-Machista insists on sending women to be ‘caregivers,’” fumed sociologist Claudia Castello on Twitter in June 2020. “But we have news for him: We are citizens, and we are feminists who will no longer tolerate his presidential misogyny.”
To be sure, some of the feminists’ complaints are well-founded in a Mexican context where domestic and intimate-partner violence rates are high and rising, where teenaged and even childhood pregnancy as a result of abuse are shockingly common, and where “15 percent of women who are arrested by authorities report being raped while in custody,” as one of those critics, Denise Dresser, noted in 2020. These statistics are symptoms of the failures of state capacity that have dogged Mexico since long before AMLO took power, especially in law enforcement. Sadly, he has largely failed to rectify them, and no one can deny that the cartel and violence problem is getting worse.
Yet neoliberal marketization will only aggravate the crisis of state capacity in Mexico. And, AMLO insists, Mexican progressives taking their cues from the North are ultimately agents of this neoliberal decline. This is why he calls them “conservatives,” to their endless chagrin. “Conservative” in this context, doesn’t mean “traditionalist,” but quite the opposite: upper-class liberal. Targeting the traditional foundations of Mexican society, they create atomized individuals deprived of “love” and “hugs” and “family values,” as AMLO put it in March—people like the ones whose depleted, fentanyl-poisoned bodies are strewn about the streets of cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.