A review of… “The Sources of Democratic Responsiveness in Mexico” by M. Cleary

Cleary, Matthew R. 2010. The Sources of Democratic Responsiveness in Mexico. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press. 253 pp (http://undpress.nd.edu/book/P01363)

In The Sources, Cleary makes a case in favor of citizens’ governance groups as main determinant of improving government responsiveness at the sub-national level using the case of Mexico. One of the most important contributions of Cleary’s piece is elaborating a theoretical framework regarding the limitations of electoral competition as causal mechanism of improving governance.

Mexico’s civic society has been a factor largely considered among sociologist and political science scholars as vehicle to manifest popular discontent, formulate petitions, and show political support (Köpen 1989; Eisenstadt 2004; Trejo 2009). From an academic perspective, a revisited view of citizens’ governance groups does not come as a surprise, but how to define and measure civic society really does. In this way, the main challenge is capturing civic movements during municipal administrations when elected officials at the sub-national level are arguably performing their duties in office, and turnout does not necessarily capture the whole meaning of civic actions considering this specific and different timing.

Cleary argues that “the well-organized, collective civic activity engendered by social capital is not the only means through which participation can be effective” (p. 63). In addition, he explains that data regarding rallies and demonstrations between electoral cycles, i.e. during municipal administrations are inexistent or hard to collect on systematic basis. Although the last statement seems to be fairly true, there are examples of initial systematic efforts of recording local demonstrations since the 1970s (Trejo 2009), since the 1980s (Köpen 1989; Eisenstad 2004), and data offered since the 1990s by the CESEM (Centro de Servicios Municipales Heriberto Jara http://www.cesem.org.mx/web2/home) in its quarterly bulletin Artículo 115.

The main link stated by Cleary is only related to civic organizations and electoral parties, such as the CDP and the PT in Durango, the COCEI and the PSUM in Oaxaca, or the Catholic Church and the PAN in Chihuahua, but there is not a complete discussion of why and how turnout would fully and systematically capture civic activity when there is time “to govern”, as opposed to time “to vote”. The main assumption is that turnout reflects prior civic organizations’ actions, and therefore turnout represents a useful vehicle to show social discontent or support. However, the lack of empirical and systematic examples across municipalities that show how turnout is a useful vehicle to channel actions taken by an emerging civic society perhaps remains a main point of controversy.

Although the argument appears compelling, there are two main shortcomings that the author does not fully address. First, the operationalization of the main explanatory variable, the civic society’s voice is completely related to elections, while the author’s initial statements would suggest the relevance of civic participation during electoral cycles rather than just participation in the Election Day, i.e. turnout. Second, the operationalization of the competing explanation, electoral competition substantially ignores variation across years, given that Cleary only uses average values from data collected during twenty years.

One could argue that turnout is related to different forms of conventional political participation, as Cleary states, but differences in timing are not fully addressed in his narrative of why and how civic society should matter improving governance. In particular, it is noteworthy to remark that Cleary does not mention unorganized civic collective actions that have been emerged from and during natural disasters, such as hurricanes or earthquakes. He also does not mention radical and unconventional forms of political participation, such as guerrilla movements since the 1970s until the mid 1990s (the PDLP, EPR or the EZLN). It is well known that the Zapatista movement eroded the PRI’s local support in Chiapas in more than 30 percent, and additionally, there was an increasing public spending in social programs during these years (Gómez Tagle 2005).

A different discussion is whether turnout and electoral competition are closely related, given that turnout increased support for the hegemonic party even using average measures at the state level in Mexico (Ames 1970), and it is also known that highly contested elections may increase turnout as well. In this way, low correlation values using average measures, as Cleary uses, they could potentially obscure the two-way relationships between turnout and electoral competition, relationship that could require an instrument when econometric techniques are employed.

Finally, a potential problem may emerge when using average measures: the lack of variance regarding different periods of time. For example, municipalities defined as yuxtapuestas (one party leads the gubernatorial seat and another runs the municipality) differ substantially depending on which years are considered. Before 1989 there were 91 municipalities yuxtapuestas; between 1989 and 1995 there were 785; and between 1996 and 2000 there were 1261 (De Remes 2005). Ignoring changes across time would obscure variance and different effects.

Regarding the theoretical discussion about electoral competition, Cleary really makes a substantive contribution when explaining the elusive concept of electoral competition using different measures, such as the number of parties. His efforts in order to capture the shortcomings of the number of electoral parties (N and NP; N=Laakso and Taagepera 1979; NP=Molinar 1991) and prioritize the margin of victory as dichotomous measure should be considered very valuable.

Specifically, Cleary argues that different margins of victory are not captured by N or NP, given that a format 40-30-20-10 reports 2.56 parties, whereas a format 40-40-20 reports 2.54 parties. In these cases, the margin of victory is ten and less than one percent, respectively. This is a pristine and absolutely valid critique. The proposed solution however does not seem to solve Cleary’s critiques of the number of electoral parties, because his alternative measure, a dichotomous measure of a margin of victory, defined as one when the distance between the first and the second place is less than 20 points and zero otherwise, it also fails to capture the ten-point and the one-point differences. As a result, the measure proposed by Cleary does not seem to solve the aforementioned problems. Actually, it calls one’s attention the fact that NP is systematically significant in alternative models (p. 109 and p.139), whereas margin of victory as Cleary hypothesizes; it is not statistically significant in the main models.

In addition, an intriguing question is related to over 400 municipalities in Oaxaca, in which mayoral authorities are not elected formally by western principles since 1995, and therefore there is a lack of turnout measures. In that case, one factor that could arguably explain why usos y costumbres was finally implemented is related to social pressure exercised by mixe and zapoteco communities. During the 1980s, usos y costumbres was used in Oaxaca’s municipalities, but the PRI officially registered the winners at the front desk of the electoral management body (Bailón 1984). Thus, the usos y costumbres case could illustrate the relevance of measuring civic society actions during electoral cycles rather than just measuring one point in time as turnout does.

In sum, the idea of citizens’ governance groups as main determinant of improving government responsiveness clearly provokes a substantial debate opening new research avenues, such as the specific effects of increasing information among the public and social pressures in elected officials to better perform their duties in office. Despite additional theoretical and empirical work is always required in order to explain the specifics of the relationship between social pressure during electoral cycles and turnout, which only captures one point in time every three years, Cleary makes a contribution to our understanding of how and when elected official respond to the their incumbents’ demands.

In order to offer a more balanced view of this book, please also read the reviews of three fine Mexican Politics scholars, Jon Hiskey from Vanderbilt University (http://www.redalyc.org/articulo.oa?id=60328529007) who focus his own research on subnational politics and migration in Mexico; Steve Morris from Middle Tennessee State University (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/j.1538-165X.2011.tb02123.x/abstract) who centers his focus on corruption in Mexico; and Jeff Staton from Emory University (http://cps.sagepub.com/content/44/10/1435.extract) who focus on judicial politics in Mexico and Latin America.


Ames, Barry. 1970. “Bases of Support for Mexico’s Dominant Party”. American Political Science Review 64(1): 153-167.

Bailón, Moisés. 1984. “Las elecciones locales en Oaxaca en 1980”. Nueva Antropología 7(25): 67-98.

De Remes, Alain. 2005. “Elecciones yuxtapuestas a nivel municipal: la cohabitación silenciosa”. in Espinoza, Víctor Alejandro and Rionda, Luis Miguel (ed.). Después de la Alternancia: Elecciones y nueva competitividad. México: Ediciones EÓN, Sociedad Mexicana de Estudios Electorales, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and Universidad de Guanajuato.

Eisenstadt, Todd A. 2004. Courting Democracy in Mexico: Party Strategies and Electoral Institutions. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Gómez Tagle, Silvia. 2005. “La alternancia en Chiapas: lucha indígena y preferencias electorales”. in Espinoza, Víctor Alejandro and Rionda, Luis Miguel (ed.). Después de la Alternancia: Elecciones y nueva competitividad. México: Ediciones EÓN, Sociedad Mexicana de Estudios Electorales, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana and Universidad de Guanajuato.

Köppen, Elke. 1989. Movimientos sociales en México (1968-1987). Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Laakso, Markku and Rein Taagepera. 1979. “’Effective’ Number of Parties: A Measure with Application to West Europe”. Comparative Political Studies 12 (1): 3-27.

Molinar, Juan. 1991. “Counting the Number of Parties: An Alternative Index”. American Political Science Review 85(4): 1383-1391.

Trejo, Guillermo. 2009. “Religious Competition and Ethnic Mobilization in Latin America: Why the Catholic Church Promotes Indigenous Movements in Mexico”. American Political Science Review 103(3): 323-342.

About Alejandro Diaz Dominguez

Professor, School of Government at Tecnológico de Monterrey. PhD in Political Science at Vanderbilt University. [religion and politics, R, surveys, electoral management bodies] Twitter: @alejdiazd https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3856-5686 View all posts by Alejandro Diaz Dominguez

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