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Democracy and Political Polarization: potential effects on US-Mexico relations

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Remarks for discussion of the State of Democracy in North America: Implications for Mexico-US Relations at the June 1 meeting of the US-Mexico Forum sponsored by US San Diego

Author BF Walters talked about her book How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them and the implications for US politics.

US-Mexico relations have become increasingly “inter-mestic” over recent decades: they are both domestic and international.

As the human and commercial ties between the US and Mexico have grown more intense and spread far beyond border regions, the potential for political consequences of these domestic-international interconnections has grown greater.

As either neighbor grapples with tough and divisive issues that polarize domestic politics, the spill over into US-Mexico bilateral relations can put much more strain on the ability of senior officials and leaders to solve problem or to mitigate the temptation to play to politics at the expense of the neighbor.

This is not a new challenge. But with increased polarization in the US – and the Mexican - political systems, more issues are subject to this treatment as they become hotly contested between and within political parties.

Also, as more and more people question the efficacy of institutions, of their democracy, and of the trustworthiness of “experts,” including officials and diplomats, it can easily become more challenging to manage US-Mexico problem solving the “hotly debated” issues, such as migration or crime.

Trade and investment fall into this category, as seen with “America First” tendencies of the last two US Administrations and the “Energy Sovereignty” policies guiding the current Mexican administration.

So far, both sides are working to keep a focus on using the USMCA trade agreement’s mechanisms for consultation and dispute settlement. While the US has serious concerns about Mexico’s approaches to energy and the environment, for example, rather than turning to the USMCA’s dispute settlement regarding to seek redress for harmed US companies, it is seeking solutions through private conversations. But the potential for political clashes remains as US elections approach.

Stereotypes are readily available for both sides. The Mexicans can again be portrayed as stealing of US jobs, and the Americans can be described greedy exploiters of Mexico’s natural wealth. Important segments of both the American and Mexican populations are susceptible to “nationalistic” arguments, despite the great value of trade and jobs it supports.

Migration is another potential issue for political exploitation. Already many Republican politicians are sharply criticizing what they see as a lack of control at the border.

On its own merits, migration is a difficult issue to manage in many corners of the world, but in the US-Mexico relationship it remains potentially explosive. There is no consensus in the US on how to manage the complex issues surrounding the migrant flows across the SW US border. Nor is there any clear sign of broad agreement on how to reform the very flawed US migration system.

In Mexico, the issue has also become tougher to manage with growing numbers of migrants entering Mexico and creating new burdens for asylum and migration agencies, social services, and law enforcement, which are still inadequately funded.

In the last few years, the number of Mexicans seeking to enter the US irregularly as also shot up because of the economic downturn, reversing the trend begun in 2007 or so which showed a net return of such Mexican migrants from the US to Mexico.

We can see from the virulent rhetoric of many Republicans, the recent lawsuits against lifting health limits on migration, and the actions of Texas’ governor to close the border temporarily that migration and Mexico are likely to be at the center of a polarized debate over migration.

Cross-border crime is another potential flash point as US politics become more polarized.

In the US, overdose deaths hit a new high over the last year and much of those deaths were fed by the smuggling from Mexico of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Mexico could easily become a target for anger and blame. This is especially as US-Mexico operational cooperation deteriorated in recent years as illicit imports of the deadliest drugs have risen.

Similarly, from Mexico’s perspective the inability of the US to stop arms from flowing illegally to Mexico could become a hot button issue for some Mexican politicians to push, especially as the US is so divided about what to do about its own policies regarding weapons sales and possession.

There are other candidates for polarized bilateral debates, such as water on either side of the Southwest border, especially if it proves true that climate change will bring prolonged droughts.

Such issues will always be hard to manage, but in a situation where democratic institutions on one or both sides of the border are strained or weakened of by political polarization, it gets harder to manage well highly emotional issues and to find solutions.

Politicians will be tempted to score points and rally parts of their base, and officials find it harder to maintain/establish processes needed for treating long-term challenges.