Mexican Policy and American Political Change at Mid-Century

Backroads PragmatistsToday we have a guest post from Ruben Flores, who teaches American studies at the University of Kansas, and whose new book, Backroads Pragmatists:Mexico's Melting Pot and Civil Rights in the United States, illuminates how nation-building in postrevolutionary Mexico unmistakably influenced the civil rights movement and democratic politics in the United States.

Since coming to the presidency two years ago, President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico has been engaged in a series of high-profile policy efforts to transform Mexico’s national economy and education system. His Telecommunications Act has taken steps to decrease business monopolies in the telephone and television industries. He has sought to privatize portions of Mexico’s oil giant, PEMEX, in order to introduce competition into Mexico’s petroleum sector. His reforms in education have drawn even more attention. He arrested the head of Mexico’s largest teachers union as part of an attempt to break the union’s hold on corrupt teacher contracts and low professionalization standards. Simultaneously, he instituted new state investment for university scholarships, technology and research, and public outreach campaigns. Americans may be busy debating the migration crisis and border drug wars, but in Mexico, public debate is focused on policy efforts to transform the national economy and raise educational standards for a large and highly diverse population of 120 million people.

The unknown chapters of Mexico’s policy history are central to one of the mythic episodes in the history of American democracy. In the 1930s and ’40s, as the United States began looking for ways to broaden democracy via the civil rights movement, Mexico’s policy efforts to create a social welfare system shaped America’s desegregation campaigns after World War II. Mexico was coming out of the Mexican Revolution, a period of rich policy experimentation between 1920 and 1940 that included campaigns to integrate Mexico’s ethnic groups into a single nation, government expropriation of land and subsoil rights away from Americans and Europeans, and national investment in public schools, public works, and a social welfare system. While most Americans may know little about Mexico’s postrevolutionary history, such policy changes had momentous consequences for Mexico. They helped to create Mexico’s middle class. They allowed Mexico to assert itself in the face of America’s dominance in North America. And they expanded the benefits of citizenship across a culturally diverse population.

For Americans who were trying to understand how state power could be used to create new relationships among whites, Mexican-Americans, and Blacks in the 1930s U.S., Mexico’s postrevolutionary experiments in rebuilding the nation represented a rich set of policy models that they imported into the United States as they sought to transform the public schools of the American West. In rural Tlaxcala in the 1930s, for example, teacher training academies provided these Americans with new ideas about how government could work with local communities to create new schools. Science institutes established by the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City by 1930 provided them with examples in applied psychology, anthropology, and the role of social scientists in government bureaucracy.  And in Morelos, laboratory schools showed them how daily work patterns could be integrated into language-instruction models.

Moise's Saenz on beach

Moisés Sáenz in New York in 1922, just after completing his studies with American philosopher John Dewey

For the anthropologists, psychologists, and educational philosophers who helped to create the American desegregation movement in Texas and California—like Ralph L. Beals, Loyd Tireman, and George I. Sanchez—Mexico’s policy work represented a bridge between state-led reform efforts in Mexico and political change at home. The relationships these Americans established with Mexico were not quixotic travel forays or imperialist journeys by foreign agents. Instead, they were discrete policy antecedents for the American civil rights movement that have been missed or forgotten by scholars of the federal state, U.S.–Mexico relations, and the philosophy of science. They explain the school integration campaigns in the American West not as a domestic process, but as an offshoot of policy reform and nationalism in Mexico in the two decades that followed the Mexican Revolution.

The relationship of these Americans to Mexico tells us more about American politics beyond an understanding of the immediate influence of Mexican policy history over the American integration movement. It tells us that political change in Mexico helped to reshape the moral character of American nationalism and democracy, and did so at the level of institutional practice in addition to theory alone. Mexico’s policy influence over the United States also reverses the way that scholars understand the U.S.-Mexico relationship. We typically think of the United States as a hegemonic nation whose power shapes the nations of Latin America along a north-to-south trajectory. But the example of Mexico during the 1930s and ’40s shows us that Mexican government policy influenced American politics as much as American power influenced the history of Mexico. Thus, while Americans tend to think of Mexico as a country of “chaos”—a word that has been perennially repeated in accounts of Mexican history from 1920 to the present day—Mexican policy change has been important to the United States in ways that Americans have not imagined.

It is important to highlight one last feature of policy history in the U.S. and Mexico—the philosopher John Dewey and American pragmatism. John Dewey’s enormous influence over American politics had once been forgotten by scholars, but as Cornel West, David Hollinger, Richard Bernstein, Larry Hickman, and Gregory Pappas have reminded us, discussions of the American national community at mid-century were fundamentally shaped by Dewey’s instrumentalism. Dewey’s ideas were circulating in the American West in which my social scientists studied, and they became the currency through which many Americans connected their ideas of social change to the institutional policies that Mexico’s theorists of nationalism had established. Moisés Sáenz and Rafael Ramírez are well known as Mexico’s pragmatists, for example, and their use of Dewey’s ideas in Mexico were instantly recognizable to the Americans who studied policy change in Mexico in the 1930s as an antidote to ethnic conflict in the United States. The result of a renewed focus on John Dewey’s ideas in Mexico and the American West is an account of civil rights that depends on ideas coming from New York and Mexico City as much as on local mobilization at the grass roots level. That a mutual conversation in nationalism was being conducted across the U.S. and Mexico through those ideas is, of course, similarly important to add to our understanding of American democracy.

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