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How Will AMLO’s Presidency Be Remembered?

To understand the outgoing president’s popularity—and why not all leftists love him—Nicolas Allen spoke to three Mexican analysts from across the progressive political spectrum.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexico’s president, center, greets attendees during a rally in support of the proposed electoral reform in Mexico City on November 27, 2022.,Jeoffrey Guillemard / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador will leave office in September 2024, concluding his popular—and controversial—six-year tenure at the National Palace. Riding on a wave of progressive achievements that include a minimum wage hike and reducing income inequality, his Morena party successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, is forecast to win the June 2 election by between 25 and 30 percent.

Sheinbaum’s reputation as a “continuity candidate” may give her the edge, but she’ll also be inheriting her predecessor’s thorniest political battles. In some areas, the former Mexico City mayor is better equipped than the sitting president: Feminism and gender-related policies are just one field where Sheinbaum will hopefully improve on the past administration’s record. But López Obrador’s official embrace of austerity––his supporters say to root out corruption and restore faith in the state––will remain a flash point. On other matters, whether it’s López Obrador’s use of the military in government works or attempts to eliminate judicial independence, there will be plenty of fodder for those who accuse his and future Morena administrations of authoritarian drift––and even of undermining Mexican democracy.

And still, the president’s approval ratings hover above 60 percent, almost unheard of for an outgoing head of state (only outdone by Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2011). Meanwhile, the numbers for other progressive leaders in Latin America are cratering, raising the question: What about Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s tenure can explain such popularity?

To understand the president’s legacy—and why not all leftists love him—I spoke to three Mexican analysts from across the progressive political spectrum. Edwin Ackerman, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, argues that the president’s most controversial measures were part of a calculated effort to restore state capacity in the wake of neoliberalism. Jacques Coste, a Mexican political columnist, contends that López Obrador’s shameful legacy was to restore the previously diminished power of the Mexican armed forces. Political analyst and author Viridiana Rios insists that the most ambitious goals of the Fourth Transformation were hobbled by an inability to alter the country’s tax structure.

—Nicolas Allen

Nicolas Allen: The Mexican president had his supporters and detractors. The only thing on which they seem to agree is that Mexico changed a lot under his administration. How do you rate those changes? What is López Obrador’s legacy?

Edwin Ackerman: His legacy can be judged on two levels. First, we can judge his government by its own standards, that is, whether his Morena administration is really the beginning of a “Fourth Transformation” comparable to Mexico’s War of Independence, the Reform War, and the Revolution. We can discuss what that would involve.

But AMLO’s legacy can be evaluated at a level where the bar is set a bit lower. López Obrador took power in Mexico after decades of neoliberalism, which brought the erosion of working-class power and the dismantling of state capacity. The historical task of the Mexican left in that scenario was simply the revival of class politics and the relegitimization of the state.

Focusing on the issue of class politics: There has been a sharp restructuring of voting blocs along class lines under AMLO. From 2018 until 2021, the Mexican working-class vote was scattered across different parties, as it had been for decades. Even when AMLO won the presidency in 2018, his strongest constituency was the credentialed classes, that is, middle-class professionals and intellectuals.

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By the 2021 congressional elections, Morena’s class composition had shifted sharply towards employees, especially workers in the informal sector, and peasants. Meanwhile, Morena’s opposition, including the disillusioned credentialed class, consolidated around the business sector.

In a parallel shift, the parties that lost power during that period were drawn into the fold of the business community. In other words, the country witnessed the return of class politics under AMLO.

This was the consequence of policies favorable to the working class: a historic increase in the minimum wage, the elimination of outsourcing, union democratization, an increase in mandatory vacation days, cash transfers for the poor, taxation of large companies, and more. Five million people were lifted out of poverty, unemployment went down, profits were distributed more evenly, and there was a lower Gini coefficient.

Jacques Coste: The president was a true populist leader, in the sense that he forged a strong bond with Mexico’s popular classes. Wage hikes, union democracy, and other working-class advances were important, too. We could add to the positive column what pollsters call “a positive social mood.” Most Mexicans report feeling optimistic about the direction the country is headed.

I don’t share their optimism, though. In fact, I feel that the Morena government was a failure. For one, López Obrador never even attempted to build back the welfare state; the state actually shrank beyond even the worst years of neoliberalism under his administration.

The situation in public health, education, and public services is worse now than before AMLO came to power. López Obrador compensated with social programs, but those are rooted in a neoliberal vision of services: giving cash transfers so individuals can seek market solutions to their problems. That’s poverty management, not welfarism.

Compensating for limited state capacity, the president handed his political project over to the armed forces. As a consequence, the military’s political influence has grown over the last six years, as has its economic power. The result: a military-business complex that manages dozens of state companies in a completely opaque manner.

One of Lopez Obrador’s greatest shortcomings was his security policy. Human rights violations and violence are rampant throughout Mexico. Under his administration, the country saw an annual homicide rate of 30,000, and disappearances of people skyrocketed. There are currently more than 110,000 missing persons in Mexico.

This is not new to Mexico, but the president failed to address these pressing issues in any basic way. Worse still, he turned his back on the victims of human rights violations when he reached the presidency. He shut down dialogue with mothers searching for their lost children, with feminist collectives, and human rights organizations.

Finally, López Obrador’s environmental record was awful. The government’s construction of the Mayan Train line has devastated large swaths of the jungle in the southeast of Mexico, particularly affecting the Indigenous peoples living there. And the president’s commitment to oil refining in the state-owned Pemex company goes against everything we know about the need to move towards renewable energy.

Viridiana Rios: López Obrador’s term broke with the existing neoliberal model. It may not have been the break we leftists wanted, but if you look at the underlying elements of Mexican neoliberalism—free trade combined with low-waged labor—there has been a break with the past.

Before López Obrador took office, the Mexican Central Bank used to say that increasing the minimum wage would trigger an inflationary spiral. They were wrong: The minimum wage has doubled in Mexico—and tripled on the border—and the result has been a historic decrease in poverty.

The reduction of income inequality over the past six years has been equally historic. Through my research, I’ve found that the reduction in inequality may even be comparable to that of the so-called Mexican Miracle, that is, the period of major growth in the 1960s that led to the development of the Mexican middle class. What’s remarkable is today’s Mexican neo-miracle is taking place amid low growth.

Of course, we leftists should remain critical. But this decrease in inequality and poverty did not come from cash transfer programs, as critics argue. It came from sweeping regulatory changes in the labor market that empowered workers, streamlined judicial processes for labor disputes, curtailed outsourcing practices used to reduce worker’s benefits, and enabled the formation of democratic unions. These unions are being organized in large plants like the General Motors factory in Silao [Guanajuato], where democratic labor practices are breaking with over a hundred years of corporate unionism.

Now, the negative side. The president was given a mandate at the ballot box—his 53 percent victory in 2018 was historic by the standards of modern Mexican democracy. But he squandered that mandate by embracing austerity. You cannot pursue a leftist agenda without drawing on public money.

I agree that the militarization of the state is problematic from a transparency perspective. But, again, the root of militarization is austerity itself. López Obrador depends on the military because they do most jobs for cheaper. Of course, people rarely mention all the European and American infrastructure projects that rely on the military for similar reasons.

The real question is, why has the government decided to abandon a progressive fiscal agenda? It has to do with Mexico’s geopolitical position: if a country like Mexico were to carry out a sufficiently aggressive tax reform, it would cause a backlash in the capital market and lead to capital flight.

Remember, Mexico is the United States’ most important trading partner, so it regularly lives under the shadow of global capitalism. Mexico was neoliberal because it was forced to be. Every time Mexico has dared to question the neoliberal model, we were threatened with devaluations and capital flight. One cannot understand the limitations of Mexico’s left without first looking at the US.

NA: Edwin suggests López Obrador inaugurated a post-neoliberal phase. Jacques says his government is the continuation of neoliberalism. Viri is talking about a complete break with neoliberalism. Which is it?

EA: AMLO sees neoliberalism and corruption as related issues. For the president, neoliberalism did not mean the contraction of the Mexican state; it meant that the state was hijacked to serve narrow class interests. AMLO was very clear on this point: Neoliberalism, like corruption, was a process by which private profits and political connections became interdependent. Thus, AMLO’s post-neoliberal regime fought to break up the connections between the state and the private sector.

Note, I’m calling this approach post-neoliberal rather than anti-neoliberal. Post-neoliberalism refers to a strategy but also a general landscape: a public-policy approach which recognizes that neoliberalism has transformed Mexican society in deep structural ways.

The president’s notion of “republican austerity” captures this. Austerity is a tool that AMLO uses to target areas of the state where the private sector funneled off public resources. It’s a way to collect state revenue without tackling the huge political dilemma of fiscal reform—a limitation that is a byproduct of neoliberalism. Another example is the president’s commitment to honor existing free trade agreements. AMLO has signed those agreements while insisting on union democracy as a condition for their renewal.

I do see real attempts by AMLO to institutionalize the Mexican welfare state, particularly in efforts to create new welfare agencies. For example, the recently established Bank of Welfare attempts to provide cash transfers to the poor without relying on the private banking system. The government has successfully pushed for new social programs to become part of the Constitution, which speaks to a desire to enshrine newly conquered rights.

JC: I also see neoliberalism as the reorientation rather than contraction of the state. But this is precisely what López Obrador has done with his cash-transfer programs: reorient public services towards market solutions.

López Obrador broke up some connections between political and economic powers. But that is a far cry from saying that large capitalist interests suffered under his presidency. Oxfam Mexico published a report showing that the fortunes of the ultra-rich in Mexico have grown significantly under López Obrador’s administration. It was no coincidence that some of the wealthiest Mexicans, like Carlos Slim, were very close to the government.

The president has a decent reading of neoliberalism; I just don’t think he is consistent with his own reading. As Mexican author Rafael Lemus says, “The danger is not the continuity of neoliberalism but its complete naturalization.” Remember, Obradorismo emerged as an anti-neoliberal movement in 2005. Today, that legacy is being used to naturalize policies that are essentially neoliberal.

Regarding the welfare state, the government’s attempts to replace the structures inherited from the neoliberal era have only undermined the existing welfare state. The previous health system was bad—I’m not trying to defend it—but it brought health services to a group of citizens who previously had no coverage. The government dismantled it and tried to replace it with their universal system, but they failed to plan the transition between health networks and millions were left without access to basic health services.

VR: I wouldn’t say that the president dismantled the welfare state. The welfare state did not exist before AMLO. What Mexico had was a public insurance system administered in many instances by the private sector. Lopez Obrador tried to create a universal healthcare system, which is an adequate goal. Yet he faced severe lack of resources and competency for proper implementation. That was his big mistake.

I’d like to take this moment to clarify what Lopez Obrador’s austerity policy was really about. What Lopez Obrador called “republican austerity” was not a policy to cut spending. Spending in Mexico is currently at an all-time high. What the president called austerity was an attempt to shift spending priorities towards two big areas: social programs and infrastructure works. So, what some call the weakening of the state and identify with neoliberalism is actually a reorientation of state activities.

Actually, the number of people working for the government has grown under López Obrador. What decreased were high-ranking appointments. For example, many deputy-general directorships, a top-earning ministerial appointment, were eliminated. Meanwhile, positions for teachersdoctors, and other civil servants in the public sector have increased. It’s a restructuring of the civil service pyramid.

When critics claim the state contracted, what they are really saying is Mexico’s “golden bureaucracy” should be left untouched. They’re not concerned with broadening the provision of services. Of course, all of us here would have liked the government to spend much more on public services––Mexico is still the country with the lowest social spending in the OECD—but that doesn’t mean we should join the right in attacking the government for not providing services that also weren’t provided by previous administrations.

NA: Let’s discuss the military issue. The Mexican army has assumed a prominent role in public works and other areas normally handled by civilian agencies. What does that development mean for Mexico, which has a complicated history of militarized politics?

JC: López Obrador relied on the army to carry out infrastructure projects because of the state’s limitations. But this lack of state capacity is self-inflicted: López Obrador slashed public budgets, like previous neoliberal administrations before him.

But there lies a crucial difference, too: Previous neoliberal governments made the problem of governance into a problem of the citizenry, asking them to compensate for the windfall in public spending. López Obrador has militarized the issue, since he sees the army as a more disciplined, efficient task force than the civilian population. The problem is that the army has become the entity responsible for basic tasks of governance.

This militarization of the state has taken place during the ongoing transition from the single-party rule of the PRI [Institutional Revolutionary Party] to a liberal democracy. During that transition, which began in 2000, there was no consensus about how to rein in the armed forces. As a result, there are no constitutional controls to oversee the military, and they have no legal obligation to act transparently.

The president has brokered a deal that allows the armed forces to enjoy special privileges, and, in return, they guarantee domestic political stability. That deal allowed the military to grow while the state contracted, setting a very dangerous precedent: an empowered military and a weakened state.

A lot of this power is economic in nature. For example, airports, customs agencies, construction companies, and the Mayan train line are all under military supervision. We’re seeing reports of public companies being used to fill the pockets of a small elite within the armed forces. I believe this will be the most significant legacy of López Obrador, one that Claudia Sheinbaum, his successor, will inherit.

EA: Jacques is right to draw attention to potential issues arising from this new relationship between the state and the military. However, we need to be careful about using terms like “militarization,” which sounds misleadingly like civilian rule is subordinate to military rule.

When people criticize AMLO’s “militarization,” they’re often taking issue with the army’s use in overseeing so-called megaprojects. Essentially, these are attempts to shield large-scale infrastructure projects from future privatization efforts. Again, I see this as an issue of insufficient state capacity in the wake of decades of neoliberalism. Implicitly, those who denounce the militarization of public works are demanding we wait until civilian institutions emerge and carry out pressing infrastructure needs.

There has been a rapprochement between the government and the military, but it has not been without conflict either. Take the case of Ayotzinapa, where the president publicly called out the military for obstructing internal investigations. I would not describe the relationship between the executive and military as “harmonious.”

Some developments have even been positive. One is that, ironically, the military is under greater public scrutiny than it has been for a long time. Traditionally, from the 1920s onward, the Mexican army’s power was believed to have been greatly restrained. This new scrutiny is part of a growing awareness that the military maintained more power during the post-revolutionary period than was previously understood.

Lastly, many have expressed concerns about the militarization of public safety, especially since the president placed the National Guard [formerly the Federal Police] under the control of the secretary of defense. I would respond that this is actually a relative “civilianization” of public safety—which was already “militarized” under the previous administrations—insofar as National Guard members are now subject to trial in civil court for human rights violations.

JC: There have been tensions between the president and the military. But the military always comes out on top. The case of Ayotzinapa is a perfect example: The military has actively undermined the investigation of the disappearance of the 43 normalista students. They did the same with investigations into the Dirty War, with the case against General Cienfuegos, in court rulings to make public works more transparent, and so on.

The military wins because the president has supported them at critical junctures. As Edwin alluded to, this is the same military that committed widespread abuses during the Dirty War and Felipe Calderon’s drug wars.

I’m concerned that the National Guard has been put under military supervision. According to a study by the Citizen Security Program of the Ibero-American University, 80 percent of the National Guardsmen lack human rights certification. More than 80 percent of the National Guard are under the command of the Mexican Secretariat of National Defense, which means they are technically soldiers. That means these domestic security forces can commit human rights violations without any public oversight. This is especially serious since the National Guard is also charged with “controlling” migration within Mexico—a practice that involves all kinds of abuses.

VR: I want to say a word about the term “megaprojects.” López Obrador’s public works are routinely described as “megaprojects,” when for a developed country in Europe or in the United States, these would be normal and quite cheap.

Take the Mayan train. At the current exchange rate, the Mayan train line would cover 970 miles and cost about $30 billion. To put that in perspective, the first section of the California high-speed train is estimated to cost $35 billion and cover just 170 miles. In other words, the Mayan train is five times cheaper than the California rail line.

The term “megaproject” seems to imply huge budgetary outlays, but I have estimated that all of Lopez Obrador’s supposed mega-projects together account for about 1.5 percent of his six-year budget.

The truth is that these “megaprojects”—which provide basic infrastructural networks to historically neglected regions—are ridiculously small. That we call them “mega” speaks to how much neoliberalism has become common sense in Mexico. We need 10 times more “megaprojects.”

There has been criticism due to the environmental impact of these projects. But this is a much larger discussion about whether developing nations like Mexico should be allowed to have infrastructure like that of developed countries—that is, if Mexico should be made to pay the cost of climate change. If the answer is yes, then developed countries need to not only pay Mexico to protect the environment but also pay reparations for generations of Mexican citizens who are being asked to live at lower developmental levels.

To your question about the military, in an ideal world, the state would be run by a civilian bureaucracy. But again, I believe the underlying issue is what is driving López Obrador to depend on the military: They are fast and cheap. It comes down to the difficulty of increasing taxes and building state capacity in a country that depends economically on the free market and on the United States, where taxes are low.

There is a separate issue, which is the hijacking of public works for outlandish private-sector profits. If we compare the cost of the airport built by the army with that which was going to be built by private initiative, the latter would have cost much more than the former. In other words, we need to talk about private involvement in public works and how to control the abuse of state resources.

NA: Tax reform sounds like an important challenge for future administrations. But, to Edwin’s point about class politics, the next government might need a strong majoritarian movement to help it pursue a controversial redistributive agenda.

EA: We should continue to pressure for progressive tax reform while recognizing the obstacles. One is that we are in an extended period of low growth, which imposes objective limits on the taxable base—although there is still some margin to increase taxes on the upper class. In lieu of an immediate proposal for tax reform, the government has pursued a policy of increasing tax collection from large companies and closing payment loopholes, with some success.

Second, the general population sees the state as corrupt. So, ironically, before there can be a call for tax reform, there needs to be another round of republican austerity to legitimize the state in the eyes of the people.

Were Claudia Sheinbaum to win the presidency, it would not be at all surprising if she proposed a major overhaul of the tax system. There’s nothing in AMLO’s or Sheinbaum’s agenda that is ideologically against raising taxes, but that would have to come from a shift in the overall balance of forces.

VR: In Mexico, there is an implicit taxation alliance between the upper and the lower classes—the two poles where most of the tax evasion is concentrated. That avoidance places all the tax burden on the middle class. In that scenario, there is no social base demanding more taxes, because the middle class is too small, and the majority of the population is paying a relatively low tax rate.

Moreover, I conducted a national survey asking if the Mexican government overspends. Sixty-three percent responded yes. That means, culturally speaking, Mexico faces two challenges: On the one hand, there is a tax-evasion alliance between the economic elite and the lowest socioeconomic bracket. On the other hand, there is an idea that the government already spends too much.

This poses a dilemma for an extremely unequal country like Mexico. In addition to legitimizing the state and creating awareness of the value of public services, as Edwin said, we have to vocally emphasize that fiscal reforms will only affect the top 10 percent of the population. This narrative has been missing from Mexican leftist circles and has hindered the pursuit of fiscal reform.

JC: This is one of the great cultural triumphs of neoliberalism in Mexico: to make it common sense that everything related to the state is inherently corrupt. But, on this point, my criticism of López Obrador is that, instead of engaging in a campaign to educate the public about the need for fiscal reform, he has done the opposite. López Obrador has pandered to the most pedestrian notions of corruption, insisting that all politicians—except himself—steal from taxpayers.

In doing so, López Obrador legitimizes himself at the expense of the state. I don’t see how that could be the beginning of a movement for fiscal reform. We shouldn’t ignore that López Obrador is supported by big business, and those interests have influenced the government’s choice—there’s no other word for it—to not fight for comprehensive tax reform.

NA: Earlier, we alluded to Mexico’s democratic transition, and we’ve circled around the question of López Obrador’s own democratic record. What is the state of Mexican democracy?

EA: The whole notion of the democratic transition is undergoing a major revision. In the late 1990s, the neoliberal bloc in Mexico waved the flag of democracy since the anti-statism of challenger parties like Vicente Fox’s National Action Party also worked as a critique of the lack of democracy under the single-party system. They could sell neoliberalism and the free market as synonyms for democracy.

In other words, what was called the democratic transition was an attempt to advance a neoliberal class project. The fact that those forces have been politically marginalized under AMLO suggests a major change in political regimes. Whether that change amounts to a Fourth Transformation is something that can only be seen in retrospect.

I will say this: The other transformations to which the president alludes—independence, liberal reform, and the revolution—all coincided with economic paradigm shifts on a global scale, whether it was the transition to capitalism in the case of Mexican independence or the Keynesian welfare state after the Mexican Revolution. The current transformation is happening against the backdrop of the worldwide decline of neoliberalism—a decline that is not a sharp break but certainly suggests that the neoliberal consensus is falling apart.

JC: López Obrador came to power with a democratic agenda: He ran against the procedural, institutional vision of democracy; he opposed the existing system of presidentialism, arguing that the executive had to be weakened to create a more democratic state; he called for the revival of the mass party and to decentralize the state to reach non-urban parts of the country. However, that agenda was never translated into reality, and nothing from the last six years suggests a more democratic system.

Democracy is about much more than fair elections and an independent judiciary, but clean elections and autonomous courts—two things the president has jeopardized—are essential components of democracy. If the reforms proposed by AMLO and supported by Sheinbaum to weaken the independent electoral body and the Supreme Court are implemented, then the Mexican electoral system would no longer provide fair conditions for all competitors, and the courts would simply serve to legitimize the executive.

VR: López Obrador and Morena’s intention to centralize power came from a desire to expedite the implementation of their agenda, which was democratically elected by a historic number of Mexican voters. For some, this centralization of power raises red flags. In traditional liberal democratic theory, the checks-and-balances system of government is there to limit majority rule.

The problem is that in Mexico the system of checks-and-balances has often served to limit majorities by protecting one minority group: economic elites. This is hard to explain to those who defend an abstract notion of liberal democracy, but in Mexico, there are some democratic counterweights that have been captured by the oligarchy.

That is why the Central Bank was against raising the minimum wage, the Supreme Court has limited labor rights and allowed for legalized tax evasion, the energy regulator has given lavish subsidies to the private industry, and the telecommunications regulator has been incapable of properly regulating the market that it was supposed to regulate. We need to discuss the kind of checks and balances that can strengthen democracy, rather than uncritically defending all of them.

Mexican elites have grown reliant on antidemocratic judiciary strategies to interfere with the affairs of the state. Again, despite what traditional democratic theory says about a system of checks and balances, the reality is that, in a highly unequal country like Mexico, the Supreme Court of Justice responds to the interests of the economic elite. This has become a problem for the state itself, as many of the reforms that López Obrador has tried to implement have been thrown out by decree of the Supreme Court.

NA: What are your expectations for the likely presidency of Claudia Sheinbaum?

EA: Claudia Sheinbaum’s political style speaks more organically to AMLO’s erstwhile intellectual and progressive supporters. Would courting that sector mean alienating López Obrador’s working-class base? Not necessarily. The continued politicization of the population along class lines will depend on the continuation of material advances; fortunately, the country’s economic prospects are optimistic and Sheinbaum’s term might even have more room to continue the post-neoliberal turn.

JC: I don’t feel hopeful. I see signs of continuity in the areas where López Obrador’s track record was poorest. And I don’t see any evidence that Sheinbaum would alter course, because Sheinbaum’s entire political career is indebted to López Obrador.

One thing worth watching: Morena has been characterized by the strong personalist rule of López Obrador. What is going to happen with Morena after López Obrador? This is a key question that will determine the future of the Mexican party system. Here, I see two possible future developments: the institutionalization of Morena, a bit along the lines of what happened to the PRI over the last century, or a constant internal power struggle leading to party dysfunctionality.

VR: To be successful, Sheinbaum will have to deliver at least as much as Obrador did. Yet there is less room to rebalance budgets for social programs, and it will be hard to keep raising wages at the same rate. Sheinbaum has shown a special interest in exploring other areas, for example, providing care services for children and seniors. She has also placed emphasis on infrastructure—even more than AMLO.

It’s going to be a shock for a country like Mexico to have female leadership. It’s going to be a challenge for Sheinbaum, because criticism against female leaders tends to be harsher than for men. But it’s going to be a very interesting period for the young Mexican democracy.

Nicolas Allen is a commissioning editor at Jacobin and a PhD student in Latin American history at Stony Brook University (SUNY).

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