Historical Archive of Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico City

Book Project

Revolution and State Weakness: How Regionalism Undermined Public Education in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Revolutionary regimes are among the most enduring autocracies, but most lack capable, Weberian state organizations. Autocratic Mexico stands out as a long-living revolutionary regime that struggled to enforce its centrally-mandated across the territory, especially the most radical social change projects. My book, Revolution and State Weakness: How Regionalism Undermined Public Education in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, addresses the paradox of regime durability without state capacity. Why do seemingly omnipotent leaders struggle to make the state work?

I focus on primary education, one of the most expensive and politicized public services provided by virtually all states. Mexico’s revolutionary regime dramatically increased education access and caught up with Latin America’s most developed education systems, such as Argentina and Chile. However, the revolution’s education project stalled and floundered after a decade. 

This book argues that political stability has different foundations than “state capacity.” Building coherent and effective state institutions requires large-scale, society-wide collective action. Elite actors must cooperate and align their resources toward the same goals, and multiple social groups must acquiesce. The factionalism characteristic of post-revolutionary reconstructions severely compromises the state-building process. Regimes like Mexico that accommodate multiple forces build fragile and incoherent institutions. But regimes that suppress rival elites and entirely appropriate their resources, such as Cuba, create more robust and capable states.

In Mexico, elite factionalism took the form of national-subnational conflict. The center achieved stability and national unity by accommodating the interests of regional politicians, setting Mexico on a path of institutional dysfunction. I study the rapid institutional transformations and pronounced within-country variations in public education during three decades of administrative centralization (1920-1950). Theoretically, I focus on an under-theorized source of state weakness: territorial interests. The book accounts for the staggered process and uneven outcome of state centralization and shows how regional interests undermined centralized planning in subsequent decades.

My elite-centered theory of institutional choice departs from prominent explanations of state weakness. These are the “precocious” political incorporation of the masses (at moments of state centralization) and the autocrat’s lack of incentives to invest in public goods. These alternative views fail to account for the vast subnational variation in education access and Mexico City’s changing strategies to control the regional education systems.


“Regionalism against Centralization: Resistance to Federal Education after the Mexican Revolution”

Published in Publius: The Journal of Federalism

Why are states in the developing world able to centralize policy regulation and implementation in some places inside their territory but not in others? I argue that uneven state capacity in periods of centralization is a function of the political resources that regional politicians have to resist the advancement of central institutions. These resources include cohesion against the center and independent popular support. I analyze the expansion of primary education after the Mexican Revolution in four subnational cases representing scenarios of regional resistance to institutional centralization (Yucatán, Nuevo León, Tlaxcala, and Durango) and compare the framework to alternative explanations. The article contributes to evaluating the causes of “state weakness” in developing countries and understanding the politics of institutional choice under federal constitutions.

“Business Power and Education Reform in Latin America” (with Christopher Chambers-Ju).

The article studies the influence of Big Business on public policy. Throughout Latin America, wealthy business leaders have aggressively promoted primary and secondary education reform by creating private foundations focused on education. Comparative research has focused mainly on the role of parties and teachers’ unions; little is known of business interests’ role in education reform (and public administration more broadly). This paper explores why wealthy individuals have become politically active in education, despite the uncertainty of the pay-off. We also ask what strategies they have used to push for new policies and how their efforts have influenced institutional change and public opinion. Case studies of Colombia and Mexico begin to shed light on how the wealthy and their education foundations have participated in the policy process. This research provides a new perspective on how democracies represent the interests of the wealthy, contributing to research on social class, interest representation, and the policy process.

Revolutions and Mass Education: National-Subnational Competition in Post-Revolutionary Mexico

Revolutionary states stand out as mass educators, as these civil conflicts bring a new political class to power with radical social change projects. This article proposes a different perspective beyond this conventional view, based on conflicts inside the new political class and the mass mobilization that characterizes post-revolutionary reconstructions. I account for the centralization and dramatic expansion of rural education after the Mexican Revolution, resulting from the competition between national and subnational politicians to institutionalize alliances with the lowest classes, using teachers as political agents. The article studies three decades of Mexico’s institutional transformations in public education (1920-1950). It uses process tracing and quantitative analysis to challenge alternative motives, for example, industrialization, elections, paternalism, and rural unrest. The article speaks to recent research on Latin America’s comparative institutional development, which has mainly focused on the liberal era’s trade-led state formation. Instead, the paper studies the institutional legacies of mass incorporation periods.

“Foot-soldiers of the Revolution: Teachers and Land Reform in Chiapas”

The article problematizes recent findings that land reforms are more likely when landed elites break up with an autocrat. I argue that elite splits do not automatically produce redistribution; often, the autocrat must mobilize communities first. Recent research assumes that the population demands land, but cases like Chiapas (in Mexico’s periphery) show that it’s not always the case. Agricultural workers were allied with landlords to defend their livelihood from the revolution, and indigenous communities distrusted outsiders. Mexico City sent teachers to agitate and mobilize for land reform, helping peasants in the complicated legal process. I study Chiapas through process tracing and a difference-in-differences analysis of original microdata on schools and land petitions. This article clarifies when land redistribution is politically possible and contributes to understanding the policy-making process of autocracies and the relationship of public services to regime durability.

From Resistance to Cooperation: The Effect of Land Redistribution on Literacy in Mexico” 

The article studies the long-term effects of land redistribution on literacy rates. Development economists have observed that land redistribution in rural societies reduces education enrollments because family farms employ child labor. I argue that this is not necessarily the case; it depends on how land reform is implemented. I study the early expansion of public education in Mexico and propose that peasant communities responded with more enthusiasm to schools when they received land from the hands of teachers. Empirically, I use process tracing and original microdata to compare two federative states, Chiapas and Oaxaca. In Chiapas, teachers participated in property redistribution so that land grants positively affected literacy in the following decade. In contrast, land grants negatively affected Oaxaca, where teachers did not participate.