12.06.2019 | Carol Pires
Brazil, a Country of the Future? On the (Non)achievement of the Populist Bolsonaro.
“Have the world and political contexts become so accelerated, so complex and so confusing that most people, who after all only want to get a grip on their lives, are hopelessly overwhelmed?”
I will pick up from Michael’s question and tell a little bit about what has happened in Brazil since Jair Bolsonaro came into office in January 2019. But first, I think I have to explain to those who are not familiar with Brazilian politics how we got here in the first place.
For me, the roots of Bolsonaro’s political momentum lie in the past six traumatic years Brazilians have gone through, beginning with the 2013 protests that changed Brazil’s political spectrum and which can't be fully explained to the present day.
We were coming from eight years of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s popular and paternalistic government, a period during which his social assistance programs took 30 million people out of poverty and transformed them into consumers, making the economic elite pleased as well. Lula was so popular (I’m not sure I would frame him as a populist although he definitely exhibited some populist traits) that he only had to ask and people voted for Dilma Rousseff, an almost unknown technocrat. Rousseff was doing well until the economy started to slow down. It was in this context that 2013 erupted. At first, it was a left-wing student movement against the rise in bus fares, but soon that insurrectional energy was kidnapped by the right and turned against the president.
In the following year the 2014 election was polarized between Lula’s and Rousseff’s Workers’ Party that had been in power since 2002 and Aécio Neves’s Brazilian Social Democracy Party that feared it might lose its fourth consecutive election. At the beginning of the campaign, the candidate that represented the third way died in an air crash and was replaced by Marina Silva, Lula’s former Minister of Environment. Although Mrs. Silva helped to build the Workers’ Party in the Amazon region, she was virulently attacked by the Workers’ Party campaign. There was no space for mourning. The result was that Rousseff won by the narrowest margin of all elections and the country started to split into two irreconcilable parts.
This is where I see the first signs that political opponents broke their commitment to engagement with mutual respect and went behind power and influence in disrespecting rules of the democratic game.
Meanwhile, the Operation Car Wash – the biggest anti-corruption investigation Brazil has ever seen – started to unveil a net of corruption in public service. The investigator put the suspects in prison for an indefinite period and then offered them a plea bargain so they could point out other important persons involved. The content of the plea bargains and telephone tappings were leaked to the press on a daily basis, guaranteeing the operation would be headlined by every newspaper with no further fact-checking. For the public, it was like watching a political thriller: exciting but stressful and infuriating. One could hear stories of couples splitting and families fighting over politics. For the first time I saw Brazilians, who had always kept their political opinion to themselves in favor of conciliation, letting the stress of politics to affect their personal relationships.
The result of Operation Car Wash was twofold. First, really powerful businessmen and politicians who once behaved like they were above the law were arrested and had to return the millions of dollars they had stolen. To list a few examples, the head of the Lower House was arrested, some of the wealthiest men in Brazil was arrested, all former governors of Rio de Janeiro were arrested and, when the political thriller reached its apex, former president Lula was arrested (in a case that involves a justified accusation of corruption against him but also the use of aggressive lawfare by the investigators).
The second consequence was that they created among society – with so many arrests and plea bargains - a sense that politics was a crime in itself. What should have been an operation against corruption also turned out to be an operation against politics. The upheaval in the streets became more and more radicalized: some started to ask for the return of the military regime and you could see misogynic demonstrations against the president, like car stickers of our first female president with splayed legs that fit around a car's gas tank holes. The disrespect among politicians echoed within the voters: they dilute the definition of behavioral deviance.
We should take the discussion of psychological trauma into politics more seriously.
For me, the account above – that we watched in a dizzying speed - allows me to turn Michael’s question into an affirmative sentence.
The world and political contexts have become so accelerated, so complex and so confusing that most people are hopelessly overwhelmed. (Michael Zichy)
No wonder, when someone like Bolsonaro offered them facile, superficial solutions for Brazil’s main issues, he reached out to their hearts. And it makes me believe we should take the discussion of psychological trauma into politics more seriously.
Bolsonaro is a populist taken out of a playbook. Even though he served for 27 years as a congressman and has three of his older sons in politics (as city councilman, congressman, and senator), Bolsonaro is vocally critical of the political class. He claims that he represents the people, but he is anti-elitist and anti-pluralist. He has said that quilombolas (afro-descendants who still live in their ancestor’s community) “aren’t good for procreation”, that he would rather “see a son die rather than for them to be gay”, that “the scum of the earth is immigrating to Brazil”, and that the country has delimited too much land to just a few indigenous. The list of absurdness is large.
Bolsonaro also portrays his political rivals – especially the left - and anyone who disagrees with him as immoral and corrupt. During the campaign, he told a crowd they should fusillade supporters of the Workers’ Party. To complete the populist checklist, he accuses all the main news outlets in Brazil of spreading fake news.
Ágnes observed that “new ethno-nationalists of our day differ from those of the first half of the twentieth century in that their ideology is negative. They do not promise territorial gains, a society without alienation, happiness for all, or even grandeur; they promise protection”. How would she frame Bolsonaro, someone that also sows the chaos to offer the order, but not only against migrants and the interference in our domestic politics, but also against Brazilians themselves: the leftists, the minorities, the indigenous and everyone who disagrees with him?
To ascend to power, Bolsonaro surfed on a uncommon Brazilian wave created by four segments: 1), the military and its supporters (it’s good to remember that Brazil never judged its dictatorship torturers and assassins, creating a generation of Brazilians that ignore its history), 2), neoliberal economists and businessmen (that believed he would lead their agenda even though Bolsonaro has a history as a defender of a strong state), 3), right-wing social media celebrities (many of them followers of the conservative/self-proclaimed philosopher Olavo de Carvalho), and 4), a mass of voters that agreed with his defense of a hard hand on public security (including the legalization of gun ownership). It’s also important to take into account the spread of sentiments against the Workers’ Party. People were tired after 13 years of Lula and Rousseff’s administration, stained with accusations of corruption among their closest allies.
This Brazilian receipt made him president but it isn’t working as a way of government. To please his supporters who want him to break down the system, Bolsonaro keeps criticizing the Congress and “the political class”. In response, congressmen haven’t given him one substantial victory, a fact that has made the liberals skeptical that he will be able to bring about any meaningful reforms. In the morning he attacks the Congress and the Supreme Court, but by the afternoon someone convinces him to apologize. His approval rate has dropped to 32% - the worst of any Brazilian president to date.
For those who expected progress in the fight against corruption, Bolsonaro is also a disappointment.
For those who expected progress in the fight against corruption, Bolsonaro is also a disappointment. An investigation against Flávio, his eldest son, linked him to a case of corruption and to paramilitary groups. His offspring has been a more effective opposition than any political party.
Recently, in order to appeal to his most faithful supporters, Bolsonaro extended to 19 million Brazilians the right to own firearms, but his decree is being questioned for its unconstitutionality and inefficiency since Brazil is already the country with the highest mortality rate by firearms in the world. Meanwhile, the country’s rate of unemployment has hit a new record of 12%.
With no result to show, the president bets on the cultural war: he calls students who protest against cuts in Education “idiots”, says public universities are full of communists, posts pornographic videos on Twitter to make the point that the Carnival of Brazil is a corrupt cultural demonstration and relies on his tweets and live videos on Facebook to talk to his diehard supporters about his conspiracy theories and to blame “the system” for his lack of actions. Like all populists, blaming is what he does the most.
The aforementioned developments would beg the question, namely whether these illiberal democracies are sustainable, especially those led by the likes of Bolsonaro, a creation of social media.
Nevertheless, in response to Yvonne’s question, I still think “the populism of a few” should concern us. Bolsonaro hasn’t succeeded in maneuvering his way through the political class to change laws, but he has done everything he can through presidential decrees: his administration authorized the use of more than 150 pesticides and launched an assault on initiatives to protect the Amazon rainforest. So, yes, I believe every populist is a threat to the whole world.
Which leads me to Yvonne’s next question: “What is the ‘better deal’ on offer” that can awaken the positive aspirations of those who are now seeking race-baiting messianic figures who express their dreams (and other people’s nightmares)?
In “The people vs. Democracy”, Yascha Mounk says that “it would be tempting to assume that voters, properly punished by subsequent chaos, would once again place their trust in the old political class”. But that’s not what usually happens. The solution, Mounk says, relies on citizens feeling more hopeful than fatalistic: “only when they regain confidence that more moderate politicians will fight and work for them, would they change their vote”.
It seems like we (at least we, this elite group of thinkers) already know how to identify the populists. Now, how do we respond to them without sounding like them? How can we formulate proposals, raise supporters and gain visibility despite the vertiginous speed of the times we live in?