Anger and Despair: Brazil’s Rejection of Politics-As-Usual

Anger and Despair: Brazil’s Rejection of Politics-As-Usual October 29, 2018

Brazil has elected far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro as president in an event that reflects what I have written about several times previously. As Simon Tisdall reports in “Disillusioned Brazilians swap politics of hope for politics of anger and despair“:

Jair Bolsonaro’s hard-right campaign for Brazil’s presidency shocked outside observers, who asked how a candidate with such extreme views could command broad popular support.

But Brazil’s voters appear to have followed a trend evident in embattled democracies around the world, swapping the politics of hope for “anti-politics” – the politics of anger, rejection and despair.

In office for eight years, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s jailed former president and founder of the Workers’ party (PT), pledged to enact radical change through sweeping social reforms. But like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto, and many American and European politicians of left and right who also promised a rosier future, Lula failed to deliver – and left a trail of disillusionment in his wake.

This is certainly a trend that is happening around the world. There is a reaction to politics-as-usual but the beneficiaries are more often those of the far right, with the exception most recently of the Mexican elections. Brexit, at least for some voters, was a reaction against the establishment, as well as for many Trump voters. The problem being that in both of these cases, those voters are simply not getting what they intended. For those sorts of Trump voters, often working class, and often wanting lobbyists and suchlike being drained from the swamp, they are getting the exact opposite. Trump employed the swamp, surrounded himself with it, and proceded to allow Republicans to strip the country of all legislation that would arguably benefit those original voters.

For those anti-establishment EU Leave voters (rather than proper Brexiteers), voting to get out of the EU didn’t really achieve anything that would work in their interests because being fed up with politics-as-usual and voting to leave the EU will only achieve a no deal scenario and impending economic hardship. This will lead to further austerity and an excuse for the Tories, if in power, to further deregulate (empowering the swamp) in an ideological push for neoliberalism.

And this is playing out across Europe. Reacting to politics-as-usual, which seems to be a nebulous idea at best, does nothing but allow the right wing free reign to normalise their extreme views. Have we learnt nothing from history? My belief is that such reactionary behaviour is ill-defined. Furthermore, one must be careful not to conflate voting against something with voting for something else. Denigrating one thing is not, necessarily, lauding something different.

Tisdall continues:

According to pre-election polls, 25% of those who backed Bolsonaro did so not because they admired him or his policies, but out of determination to punish the PT for years of misrule. This angry mood, comparable to “throw the bums out” sentiments in recent US elections, presented the PT’s new standard-bearer, Fernando Haddad, with an uphill battle.

It was no longer a question of left or right, more a wholesale rejection of politics-as-usual.

Bolsonaro’s candidacy benefitted from another trending electoral phenomenon: a preference among voters for a political outsider or maverick “disrupter” who challenges the status quo. Donald Trump was the quintessential “none-of-the-above” candidate in the US in 2016. As with Trump, many voters did not really like Bolsonaro. But they preferred him to any “establishment” figure.

Parallels have been drawn between Bolsonaro and Mexico’s leftwing president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. Their political outlook is profoundly different. But as analyst Moises Naim noted, “both have crafted a persona as outsiders, as radical voices largely excluded by the ruling political elites”.

Bolsonaro is no neophyte, rather a seven-term congressman. His trick was to re-invent himself as a mould-breaker.

What will the elections achieve in Brazil? Who knows. But what is seemingly apparent is that his voters, rather like those evangelical conservatives in the US, are willing to forgive or ignore Bolsonaro’s despicable previous actions or statements in favour of his pledges:

Anxious to believe his claims to be on their side, many alienated voters also ignored, or forgave, Bolsonaro’s misogynistic, homophobic views and his attachment to violent solutions. A parallel can be found in the Philippines, where an arch-disrupter, Rodrigo Duterte, was elected in 2016 on a promise to eliminate drug dealers. This turned out to mean death squads.

Bolsonaro’s pledges to re-establish law and order and eradicate corruption, by any means, echoed the concerns of voters everywhere who, fearful for their security and under siege economically, feel trapped and betrayed by past government failures, broken promises and bureaucracy. As in Europe, most present-day voters did not experience Brazil’s 20th century era of dictatorship, and thus appeared unfazed by Bolsonaro’s authoritarian ideas.

Brazil’s election provided evidence, to add to that from other countries, that at times of severe stress – Brazil is suffering a severe recession and record crime rates – the decisive importance of “identity politics”, defined by gender, race and sexual orientation, can be over-estimated.

Despite his objectionable views, Bolsonaro’s estimated support among women voters was as strong, or stronger, than Haddad’s. Some black and gay voters also backed him, saying other issues mattered more. His advocacy of “traditional family values”, including religious faith, went down well with voters for whom such issues are key determinants.

About 85% of Brazilians identify themselves as Christians while the number belonging to evangelical denominations has grown rapidly in recent years. Many such voters appeared responsive to Bolsonaro’s messages about moral and social standards – concerns that secular political elites tend to overlook.

Again, we return to this idea of forgiving much on account of a few big issue wins. I have discussed this variously before. For evangelical conservatives in the States, these wins are massive and easily trump those Trumpian moral disgraces. Vox’s fascinating “White evangelicals are the sleeping giant of the 2018 midterms” lays this out:

Conservative evangelical Christians put Donald Trump, of all people, in the White House because they believed that his administration would bring them big wins on the issues they care most about. That bet paid off handsomely — on abortion, perhaps their top issue, and on much more — during the first two years of Trump.

Those voters have in turn become the president’s most loyal base, even as he endures a campaign finance scandal linked to payoffs to a porn actress, and they will play a critical role on Election Day.

Evangelicals overwhelmingly prefer Republicans in the 2018 midterms, and they are reliable voters, while Democrats are relying on a younger, more diverse, and less proven coalition. Social conservatives could swing important races across the country if other voters don’t turn out in the numbers Democrats are hoping for.

White conservative evangelicals can point to wins across the board — on abortion, on gender identity, on “religious freedom,” and, most importantly, on the Supreme Court — under Trump. From their perspective, the Trump administration has been a series of smashing successes on their core issues. Trump’s behavior is almost beside the point. Instead, they have a deeply religious vice president, Mike Pence, quietly working to enact their agenda.

“President Donald Trump’s administration has undoubtedly been the most pro-family and pro-life administration in decades,” Walker Wildmon at the American Family Association said in an emailed statement to Vox.

The white evangelical community views the Trump era as a fundamental realignment of American politics, with the Christian right reasserting itself after eight years of Barack Obama. They understand that if Republicans lose the House or, even worse, the House and Senate in the midterm elections, their agenda is at risk. On the surface, the GOP is leaning into a fear-based white identity campaign, but underneath, evangelicals have a whole set of other issues they care very deeply about that have nothing to do with immigration or crime.

Take, for instance, the New York Times report last week that the Trump administration is considering redefining gender as a strictly biological question. LGBTQ rights groups were outraged, but that policy is reportedly being pushed by a Christian conservative who joined the Trump administration from the Heritage Foundation. Evangelical leaders supported the proposal even as they slammed the media for sensationalizing the report.

“What President Trump is doing is following the law — which, after eight years of Barack Obama’s overreach, is suddenly a shocking concept,” Tony Perkins, who leads the Family Research Council, wrote after the Times report came out.

Perhaps most importantly, evangelicals wanted Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation. Now they have it, and if they turn out to vote as thanks, evangelicals could be crucial to the coalition that keeps Republicans in power.

With the midterms looming, this demographic is still a force to be reckoned with.

Matias Spektor, professor of international relations in São Paulo, states:

The wave Bolsonaro is riding has four elements to it.

First, the electorate seems to be ready for a more conservative set of policies than in the past, coinciding with the rapid growth of evangelical denominations across Brazil (accounting for 30 percent of the electorate in 2015, most of them Pentecostals). Issues of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality have come to the fore, with culture wars raging in ways that are unusual in Brazil. Bolsonaro wants to regulate morality.

He says he will defend “family values” and that “homosexual propaganda” threatens the innocence of children in school. He is a staunch opponent of the decriminalization of abortion and drugs. Strangely, his brand of conservatism has not prevented him from expressing these issues through rude jokes about rape, LGBT people, blacks, and indigenous Brazilians in ways that were unacceptable in the Brazilian public sphere not long ago.

Second, the wave comes about as economic decay and growth in unemployment in recent years created a backlash against income redistribution and affirmative action policies benefiting poor and black Brazilians that were introduced by former administrations.

Third, the violence epidemic that has turned Brazil into one of the most dangerous countries in the world has given rise to widespread support for tougher policing. Bolsonaro has supported the use of torture against criminals and has spoken favorably of killing squads—and many voters don’t seem to mind.

Bolsonaro has supported the use of torture against criminals and has spoken favorably of killing squads—and many voters don’t seem to mind.

Memories of police abuse back in the country’s dictatorial days have faded among voters who are too young to have any recollection of authoritarianism or firsthand experience with a police state.

Fourth, as is the case in many countries, the populist surge thrives on misinformation, fake news, and hearsay. This election cycle has been dominated by lies coming from both the right and left via WhatsApp. And crucially WhatsApp, rather than Facebook or Twitter, is now the main conduit for heated political debate among families and friends in Brazil. Whereas Twitter and Facebook have made some efforts to uncover trolls, vet posts, and crack down on fake news, WhatsApp is completely unfiltered. There is no intermediary stopping users from sending lies to their relatives.

Those parallels to Trump’s America are starting, as Tisdall writes:

Brazil shared something else with elections elsewhere: fake news. Disinformation, from all sides, had flourished on social media, largely unchecked by financially-struggling traditional media outlets. “In the last few weeks of campaigning, abuse and violence against journalists has been commonplace, and Bolsonaro has fueled anger against the press,” Spektor wrote.

According to Spektor, as well as campaigning against the media,

Bolsonaro is running a campaign on a handful of promises that strike a chord with the majority of the Brazilian electorate: a tougher take on crime, radical economic reform to curb unemployment and falling incomes, a conservative turn in social mores, and unquestioned support for anti-corruption measures.

Of all the candidates on offer, Bolsonaro is the only one who has signaled his commitment to honor those promises. Both the style and content of his signals are abhorrent, but they do show an unwavering commitment to change. Consider, for instance, his pledge to fight crime: He has spoken highly of extrajudicial killing squads and has told security forces they will find protection under his watch to unleash violence against criminals.

On economic reform, he has appointed the University of Chicago-trained economist Paulo Guedes, who has made wild promises about a maximalist neoliberal agenda. On social issues, he has attacked minorities and has screamed on more than one occasion that they need to bow before the majority. Bolsonaro has also fed a type of homophobic hysteria that seems to be testing Brazil’s renowned tolerance of difference.

Bolsonaro has also fed a type of homophobic hysteria that seems to be testing Brazil’s renowned tolerance of difference.

And when it comes to the rule of law, one of Bolsonaro’s sons threatened to abolish the Supreme Court during a campaign rally. (He later retracted the statement.)

In a country where support for political parties and democratic norms has fallen to historic lows, Bolsonaro has cleverly tailored a message that appeals to the few institutions that still command popular respect: the family, the church, and the Armed Forces.

This is certainly a recurring theme, the world over, at the moment. And it is scary.



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