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Brazil’s Elections & The Defeat of Political Liberalism

The outcome of the October 7th Brazil elections meant a wide defeat of the Workers’ Party (PT), of the Brazilian Social Democracy’s Party (PSDB) and of many traditional political leaders. Jair Bolsonaro and other candidates who presented themselves as outsiders were the winners. However, politics is not only made by people, but also by ideas. Which of them were defeated?

Certainly it was not Socialism or Bolivarianism, for they were not in dispute. Neither were the culture of tolerance with corruption or the physiologism: there is more evidence that a shift will take place on this phenomenon in Brazil rather than disappear – no longer the political parties, but interest groups (agribusiness, Evangelical Christian Churches, financial elites, weapons industry etc.) will have the leading role. In fact, the great ideas that were defeated are those of political liberalism.

Built over the Enlightenment ideals of individuals’ dignity and reason, as well as freedom and equality, through the writings of Locke, Kant, Tocqueville, and others, political liberalism consists in the submission of State power to the law, the supremacy of Human Rights, the mediation of social conflicts through institutions (political representation, Judicial Power etc.).

It is true that such ideas were never fully materialized in Brazil, due to our colonial past, the heritage of slavery, the patrimonialism (for more detail see Bonavides, 2004, Faoro, 2000, Holanda, 1956) and the persistence of deep inequality (on which see Souza, 2009), but there was an improvement process in progress (despite corruption) since the 1988 Constitution. Nevertheless, in these elections we observe: the empire of fake news; the ruling of passions and religious fundamentalism; the belief in the resolution of national issues through violence; the denial of reason, Science and public policy proposals based on evidence; the relativization of Human Rights; the personalities prevailing over the institutions.

To understand what is happening in Brazil, it is necessary to initially consider the context of worldwide challenge to political liberalism and the global crisis of liberal democracy. The Brexit in the UK, the election and the government of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of radical right-wing parties in Italy, Sweden and Austria elections are strong examples of this phenomenon (for more on this see Held, 2016, Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Three common elements must be highlighted:

(1) the inability of the political elites (both from right and left-wing) to address the economic issues, especially the unemployment, the decrease of household income, the growing inequality, and other threats, particularly the terrorism in Europe and in the US and the urban violence in Brazil (where there is a growing support by the public opinion of the radicalization of mass incarceration, the “war on drugs” policy and the unrestricted possession of weapons by citizens);

(2) the protagonism of social medias (WhatsApp, Facebook etc.) in the political debate. If, on one hand, these medias increase the access to diverse sources of information and expand the possibilities for people to express themselves and mobilize others in public spaces; on the other hand, they facilitate exponentially the spread of fake news, discourage in-depth reflection, encapsulate individuals in their own beliefs, restrict opportunities for contradiction (domain of memes and algorithms) and reduce the power of opinions grounded on scientific data and rational arguments;

(3) the disengagement of neoliberalism and of financial elites with democracy – for them, the important is the free capital flow, as they consider insignificant if in order to do so, it would require an authoritarian leader who will adopt austerity policies to protect the interests of financial capital to the detriment of the poorest people. In Brazil, for example, Jair Bolsonaro is receiving a broad majority support from bankers and financial investors.

On the other hand, Brazilian defeat of political liberalism has three particular features:

(1) the vast corruption and the side effects of “Car Wash” operation delegitimize the whole political system, which opens the door for a populist and authoritarian outsider – who, in fact, is not a typical outsider (Bolsonaro has been a Congressman for 27 years). PT and PSDB were not able to carry out their self-criticism and to offer satisfactory answers to address people’s demands. In addition, they were more concerned with protecting their leaders (especially the former President Lula and the former candidate to Presidency Aécio Neves) than to reach an agreement to preserve the democratic order.

(2) there is a middle-class discontent with the governments around the World. But if in Europe and in the US, the immigrants are blamed for the economic problems by the radical right-wing leaders, in Brazil, we observe a nuisance created in sectors of the middle class with the insufficient (but important) reduction of inequality during PT’s governments – people from poorer social classes started to gain ground in the universities, qualified labor market, leisure opportunities etc.;

(3) there is a great growth of Evangelical Christian Churches in progress, which are presenting a large influence in the electoral debate with their moral guidelines (for example, the defense of “traditional family” and “traditional values”) and political power over their faithful and the whole society;

From a superficial point of view, it seems that Brazil’s elections are entailing the defeat of the corrupt political elites. However, what is truly taking place is the defeat of important normative values and of a governance structure that is owed to all members of society: the political liberalism. It is a worldwide phenomenon that Brazil is not immune to, albeit with its peculiarities.

A final warning: crowds may even overthrow governments and elect populist leaders, but the exercise of government and the democratic mediation of social conflicts depend on institutions anchored in the values of political liberalism.

In-text references

Bonavides, P. (2004). História Constitucional do Brasil. Brasília: OAB.

Faoro, R. (2000). Os donos do poder: formação do patronato político brasileiro. 10a. ed.. São Paulo: Globo.

Held, D.(2016). Global Politics After 9/11. Durham: Global Policy Journal.

Holanda, S. B. (1956). Raízes do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: J. Olympio.

Levitsky, S. & Ziblatt, D. (2018). Como as democracias morrem. Trad. Renado Aguiar. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar.

Souza, J. (2009). Ralé Brasileira – Quem é e como Vive. Belo Horizonte: UFMG.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Professor Andrew Walton (Newcastle University) for him preview comments, as well as Ana Clara Tristão (UNESP Postgraduate Student) for the review of this piece. Naturally, all opinions and possible mistakes are the sole responsibility of the author.

Brazilian, 35 years. Dean of the School of Human and Social Sciences of São Paulo State University (UNESP) – Campus of Franca – SP – Brazil. Professor of State Theory and Political Science. PhD in Law by University of São Paulo (USP).



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  1. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Thank you for this analysis of this worrying defeat.

    What seems new, from an EU perspective, is this strange alliance of populism and overt neoliberalism. In Europe, it seems to me that populism is usually associated with protectionism, but it doesn’t seem to be the case with Bolsonaro, right? Does it mean that Brazilian voters don’t blame globalization for their fate? That they are not that afraid of free markets?

    • murilo gaspardo

      Yes, in my opinion you are right. Brazilian voters don’t blame globalization and free markets, but corruption.

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