The Future of Democracy in Brazil’s Bicentennial

Written by
Nikhil Pandhi
Sept. 14, 2022

On Wednesday, September 7, 2022, the Brazil LAB hosted its first event for the fall term on ‘Democracy Besieged in Brazil’s Bicentennial: Reflections on a Momentous Presidential Election’, with Brazilian social scientists and public intellectuals Angela Alonso and Miguel Lago, in conversation with political scientist Deborah Yashar, Director of the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies. The lively discussion was moderated by economist Thomas Fujiwara, Associate Director of the Brazil LAB.

In his opening remarks, the anthropologist and Brazil LAB Director João Biehl emphasized that the event coincided with the 200th anniversary of Brazil’s independence and marked a vital moment to reflect on the future of Brazilian democracy in the lead-up to the upcoming presidential elections, considered to be the most significant polls in Brazil’s contemporary history.

The panel discussion commenced with award-winning author Angela Alonso, professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo, who argued for the need to situate the question of Brazilian political futurity firmly in the context of Brazil’s violent and racialized history. Characterizations of the Bolsonaro regime as neo-authoritarian or neo-fascist need to first be understood as marking nothing new. Instead, for Alonso, there is copious evidence in the social history of Brazil that the “civilized elite” (mainly White and male) have always constituted a “moral community” willing to wager with weapons, violence, and brute force especially when it came to the question of political authority.

Alonso argued that “political violence has always been a tool to deal with electoral processes in Brazil” to the extent that “the democratization process (and the constitution of 1988) normalized and accommodated political violence.” In this context, Bolsonaro’s ability to marshal votes is prefigured by ethic-moral support he counts on “from experts in violence,” including armed citizens, armed institutions, militias and even the army, in other words, “a significant part of society that will not be demoralized even if Bolsonaro isn’t re-elected.” Bolsonaro’s ability to galvanize such “structures of mobilization” and their ability to outlive his election – and be deepened by existing structural inequities in Brazil – is the real cause of concern on the anvil of the presidential elections.

Political scientist and essayist Miguel Lago, a visiting professor at Columbia University and Sciences Po, argued that the central question that haunts the Brazilian polity at this moment in time is whether Bolsonaro is setting the stage for a coup or an insurrection. There are several factors, Lago pointed out, to suggest that the signs of an organized insurrection are already becoming evident. This includes the fact that Bolsonaro is attacking institutions, discrediting the electoral process and fiercely promoting weaponization and guns. Theoretically, this means that “those with arms, access to weapons and with the possibility of carrying guns are more in number than the Brazilian Army.”

For Lago, it is this crucial demographic base that can – through their participation in a Bolsonaro-led right-wing mobilization – create the grounds for a veritable insurrection in Brail in the upcoming months, especially if Bolsonaro loses the elections. In Lago’s assessment, these trends also stand to be accompanied by “possibilities of police rebellions.” Another crucial point Lago highlighted was the fact that “Bolsonaro has distributed significant portions of public resources to evangelical pastors” who only seem to be legitimizing the current president’s actions among their constituencies of following. Lago argued that evidence shows how “Bolsonaro is not willing to moderate his position to win the election” and that throughout his term he has behaved “more as a leader of a revolution, than a president.”

Like Alonso, Lago too drew attention to the uncomfortable parallels between Brazil under Bolsonaro and America under Trump. The consequences of these trends on the future of Brazil’s polity and society are yet hard to plot empirically since the upheavals and inequities that can accompany an immanent insurrection are challenging, Lago argued.

Deborah Yashar, Donald E. Stokes Professor of Public and International Affairs and PIIRS’s Director, drew attention to the fact that evidence from Brazil and indeed much of Latin America signalled to a rise of autocratic politics, anti-pluralist parties and the general trend that “politics should operate outside political institutions.” For Yashar, the central questions that need to be confronted in this moment include “why is Bolsonaro able to do what he is doing? Where are the institutional guard-rails to hold someone like Bolsonaro back?”

Regarding Lago’s point about an immanent insurrection, Yashar asked if instead of a “revolutionary project” such an immanent occurrence might be read as a “negative coalition” of people “united by their discontentment.” Importantly, Yashar asked, how might one build institutional trust against such a backdrop and what kinds of international politics are called into action here?

As noted by Fujiwara, the audience discussions and engagements raised vital concerns about the conceptual tools with which to think about concepts of the political in Brazil, especially in a time of such uncertainty and flux. It was also pointed out that regardless of who wins the upcoming presidential elections, there is likely going to be socially diffused violence leading to the disaggregation of democracy.

The panel discussion thus established the need to be attentive to multiple forms of civil disobedience and violence already at play in Brazil, which are amplified by Bolsonarismo. What these might urge us to do are understand the political in terms of changing thresholds inseparable from the historical, and also establish the need to theorize the political through a greater emphasis on the moral.

The event was co-organized by the Brazil LAB with the School of Public and International Affairs, and co-sponsored by the Program in Latin American Studies, the Department of Anthropology, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. The recording is available here.

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