Political polarization is a phenomenon beginning to affect political cooperation and compromise in old and new democracies. What is causing an increase in polarization has been previously attributed by political scholars to identity-based sorting, the absence of overlapping identity lines, in-group / out-group dynamics, ideological sorting and more. In Brazil, the underlying causes of polarization could be attributed to any combination of these factors; however, it is quite apparent that under Brazil’s current President, the polarization of institutions and people have been worsening. Jair Bolsonaro, the current President of Brazil, is not the cause of polarization, but is the catalyzing factor for institutional disorganization and identity-based sorting by means of his populist and harmful rhetoric.
Jair Bolsonaro is a controversial figure. He entered office on the 1st of January in 2019 after a campaign espousing right-wing nationalism, populist rhetoric against corrupt elites and a commitment to law and order as a former army captain and admirer of the military government that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The first half of his term, somewhat unsurprisingly as Bolsonaro has been deemed the “Trump of the Tropics,” has been characterized by scandal, controversy and questionable interactions with civil society groups. (Pacific Standard) The President has also made it his mission to take on institutions such as Congress, courts and the media for “corruption” which has created an institutional divide between supporters of Bolsonaro at the far right and those who continue to support Brazil’s institutions on the left.
Brazil has been facing political crises which have contributed to polarization since 2014. In that year, Federal judge Sérgio Moro and federal prosecutor Deltan Dallagnol uncovered a kickbacks scheme that involved politicians, state-owned oil, contractors and other high-level players. The duo then pursued all lines of investigation, even accusing, investigating and sentencing former president Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva on corruption charges to 12 years in prison, in order to reinforce their anti-corruption ideals. In public opinion polls, 58% of Brazilians saw the actions of the judge and prosecutor as violations of judicial ethics and independence while 31% felt that nothing unethical had transpired in the duo’s actions and the ensuing trial. (Pacific Standard) The leaked information about Lula’s trial was one instance of an intensified polarization for Brazilians into left and right camps.
Bolsonaro continues to worsen this polarization. Bolsonaro ran on a campaign of anti-corruption and rule of law in light of the 2014 corruption scandal and continues to maintain that he has ended corruption in the government despite Moro leaving government and Bolsonaro being investigated himself by the supreme court for “misconduct.” On his way out of office, Moro accused Bolsonaro of attempting to replace a Rio de Janeiro police chief in order to interrupt potential investigations into family and friends of Bolsonaro.(Washington Post) This instance is just one that illustrates the continuing downturn in Brazil’s Rule of Law score from 2016 – 2020. The World Justice Project has also ranked Brazilian scores for the absence of corruption, constraints on government powers and order and security in 2020 much lower than both the regional and global averages. His anti-establishment stance has severely altered public perception of institutions such as courts, public media and Congress and his lack in participation in said institutions has actually led to constraints on his executive power by other government officials.
Now, because of corruption scandals of the past and present, as well as Bolsonaro’s distaste for institutions, Brazil’s government cannot seem to decide how the country’s political institutions should be used in matters of delivering justice, writing and passing of laws or accountability mechanisms for government and private interests. (Pacific Standard) Institutional strength has been compromised by Bolsonaro’s populist rhetoric which has resulted in the recent divide between those on the right who favor Bolsonaro and his anti-corruption, pro-military government stance and those on the left who support institutions and the democratic principles that they embody.
The divide, however, does not only exist between Bolsonaro and the government. Recent evidence by Layton et al. has also showed increasing polarization along demographic lines in Brazil that had not been apparent in previous years. Analyses of the voting preferences of the electorate in the 2018 presidential election demonstrate that far-right candidates are able to utilize demographic polarization in terms of gender, race, ethnicity and religion (by highlighting and emphasizing value differences and issue preferences) to attract new support. Specifically, Brazil’s 2018 election was marked by religious and racial cleavages that have only recently marked Brazil’s political competition and which independently and also jointly affected vote choice through issue positions. That is so say, Brazilian people have recently seen their identity cleavages affect their voting choices as individuals and within those identity groups. These cleavages represented new alignments for Brazil’s voting patterns and corresponding demographic polarization by exploiting value differences and issue preferences by categories such as gender, race, ethnicity and religion.
The previously discussed evidence furthers the ideas put forth in Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity by Lilliana Mason. Mason focuses on the experience of political polarization in the United States, but the concept of identity-based social sorting can also be applied to Brazil. The two-party system within the United States allows for a more straightforward divide between Democrats and Republicans, and therefore the identity groups that mostly associate with the respective parties. Brazil is showing more evidence of identity-based sorting along the lines of gender, race and religion, according to the research presented by Layton et al. Women sprang to action against Bolsonaro when he opposed standard progressive measures such as equal pay, advocated for fewer gun ownership regulations and said that a fellow member of Congress, “doesn’t deserve to be raped because she is very ugly.” Women’s mobilization against Bolsonaro in the #EleNão (#NotHim) movement was at its peak during his campaign. Bolsonaro has also been consistently racially insensitive and offensive, repelling Black voters and has attracted evangelical voters (and therefore has repelled LGBTQ individuals and those who support untraditional family values) because of his Catholic upbringing. These demographic lines simply did not exist pre-2018, as research by Telles, 2014; Samuels, 2006; Moreno Morales, 2015; Morgan, 2015; Smith, 2019 upheld that race, ethnicity, gender, nor religion has effects on ideology or partisanship from 2000 to 2012. (Layton et al., 2021)
Hostility within Brazil’s electorate toward out-group members could also be a product of increasing identity-based sorting and charismatic leadership espousing “us against them” ideology. The Strengthening of Partisan Affect by Sheena Iyengar outlines analyses which demonstrate heightened hostility and psychological distance between in-groups and out-groups. Additionally, she finds that hostility is a stronger motivator for political participation instead of enthusiasm for the party ideology or candidates. Data from a study conducted by Ipsos (a Brazilian-based research agency) reveal that every three in ten Brazilians believe that it is not worth talking to someone with differing political opinions than their own. This data places Brazil on a higher “radicalism index” than other countries facing political polarization such as the United States, Turkey, Russia and Hungary. The higher hostility toward members of other political groups or those who have differences in opinion along identity lines begs the question of why the differences between the groups seem suddenly more severe? This could easily be due to Bolsonaro’s polarizing rhetoric in his quest to defame institutions and achieve a rise of the far right in Brazil.
Bolsonaro is not the problem with Brazil, he is simply the exacerbating factor. His anti-corruption stance has contributed to increased attacks on certain “out-groups” such as institutions, media and opposition groups and has illuminated for the electorate the corruption that persists within government as Bolsonaro himself is wrapped up in investigations. There is evidence of polarization in Brazil before Bolsonaro, but the current turmoil that he has caused with political institutions, as well as the polarizing rhetoric that has very recently caused demographic divides and hostility toward out-group members points to Bolsonaro as the catalyst for political polarization in Brazil’s institutions and electorate.