The intricate relationship between authoritarian forms of contemporary populism and its potential implications on democratic order is incredibly important, but also, almost entirely paradoxical. On the one hand, populist leaders are often exceptionally effective in terms of their ability to champion the values, beliefs, and principles of potentially marginalized groups, ensuring that contemporary forms of democracy are more genuinely inclusive. On the other hand, the vast majority of today’s populist leaders have ascended to positions of power by way of undemocratic maneuvering, sociopolitical manipulation, and most prevalently, the deliberate dissemination of misinformation. Contemporary populists are not only dangerous because of how they manipulate voting behavior through their corruption of otherwise “democratic” means of information-sharing, but more importantly, because of how they emphasize divisiveness, hatred, xenophobia, anti-immigration sentiment, and dangerous forms of ultra-nationalism.
Although authoritative forms of populism have managed to penetrate the political frameworks of several countries around the globe, this particular assessment’s arguments and research will center on the rise and continued presence of populist leader and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. His ascent to political power has been criticized for relying on highly undemocratic methods of information-sharing, and for generally eroding the nation’s democratic institutions. Overall, it is argued that Bolsonaro’s road to power was highly reliant on largely undemocratic means of support. Also, his continued presence serves to repeatedly undermine the inclusive power-sharing mechanisms of Brazilian democracy. At the same time, however, his rise to power cannot be exclusively criticized for being a one-off instance of populist maneuvering. Instead, it highlights how lingering forms of crippling socioeconomic inequality, rapidly increasing unemployment, and intricate forms of corruption have led to the development of an extremely frustrated class of Brazilians.
The advent of authoritarian forms of populism is not exclusive to the 21st century, but more generally, has been a prevalent form of anti-establishmentarian political participation dating back to the nineteenth century (Stockemer 53). Contemporary populist leaders are not so different from their traditional counterparts, as they have also often ascended to power on the basis of their ability to create participatory platforms for otherwise marginalized components of society. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro is no exception, as the president has gained power on the foundational bases of support for the country’s autocratic and dictatorial military institution, as well as his overtly nationalistic, xenophobic and borderline racist values, beliefs and principles.
In many ways, Bolsonaro’s emergence is owed to his emphasis of incredibly undemocratic value-systems in Brazil. These expressions are not only hateful in their rhetoric, but are also detrimental in terms of their implications on democratic political participation. For example, throughout the President’s initial electoral campaign, Bolsonaro has repeatedly criticized and ridiculed the country’s presidential election system, claiming that the two elections before his were fraudulent, and thus cannot be considered as democratic means of political participation. He has also developed an incredibly appalling track record for his misogynistic claims, which include “I wouldn’t rape you because you don’t deserve it” and “I’ve got five kids but on the fifth I had a moment of weakness and it came out a woman” and an even more disgusting reputation for xenophobia, with his claiming “The scum of the earth is showing up in Brazil, as if we didn’t have enough problems of our own to sort out” and “I visited a quilombo [traditionally black neighborhood] and the least heavy afro-descendant weighed seven arrobas (approximately 230 pounds). They do nothing! They are not even good for procreation” (Meredith, 2018). Much like many other contemporary populist leaders, Bolsonaro’s support is heavily reliant on his ability to appeal to a popular class of highly frustrated, historically marginalized, and largely uneducated members of Brazilian society. Their fears, suspicions, and conspiratorial theories are confirmed and “answered” by Bolsonaro.
Even more so, Bolsonaro’s rise has led to the creation of an incredibly divisive society, polarized by increasingly frustrated groups whose fears and concerns are being emphasized by the leader. The country’s polarization has not only impacted its political spaces, but has also damaged its general ability to create effective policy, respond to crisis, and commit to potential forms of positive socioeconomic change. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace states “Polarization in Brazil has become a major risk not only to the country’s democracy but also to its capacity to address its most urgent policy challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic” (Stuenkel). The unprecedented degree of polarization being created by the far-right president has also led to massive amounts of popular opposition, often in the shape of grassroots-led protests, such as those recently seen due to civilian dislikes for how the president handled COVID-19. Bolsonaro has successfully mobilized his supporters against many opposition protests, potentially suggesting the use of force and violence, leading many to fear for the country’s long-term stability (Reeves).
Finally, Bolsonaro’s ability to erode democratic values is also heavily owed to the advent of social media. In many ways, the rise of contemporary populism has been inextricably linked to the development of social media, citizen journalism, and the general transformation of contemporary information-sharing mediums (Evangelista; Hameleers; Ricard & Medeiros). Much like a range of other populist leaders, Bolsonaro’s initial electoral campaign has been criticized for relying on manipulative forms of deceitful misinformation dissemination. Populist leaders often rely on the use of social media platforms to spread false information that can further emphasize their appeal to their target audience’s. For example, according to Evangelista et al., as well as Ricard and Medeiros, Bolsonaro’s 2018 election was heavily reliant on an outsourced private digital media company that organized a massive national campaign of disinformation, emphasizing already existing fears and sentiments, and creating entirely misplaced new ones. According to Hameleers, populist leaders all over the world have relied on the same tactic of social media derived misinformation dissemination.
Brazil is going through a declining economic and social phase. If Bolsonaro wins the upcoming 2022 election in Brazil, this will further continue and the end result will be a shift from democratic backsliding to democratic erosion. He retains a highly committed followership that is radicalized by the president’s sophisticated communication strategy and is unlikely to abandon the president even if Brazil’s economy deteriorates further. On the other hand, in support of the people, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has stepped up and became a highly favored candidate for the next election. However, Neither candidate is gaining support from opposition sides. This is significant due to how highly polarized the country has become. Before picking a new leader, the Brazilian people should take note and asses the quality of their politicians. They must pick a leader who hears their voices and makes changes that positively impact the country not one that runs under no political affiliation and falsely promotes democracy.
Evangelista, Rafael, and Fernanda Bruno. “WhatsApp and political instability in Brazil: targeted messages and political radicalisation.” Internet Policy Review 8.4 (2019): 1-23. DOI: 10.14763/2019.4.1434
Stockemer, Daniel, Stockemer, and Glaeser. Populism around the world. Springer International Publishing, 2019.
Available at: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i1.2478
Available at: https://www.cfr.org/event/bolsonaros-brazil-inside-look