Democracy is facing serious challenges. Authoritarian politicians are gaining more power and the democratic indicators are declining in various parts of the world, showing certain patterns in dispersed national and political contexts. Authoritarian leaders who are a part of this trend adopt anti-systemic discourses that share certain characteristics in framing their political agenda. One common strategy they employ is the politics of emotion. By creating and disseminating narratives about the past that speak to the deep and unexpressed resentments of the populations who were marginalized by their predecessors, populist leaders managed to gather unprecedented levels of support. One context to observe the politics of emotion is Brazil. In Brazil, nostalgia for the repressive military regime that ruled between 1964-1985 was a characterizing element of Bolsonaro’s strategies to rally popular support, mobilizing his voter base and playing a role in his rise to power. As the current emotions of the Brazilian population suggest, perhaps nostalgia will also be the cure to move the country to a more democratic direction.
The trend of nostalgia for the military era in Brazil reached its peak during the year 2018. As the public opinion surveys (Avritzer & Renno, 2021) and the demands of the right-wing protests that were voiced during that year suggest (Polimedio, 2018) support for a military intervention had reached one of its highest levels. This may be puzzling for an outsider, knowing that the military regime in Brazil killed hundreds of people, tortured thousands, and undermined the civil rights of the population for more than 20 years. The roots of this positive narrative about the military can be found in the period after 2014, when a harsh economic and political crisis hit Brazil. This crisis, which was one of the worst that the country went through, left many people unemployed and insecure. Corruption scandals that came to surface during the same period tarnished the reputation of some important politicians and led to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, the president at the time. This was not the first time the confidence of the Brazilian population in democratic institutions was challenged: data shows that trust in the functioning and legitimacy of democratic institutions was already low, due to the issues of corruption and inequality that historcially plagued the country (Avritzer & Renno, 2021; Power, 2010). However, facing the double economic and political crisis after a period of growth and decrease in economic inequality, which was achieved in the 2000s, deeply affected the political affinities of the Brazilian people. The crisis provided an ample ground for populist, anti-systemic and authoritarian discourses to emerge as plausible alternatives to the current system.
As a consequence of these events, Bolsonaro emerged as a populist leader with close ties to the military and a controversial approach to the history of the military regime. During the election period, he addressed the frustrations of the people by comparing the current era to the military dictatorship, focusing on the themes of moral values, lack of security and increased corruption. In his speeches and public statements he framed that repressive period as a Golden Age in which the Brazilian economy and citizens were faring much better and the social order was protected (Barbara, 2016). Although his arguments are questionable and there is significant evidence showing that the military regime was far from being a Golden Age, this nostalgic narrative created by him found its supporters among the population.
To depict the evolution of the nostalgic narratives at the level of the population, we can get a closer look at the ethnographic accounts of that period in which Bolsonaro was elected. Based on the observation of lower-middle class families, Benjamin Junge (2019) argues that people who were able to reach better life standards during the time of Lula’s presidency have lost their sense of mobility and some of the social gains during the disequilibrium after 2014. The economic hardships, combined with the dissatisfaction with the system due to the extreme levels of corruption, led to a disinterested political attitude among the lower-middle classes. As a result, Bolsonaro’s and his supporters’ nostalgic narratives about the military were able to elicit supportive reactions from the people. Their narratives compared the past and present in a binary logic and equated military regimes with safety and stability, while describing the current era with frustrations and disorder.
It shouldn’t be surprising that such a simplified account of the past was able to mobilize people, considering the psychological mechanisms behind political behavior during periods of change and crisis. According to Kuisz & Wigura (2020), who examine the relationship between populism and emotions, populists were able make their own narratives dominant against the liberal narratives that disregarded the struggles of large extents of the population, playing on people’s resentment against a political elite that is perceived to be distant. As the authors suggest, when the human brain encounters a disruptive change in the environment, it prioritizes the dangers, recognizing these threats before anything else to survive. In such a case, the strength of the populist politicians to translate these emotions of threat to clear political narratives helps them to mobilize people with great advantage over the politicians who stand by “neutral” and “rational” narratives. It may be argued that in the case of Brazil, Bolsonaro was able to articulate people’s feeling of loss after the economic and political crisis by translating it into a feeling of nostalgia for an undemocratic era. When the political turmoil and corruption scandals prevented other politicians who may have been able to offer alternative emotional narratives to join the race, Bolsonaro managed to win the election as the candidate that addressed the resentments with populism.
While this trend of nostalgia is quite concerning, it did not continue after Bolsonaro came to office. According to recent opinion surveys, disruptive events that took place in the past few years, especially the pandemic, have decreased the population-level support for the anti-democratic position of Bolsonaro. Not only his votes, but also the support for a military intervention have decreased and trust for other democratic institutions of the country, such as the congress, have increased relative to the pre-pandemic period (Avrtizer & Renno, 2021). Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the COVID crisis coupled with the issues of rising unemployment and inflation led to a decrease in his popularity. While Bolsonaro is on a downward trend, Lula is gaining popularity once again after the Supreme Court overturned his convictions and he became eligible to run in elections. Neither of the politicians announced if they are going to compete in 2022, but the polls show that Lula has more popularity among the voters (France 24). No other figures from the center have emerged so far to break this dual race between the politicians. However, this time, it seems that the support for Lula carries the seeds of a new type of nostalgic narrative, if he decides to compete. During Lula’s presidency in the past, social and educational policies increased the life standards of a great portion of the society. While some of these gains were lost during the economic recession, the public opinion suggests that he is still remembered with affection (Phillips, 2018). Perhaps he may play on the emotion of nostalgia with a different narrative this time and win over Bolsonaro.
24, F. (2021, October 8). Brazil’s Lula to announce next year if will run for president. France 24. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20211008-brazil-s-lula-to-announce-next-year-if-will-run-for-president
Avritzer L, Rennó L. The Pandemic and the Crisis of Democracy in Brazil. Journal of Politics in Latin America. 2021;13(3):442-457. doi:10.1177/1866802X211022362
Barbara, V. (2016, May 1). In Brazil, a New Nostalgia for Military Dictatorship. The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/03/opinion/in-brazil-a-new-nostalgia-for-military-dictatorship.html
Junge, B. (2019). “Our Brazil Has Become a Mess”: Nostalgic Narratives of Disorder and Disinterest as a “Once‐Rising Poor” Family from Recife, Brazil, Anticipates the 2018 Elections. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 24(4), 914-931.
Kuisz, J., & Wigura, K. (2020). The Pushback Against Populism: Reclaiming the Politics of Emotion. Journal of Democracy 31(2), 41-53. doi:10.1353/jod.2020.0035.
Londoño, E. (2021, November 30). Brazil’s President Lula Is Staging a Comeback. Can He Bring the Country Along? The New York Times. Retrieved December 27, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/27/world/americas/brazil-president-lula.html
Phillips, D. (2018, April 6). Brazilians still hold great affection for Lula, despite corruption conviction. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/05/brazilians-still-hold-great-affection-for-lula-despite-corruption-conviction
Power, T. J. (2010). Brazilian democracy as a late bloomer: Reevaluating the regime in the Cardoso-Lula era. Latin American Research Review, 218-247.
Polimedio, C. (2017, September 19). Brazilians are losing faith in democracy and considering a return to military rule. Vox. Retrieved December 25, 2021, from https://www.vox.com/polyarchy/2017/9/19/16333360/brazilians-losing-faith-democracy
Image by MESSALA from Pexels.com Creative Commons Zero Licence
This post highlights a growing phenomenon on the global stage. Income disparity and inequality within a region serve as critical predictors of democratic erosion. Even within countries that may not appear as outwardly “eroding,” like the United States, political disillusionment stemming from inequality primes populations to accept military rule. According to researchers Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg, economic inequality reveals a positive correlation with the acceptance of rule. If the status-quo of national economic and political operations continues to marginalize groups, resentment will fester, and alternative political options will manifest as hope for the future in the eyes of constituents.
I concur with this post’s mention of how “puzzling” Brazil’s desire for military rule may be to an outsider looking in, especially considering their violent tendencies in the past. However, this is quintessential to the growth of “stealth authoritarianism” across the globe. Extremist and populist leaders, like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, are leveraging the economic pain of their respective nations to push their political agendas. By operating under a guise of democratic principles, like providing social services to impoverished members of society, it is much more difficult for opponents to contest their rule and international players to hold them accountable.
Pew Research Center also remarks on the growing favorability of autocratic-style rule in nations such as India, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Considering their unfortunately historic relationship with income inequality, it should not be surprising that this is a proliferating attitude. Conclusively, income inequality poses massive threats to liberty, but also the health of democracy.