We are two years on from Jair Bolsonaro’s devastating election to Brazil’s presidency. The 2018 general election also saw his minuscule, recently-adopted Social Liberal Party (PSL) become Congress’s second-biggest, while a slew of Bolsonaro-aligned candidates in other parties won seats across the country.
Now, faced with a poor showing in municipal polls this past month, in which the majority of candidates Bolsonaro backed failed, and a growing disapproval related to his nonmanagement of the pandemic, where does Bolsonarismo stand? And have we passed the high-water mark of the “anti-politics” that engulfed Brazil for the better part of the past decade?
The November 3 defeat of Donald Trump, ostensible leader-in-chief of the putative global right-populist wave, has led to a slew of commentary around the world postulating an ebbing of the tide of anti-politics, that Biden’s victory showed the way to defeat right-populist leaders.
Brazil was no different: leading business weekly Exame noted that Brazil was now searching for a “domestic Biden”; the country’s paper of record Folha de S.Paulo, in a survey of centrist options for the country, editorialized that “Biden’s election has awoken a sense of urgency for the need for some kind of union against Bolsonaro and the Left.”
Even some on the center-left advanced similar ideas, though without excluding their own participation: the communist governor of Maranhão state and potential 2022 presidential candidate Flavio Dino praised the US Democrats’ “broad front” against Trump and its lesson for Brazil, while leader of the opposition in the lower house, Alessandro Molon of the Socialist Party, insisted “we need to follow the same logic… What was done in the United States needs to be done here too.”
Municipal election results would seem to bolster the idea that things are looking up for sensible administrators, policy-focused politicians, and anti-populists in general. El País Brasil led its reporting of the first-round results claiming that anti-politics had left the scene. Moreover, the center-right had been strengthened, and “pro-science” mayors had been reelected.
Results in Brazil’s two biggest cities would seem to sustain the narrative. São Paulo saw moderate center-right incumbent Bruno Covas reelected after a contest with socialist Guilherme Boulos; debates between the two polarized along the respective themes of “experience” versus “hope.”
In the country’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, former mayor Eduardo Paes celebrated his first-place finish, calling it a “victory of politics” over of the Bolsonaro-backed incumbent, Marcelo Crivella, a far-right evangelical bishop widely regarded as perhaps the worst mayor in a city infamous for misgovernance.
The pandemic, it would seem, is producing at least one salutary result: a return to politics as usual. Are we seeing a return to the “center”? Brazil probably does not have the social structure to sustain a liberal centrist politics, but might it at least be a return to some sort of “normality”?
From 2013–19, Brazil was overwhelmed by “anti-politics,” an angry rejection of the activities and institutions of formal politics such as negotiating and canvassing, or parties and congress, respectively. Anti-politics, then, is ultimately the destruction of belief in political authority and representation, resulting in an inability to vest any democratic power with legitimacy.
The specific form this anti-politics took in Brazil was tightly bound up with anti-corruption. The June Days uprising of 2013 mobilized a range of social demands, such as for better public services. But it also spoke to a deeper crisis of representation, leading to the expulsion of any party symbols from street protests.
That energy then fused with repulsion at corruption, revealed at massive scale by the sweeping Lava Jato investigations beginning in 2014. As the Workers’ Party (PT) were in power and thus deeply implicated with the graft scandal around the state energy company Petrobras, the anti-political equation in Brazil from 2015 on became “left=statism=corruption.” Though this formulation was propagated by a new, middle-class right, and amplified by a compliant big media, it also spoke to a wider demoralization of politics.
The reason things don’t work, went the common sense of the day, is because of corruption; all public policy is bound to be prey to this corrosive force in Brazilian society. Politics became extremely moralized: either you are clean or you are damned; all other ideological questions are sidelined.
Where are we now, with the pandemic restating the need for active public policy? While the Left’s prospects are not rosy, perhaps anti-politics is now being left behind. The possibility remains, of course, that this could be a false dawn, a COVID-induced temporary retreat for populists.
A third possibility, though, must also be countenanced: Brazil might be faced with a restoration of sorts, as the most decadent and reactionary elements of its elite return to the fore, now in a marriage of convenience with Bolsonaro. The moderate democracy of the past twenty-five years, according to this line of thinking, may prove to be yet another blip in a history of authoritarian oligarchy.
In order to better understand these contradictions, we need to discern the direction of travel of Brazilian politics over the past couple of years, and of Bolsonaro’s government and its impact. A gamut of books have been published over the past twelve months in this vein.
The rupture represented by the parliamentary coup of 2016 , and the events preceding and following it, have inspired examinations of precarious democracy in Brazil, going back to the 19th century, or to the 1988 Constitution, or the period bookended by the June 2013 uprising and Bolsonaro’s election, such as in Rosana Pinheiro-Machado’s anthropology. Other new works focus on specific aspects of Bolsonaro’s rule, such as his fake news machine or his imbrication with the paramilitary gangs of Rio.
Two essays are particularly notable, published in pamphlet form as part of a set of “Essays on the Pandemic,” for they seize directly on this idea of anti-politics. What emerges from the essays by Leonardo Avritzer and Marcos Nobre is a picture of Bolsonarismo as deliberate dis-government, of chaos as a method of rule.
How, the situation asks of us, could Brazilians across the country and across social classes have voted for such an extreme-right (anti-)politician? The groundwork for an answer may be found in the first quantitative study of Bolsonaro’s victory, Brazil Turned Right by Jairo Nicolau, also published this year.
Long-Term Trajectory or Sudden Pivot?
Though it is a somewhat dry, numbers-based run through different demographic categories, Nicolau’s analysis serves to highlight both the continuities in the Right’s vote against Workers’ Party (PT) candidates in 2010, 2014, and 2018, and the radical discontinuity represented by Bolsonaro.
The latter was an epochal event, an against-the-odds breakthrough for an extreme-right candidate who managed to win significant support up and down the country across social groups, including the poor, black, and working class. The better-off shamefully opted for Bolsonaro in large numbers, but only by looking at the PT’s loss of a chunk of its ostensible working-class base can we get to the root of what changed in 2018.
It was already clear on the eve of the second round of the presidential election that Bolsonaro was the chosen candidate among well-off Brazilians, those with university degrees (under 10 percent of the population), and those living in the two wealthiest regions, the Southeast and the South. Nicolau helpfully charts how these segments, as might be expected, were already voting for the Right.
In 2010, the center-right Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB) led among most these same categories, even as the PT’s Dilma Rousseff won a resounding second-round victory. By the closer 2014 ballot, the PSDB candidate dominated in these groups — an unfavorable trajectory for the PT if it could not score victories in the populous Southeast; the region, representing nearly 45 percent of the population, was won by the PSDB 55-45 percent in 2014.
What marked the most recent presidential election, however, was that for the first time since Brazil’s return to democracy in 1985, a far-right candidate found himself in the second round, where for the preceding twenty-four years, it had been a tucano, as candidates of the center-right PSDB are known, after the party mascot. These shifts on the Right are best demonstrated, Nicolau’s data suggests, by focusing on the centrality of the PT to Brazil’s political system.
In a country that has seen eighty-four different parties contest elections since 1985, no other party is as recognized, is the object of as much identification, and is as hated as the Workers Party.
Unlike in, say, the UK, where being a Labour-supporter makes you anti-Tory and vice-versa, “the singularity of the Brazilian case is the inexistence of a party […] that has managed to positively assert themselves with strong support in public opinion” — other than the PT.
Attitudes therefore polarize almost exclusively around the party of Lula: it is the only large, organic party with an organized social base, offering ideological coherence. The rest are small, often clientelist parties with little political ambition other than extracting rent from the state, a phenomenon in Brazil called “physiologism.” Only the PSDB would be a partial exception to this rule.
Yet voters who were neutral with respect to the PT split evenly in the second round between Bolsonaro and the PT’s Fernando Haddad, former education minister and mayor of São Paulo. This made the overwhelming antipetista (anti-PT) vote in favor of the far-right captain decisive. Center-right voters radicalized rightward without compunction, in spite of Bolsonaro’s extremism and his opponent’s evident moderation (of a technocratic bent, Haddad used to be known as the tucano within the PT).
Indeed, this rightward shift was evident already in the first round, as Geraldo Alckmin, the PSDB candidate, failed to take off, even within his electoral base. This was despite benefitting from the greatest amount of free TV time ever accrued – a benefit of tying up alliances with the so-called Centrão, a morass of corrupt, traditional right-wing parties whose purpose of existence is to maintain themselves in and close to power — plus the backing of big business and the media. The establishment very much had its man, and the establishment’s man lost.
Here, the uniqueness of Bolsonaro’s run stands out. Bolsonaro spent only 6 percent of what the PT did in the first round and 5 percent of the PSDB. Where Haddad had 19 percent of the free TV time and the PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin held a whopping 45 percent, Bolsonaro had a mere 1 percent.
However much Bolsonaro compensated for this disadvantage through his (often illegal) social media campaign and eventual elite backing, the odds were so against him that only a genuine social phenomenon — not a merely electoral one — can explain his victory.
The Numbers Paint a Picture
Though not an entirely satisfactory proxy for class, education levels tell a convincing story of how this victory happened. Nicolau divides the population between low education (those who at most finished middle school), middle (some or completed high school), and higher education (some or completed university).
While Bolsonaro maintained the Right’s dominance among the highly educated, he significantly increased his support among middle groups compared to the 2014 election. The PT, as a consequence, saw a significant fall in its support among the mid- and even low-education groups. A significant part of the working class turned to Bolsonaro.
But social changes underlie this political shift: over the PT’s period in office, Brazilians became far more educated, as millions moved from the low- to the middle-education bracket — in effect, far more young people starting and finishing high school.
This squares with the narrative that the new working class (euphemistically called the “new middle class”) — now better-educated and with access to consumer goods — found their ascension blocked, frustrated by poor public services, corruption, and deteriorating public security. It would seem the PT’s model for the country had reached an impasse.
Possibly of equal significance, both for Bolsonaro and Brazil as a nation, has been the so-called “religious transition.” In this traditionally Catholic country, evangelical Christians now account for 30-40 percent of the population. That figure was in single digits in the late 1980s.
Bolsonaro won the highest share ever recorded of a specific religious grouping: nearly 70 percent of followers of the “prosperity gospel” opted for the far-right candidate in the second round. The country in which the PT was born, grew, and even came to win repeated presidential elections has drastically changed.
Another novelty is a growing division along gender lines. Bolsonaro did significantly better with men than with women, the first time gender has become a factor in Brazilian elections. On the other hand, age was not a major factor, unlike in the global North, where right-wing populists dominate among older groups.
Once one combines age and gender, though, a remarkable divergence emerges: men under thirty went overwhelming to Bolsonaro (70-30), while it was only among young women that Haddad managed to edge Bolsonaro (55-45). This was the demographic that birthed the Ele Não (“not him!”) protests preceding the election. So stark is this divide that it would seem to presage a coming conflict in Brazilian society.
The regional and state breakdowns take us closer to understanding what changed in 2018: the large Southeast states of Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro flipped to Bolsonaro, the latter voting for the Right for the first time since 1994.
A doorman working in a residential building in an upper-middle class district in Rio city is quoted as remarking: “This is the first time in which practically all the residents and the doormen voted for same candidate.” The phenomenon of workers voting for Bolsonaro, everywhere but in the last remaining PT redoubt of the Northeast, is astonishing.
But it is not just Bolsonaro, but Bolsonarismo that is at stake here. What made 2018 unprecedented was the way the eventual president managed to encourage voters to back candidates in so many down-ballot races. His erstwhile party, the PSL, went from a negligible 0.9 percent of seats in the Chamber of Deputies to 11.3 percent, becoming the most-voted party in a hugely fragmented Congress. No better demonstration of the fact that it was an anti-political wave that Bolsonaro surfed is to recall that Bolsonaro gained a miserly four votes (one of which was from himself) when he ran for leader of the Chamber in 2017.
By 2018, many of the longtime congressional deputies who failed to vote for him would lose their seats to the Bolsonarista wave. Those carried by the latter were often first-time candidates, many from police or military backgrounds, or else pro-Bolsonaro online personalities. Violent rejection of the “old politics” boosted candidates accustomed to the use of actual violence, or at least promised as much on social media.
An Urban Crisis
Finally, what made the 2018 election distinct and allows us to identify the nucleus of the question at hand is that the Bolsonaro wave was ultimately an urban phenomenon: “the magnitude of Bolsonaro’s victory in the big Brazilian cities was a historic achievement, never managed by other candidates of the Right before him.”
While two-thirds of Rio went for Bolsonaro, of even greater symbolic weight was the result in São Bernardo do Campo, an industrial city within Greater São Paulo from which Lula emerged as a union leader in the steelworks of the 1970s. It went 60 percent to Bolsonaro.
The question, then, is why the poor and working-class urban peripheries ended up the crucial pivot in 2018, throwing Brazil into the abyss and turning the PT into a party of poor small towns in the Northeast — a historical turnaround of devastating proportions.
Here, the quantitative approach leaves us short. As Nicolau recognizes, in perusing his data, we might be like the man searching for his keys underneath the lamppost: it might not be where his keys are, but there he searches because there is light.
Instead, recent qualitative research, such as Rosanna Pinheiro-Machado’s — who emphasizes the gender gap among the young — tends to seize on a combination of factors: precaritization and the weakness of trade unions; the growing role of evangelicals as political articulators; the limits of the PT model of inclusion via privatized consumption; and “penal populism,” in response to growing insecurity. But as a notable research article by Matthew Richmond suggests, the role of anti-politics may have been decisive.
A rejection of tudo isso que está aí in Bolsonaro’s oft-used phrase (in effect, “the whole lot of them”) appealed to many. For the better-off and better-educated in society, anti-politics could be resumed to a moralistic critique of corruption (corruption here identified with the PT and the Left). But for the working class, it was a broader complaint against the powers-that-be. These “angry workers” as Richmond labels them,
tended to understand political corruption primarily through the lens of inequality, seeing it as a mechanism for the transfer of wealth from workers to politicians, whom they understood as part of a broader elite. While often critical of the PT they tended to express residual support for Lula and showed equal if not greater antipathy towards the other main parties.
In this context, Bolsonaro’s discourse, summarized as “they’re all the same, they’re stealing from us; I’m different, and I’m going to kill the criminals” found resonance. With the PT identified as part of the “system,” “Brazil’s anti-politics election” birthed an anti-politics government.
Anti-Politics + Government = Dis-Government
What does anti-politics look like in government? We know from Trump, as well as from the Five Star/Lega coalition government in Italy, that it often involves misrule and can be chaotic, but it also tends to default to a traditional rightist agenda when the promised attack on the establishment disappears in a puff of smoke.
Bolsonaro, as an anti-politician and a hardened authoritarian, has gone further, because his authoritarianism is a truer realization of anti-politics: the casting of representative institutions as bunk and an obstacle to justice.
In order to carry out his project, such as it is, he has not simply misruled, but enacted what in Brazil is being called disgovernment. More than misgovernment — that is, corrupt incompetence — disgovernment signifies the destruction or deliberate impediment of governmental capacities. Ministries are set up to work against their essential purposes; chaos is a method of rule.
Did the Brazilian people know what they were getting? In Politics and Antipolitics, political scientist Leonardo Avritzer points out two moments that turned the long-term but marginal congressman into a national figure: his notorious eulogy to a dictatorship-era torturer upon Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, and his stabbing on the campaign trail a month before the vote.
In the thirty days between the attack and the first round, Bolsonaro spoke little and bunked the televised debates. As Nicolau argues too, voters opted for someone they knew little about, beyond the reputation formed over the preceding few years, and whose policy proposals were to them a black box.
As Avritzer notes at the outset of his extended essay, it was only when the business class, the media, and the judiciary realized their favored center-right options were electoral nonstarters that they backed Bolsonaro. It is these fractions of the elite that are the villains of Avritzer’s analysis.
His critique of anti-politics focuses on the moralistic thrust of the anti-corruption campaign led by the radicalized judiciary, represented above all by Sérgio Moro, the judge who locked up Lula and who was announced as Bolsonaro’s future justice minister months before the election.
Indeed, Moro’s halo, lent to Bolsonaro, was a major factor in the election. For Avritzer, two elements sum up Brazilian anti-politics: judicial punitivism, especially the equation “the Left = corruption”; and a moral conception of judicially sanctioned government. We can conclude, then, that Moro outside and in government represented both characters of anti-politics: the vigilante and the high priest.
The other extended essay, that by critical theorist Marcos Nobre, takes its title from a terse rejoinder typically used by Bolsonaro to put an end to discussion: ponto final (or “period” in US English). For Nobre, Bolsonaro is an “anti-system” authoritarian. The tension between these two tendencies, in the wider context of the contradictions of Brazil’s post-1988 New Republic, is the cohering thread.
For Nobre, Bolsonaro only works in campaign mode, challenging the system, even as he is meant to be governing. This modus operandi is parasitic on a wider institutional collapse ongoing since 2013: institutions lack cohesion, both internally and between each another, and consequently face a massive authority deficit. Bolsonaro channeled suspicion of institutions to get elected; now he normalizes crisis in government.
Brazil, though, is not yet in a state of actual collapse: public services still work, however unequally and inadequately; the wheels of the machinery of state still turn, however greased they may be by graft. Bolsonaro’s disgovernment is therefore parasitic on its state host. Bolsonaro is perched on top, not governing or administrating but sowing confusion.
The job of running the country, meanwhile, is — or was — farmed out to representatives of his electoral coalition. Each was responsible for its own ministries: evangelicals got human rights and the family; finance and industry got economy “superminister” Paulo Guedes; agribusinesses got agriculture; Lavajatismo — Moro’s radicalized faction of the judiciary and its supporters — got justice; and the military and internal forces of repression got everything else.
Bolsonaro adjudicated between these fiefdoms according to whim rather than strategy. As for the lords, they were chosen so as to act against their fiefdoms’ very purpose. As Avritzer argues, the purpose was to destroy those areas where the state has some capacity in compensating for social deficiencies.
Thus we find that the minister of environment tries to wear down the state’s conservation and protection functions, the education minister seeks to defund education or submit it to harebrained culture wars, and so on; vested interests naturally stand to profit, with agribusiness extending its holdings, state-owned enterprises privatized, and on it goes.
The chaos is then augmented by Bolsonaro not leading or managing, but only vetoing decisions taken by others. Social media is his sounding board. If something drops below 30 percent approval on the web, he ditches it. Hence all the U-turns and false starts that have been the hallmark of policymaking under his government.
In part, this was a product of his initial refusal to form coalitions in Congress; the legislature would then rebuff his legislative initiatives. It turns out you cannot run a government on pure ideology alone — much less in Brazil, where a system political scientists call “presidential coalitionism” obtains. It is a dysfunctional mode of government in which the president’s party rarely holds more than 15 percent of congressional seats. It’s a recipe for immobilization.
The grease of corruption is needed to make the wheels turn: coalitions of incongruent parties must be cobbled together, requiring an inordinate amount of horse-trading and pork. Absurdly, governments’ bases of support in Congress have often amounted to over 75 percent of deputies, meaning that many parties are almost permanently “in power,” no matter the government.
Nobre suggests we call this system “pemedebismo” after the PMDB — a very large party that holds the strange distinction of dominating Brazilian politics since re-democratization, without ever holding federal executive office. It is this assemblage that Bolsonaro pretended to stand against.
Dis-Government During a Pandemic
Our annus horribilis of 2020 changed all this. Avritzer, focused more narrowly on the moralized, anti-corruption plank of Bolsonarismo, finds that Sergio Moro’s exit from the Justice Ministry was key. The Bolsonaro government had no actual anti-corruption plan, as his supporters may have hoped (vainly, of course, as the Bolsonaro clan in Rio had been involved in routine graft for decades). Moro was there to play a legitimating role, the high priest of the berobed justiceros.
When Moro had enough of being overruled in April of this year, judging it bad for his image, he quit. His job, anyway, was done, as was his reputation. In mid-2019, the Intercept revealed “serious wrongdoing, unethical behavior, and systematic deceit” on the part of Moro and the Lava Jato team, including collusion between judge and prosecution and the nakedly political role played by both in preventing Lula from running in or influencing the 2018 election.
Now Bolsonaro has effectively put an end to Lava Jato, declaring bombastically, farcically, “there is no more corruption in my government.” The coda to this part of the story is that Moro is now a partner in a consultancy firm whose clients include Odebrecht, the construction company at the center of an enormous graft scandal that tarnished the PT.
Moro’s departure meant that one of the three elite-institutional pillars of Bolsonaro’s government — the others being finance and the military — was gone. The second pillar, represented by Bolsonaro’s “Chicago Boy ” economy minister, Paulo Guedes, also found itself in a weakened position. Guedes’s austerity and privatization plans fall afoul of both the military establishment and the Centrão’s inclinations.
The former still hold to the vestiges of nationalist vision of infrastructural development; the latter crave pork. Bolsonaro’s government was thus becoming a rather different beast in 2020 to that which entered government a year before. The upper-middle class and the financial elite no longer had the same foothold in government due to ouster or marginalization of their men, the justicero Moro and the privatizer Guedes.
This was all amid Brazil becoming the country with the second-highest COVID-19 death toll in the world. Bolsonaro’s response, as now standard, was to sow chaos and confusion. However, this epochal global event would interrupt Bolsonaro’s longer-term plans. According to Nobre, stage one was to attack all institutions that work; in effect, a project of demoralization. Stage two, after reelection, would be to change the constitution and mutilate democratic institutions — the Viktor Orban model.
The pandemic forced Bolsonaro’s hand. His response was a move to direct authoritarianism. As Piauí, the magazine for which Nobre often writes, reported in August, Bolsonaro attempted a coup of sorts back in May. Did Nobre know this as he drafted his essay? It is unclear.
Nevertheless, the facts of the matter are that Bolsonaro attempted to shut down the Supreme Court — a move motivated by authoritarianism, absolutely, but also by self-interest, as he tried to stop the Supreme Court from seizing his mobile phone as evidence for a case related, ultimately, to Bolsonaro trying to halt investigation into one of his son’s alleged graft schemes. Bolsonaro was only dissuaded from intervening by generals within the president’s office.
And so Brazilian democracy, such as it is, stumbled on, now in a pandemic — an event which, more than any other, demands government. There’s no need to recapitulate Bolsonaro’s denialism of the disease and the rest of his antics here. Suffice it to note that the pandemic produced a paradoxical effect on his popular backing.
He lost support for his mishandling, especially among the better-educated and in the Southeast. Nobre calculates that while around 30 percent of the population still evaluate Bolsonaro positively, his hardcore base is 12 percent at best — a nucleus to which Bolsonaro is retreating to as he sloughs off Lavajatista and economic elite support.
Yet despite this retreat, throughout the middle of this year, his approval ratings actually shot up as a consequence of COVID-19 emergency aid the president initially opposed, but later took credit for. Emergency payments of R$600 a month (US$115) had a transformative effect on the lives of poorest, especially in the Northeast. The cash transfer reached up to one-third of the population, a much wider net than the PT’s heralded Bolsa Família. The Gini index of inequality even improved, after years of deterioration.
Asked recently whether these payments would be maintained, Bolsonaro replied, “ask the virus.” Here stands exposed the former captain’s divergence from classical authoritarians. This is an opportunity to widen his base, by capturing a section of the masses through a Caeserist “Annona,” binding them to him for years. Instead he outsourced his authority to an impersonal force, a microscopic nonbeing. A renewal of the emergency payments — now reduced to R$300 — may yet be approved for next year, driving a further stake between the austerian Guedes and Bolsonaro’s guarantors in the Centrão.
What has emerged from this turnaround is an alliance ranged against Bolsonaro, uniting forces from the center to the traditional Right – those very sectors that believed there to be no alternative to Bolsonaro up until the pandemic.
But what all this shows about Bolsonaro is evident. Nobre and Avrizer both remark upon Bolsonaro’s divergence from someone like Viktor Orban. Being an illiberal authoritarian does not preclude you from actually governing, from making policy in the putative interests of citizens.
Indeed, authoritarians tend to like an emergency, such as a pandemic, as cause to reorganize affairs. Bolsonaro, as an anti-system or anti-political authoritarian, is incapable of such. His departure from the Social Liberal Party through which he was elected and the subsequent failure to create his own, new political party likewise throws his strongman bona fides into question.
For Arvitzer, the rehabilitation of science is a key pivot. Public policy, social protection, are now back in, after anti-politics and anti-corruption overwhelmed public discussion from 2014–19. Are things are looking up? Maybe, but Avritzer insists that what we are faced with is a Gramscian “catastrophic equilibrium”: rejection of Bolsonaro is increasing, while rejection of the Supreme Court and Congress — institutions that act as potential counterweights to the Executive — is decreasing.
The Bolsonaro clan are now as isolated on social media as the Left was during the nadir of 2016. Bolsonaro is weakened but there is nothing that can decisively tip the balance against him.
Back to His Bosom
How does Bolsonaro survive? Bolsonaro is ensconced in the Executive because he has done what he said he would not do: rule with the Centrão. Many of the parties constituting the Centrão are organizational descendants from the pro-government dictatorship-era party, ARENA. For this reason, this grouping is better labelled the Arenão, the extended ARENA.
As self-preservation is the order of the day, every day, for the Arenão, that means opposing the anti-corruption investigations. In fact, the proximate cause for Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment was that she refused to make a deal to protect them from Lava Jato, and so they threw her to the wolves.
These are the forces with whom the president is now in bed. Or better put, Bolsonaro has returned to this old political elite. Before he became an anti-politician, he was a creature of the Arenão, having earned his chops as a member of the Progressistas (PP), perhaps the most openly rent-seeking party in the land. Rumors are that the party-less president may hook up with the PP once again for his reelection run — a move that would only add credibility to the restoration thesis.
What now sustains the governmental machine is the military. Three thousand officers occupy top jobs as well as second- and third-order posts across the federal bureaucracy. The fiefdoms disbursed to the different pillars of Bolsonaro’s electoral coalition are no more; the armed forces now occupy each new role that becomes vacant. What Nobre calls the “military party” is now the organizational backbone of the Bolsonaro government, where in previous governments, from the ’90s to the 2010s, it had been cadres from the PT or the PSDB.
The Bolsonaro alliance is now composed of the following: his hardcore supporters, the 12 percent of the population that provide him with a minimal social base; the military, entrusted to make government function; and the Arenão, a Congressional bloc whose purpose is to stop any of the fifty-eight impeachment requests thus far lodged against him from ever being acted upon.
How can a candidate elected on an anti-politics/anti-corruption ticket chummy up with the most retrograde actors in Brazilian politics and survive? Nobre’s answer is that the military provides the government with legitimacy in the eyes of his hardcore, reactionary base, allowing Bolsonaro to buy the Arenão’s support with impunity. As Arvitzer remarks, the critic of the horse-trading necessary to make presidential coalitionism work has now become subsumed by it.
This much was probably foreseeable: the effect of anti-politics is always to delegitimate democratic rule; its distributaries are either neoliberal privatization of the state or authoritarian takeover. Brazil has given us that impudent retort: why not both?
Here we can see the result of the “democratic degradation that began with the breakdown of consensus between Center and Left, followed by a massive underestimation of the antidemocratic elements of Bolsonarismo,” according to Arvitzer words. This would suggest the rot began with the political center’s turn against the PT in the mid-2010s. Nobre’s answer is more radical: it was not the mid-2010s breakdown in consensus that led us to where we are, but the internal contradictions of Brazil’s whole post-1988 political system coming home to roost.
With the dictatorship-descendent parties now in the ascendant, and disruptive Lavajatismo kicked out of government and socially minoritarian, maybe the right question to ask is: are we seeing a reactionary restoration of the authoritarianism which has reigned in Brazil for most of its history?
Old Politics Rule OK
The results of the mid-term municipal elections suggest this is so. Nothing about local elections is ever decisive, but they can be somewhat of a windsock. The big winners were the PP and Democratas (DEM) — both of which trace their lineage back to ARENA, and both are among the most-cited parties in the Lava Jato investigations — as well as the evangelical Republicanos and the for-rent Social Democrat Party (PSD). Altogether, the Centrão now runs two-thirds of Brazil’s 5,000+ municipalities.
Meanwhile, parties of the far-right — Bolsonaro’s erstwhile PSL and the Social Christian Party (PSC) — fared poorly. Indeed, it was a clear defeat for Bolsonaro: only two of the thirteen mayoral candidates he backed won, neither of them in state capitals. The 2018 Bolsonarista wave of “new politics” was itself submerged by the return of the oldest of “old politics.”
For the PT, not winning a single state capital for the first time since re-democratization is a disaster. They have lost 70 percent of the number of municipalities they held at their 2012 peak. Equally worthy of note is that the center-right PSDB — the only other party that could claim the sort of central role that the PT does in national politics — now runs only 520 municipalities, down from around 800.
Does all this mean that anti-politics has receded? Explicitly anti-political candidates did not fare well, and incumbent mayors who emphasized sensible responses to the pandemic were reelected en masse. But the abstention rate hit 23 percent in the first round and a record 29.5 percent in the second — in a country where voting is mandatory. Some of that may be due to the pandemic, but that does not explain why the beaches were full on election Sunday. Angry anti-politics, it seems, has become political dejection.
Brazil’s crisis has become permanent, a crisis whose start we can trace back to the representation crisis represented by the June Days uprising in 2013. The wave of anti-politics may now have ebbed, but look at the wreckage left on the shore: not only Bolsonaro, but military re-entry into civilian government, generalized political chaos, a crisis of authority that afflicts not just state institutions but anti-systemic movements as well, and — most of all — the social devastation wrought by a rightist counter-offensive whose vision for the country is a race to the bottom.
From Anti-Politics to Restoration
The PT’s travails have been widely documented. What appears to be happening is that the party is losing hegemony on the Left. PSOL’s encouraging performance in São Paulo’s mayoral election, with Lula as other leading left-wing figures rallying behind Boulos’s campaign suggests this is so. Antipetismo — formally, hatred of the PT, but really a reheated, hysterical anticommunism combined with a traditional distaste for self-assertion on the part of the poor, black, and working class — may also have been tempered. Antipetismo was dependent on the PT’s incumbency; though the party was thrown out of office in 2016, the wave was strong enough to see the center swing behind Bolsonaro, antipetista-in-chief, in 2018.
It could be that negative sentiment only attaches itself to the PT as a specific party, that antipetismo is no longer a powerful, conservative social force. Indeed, a close Bolsonaro advisor, Filipe Martins, publicly worried that his side had failed: anticommunism had only been narrowly understood as antipetismo, which had let the rest of the Left off the hook. The Left may be less hated now, but it is also weak and fragmented.
Less often noted is how Bolsonarismo also signaled a retreat for PSDB, whose voters abandoned it in 2018. The recent municipal elections seem to back up this claim. For all the talk of a “return to the center,” the two main ideological organizing forces of post-1988 Brazil, the center-left PT and the center-right PSDB, may now be losing their cohering role and centrality.
The Arenão — fragmented and available for rent from any takers in the period between re-democratization and the start of the Lava Jato investigations — reconsolidated as a force from 2015 onward, precisely to defend itself from the anti-corruption campaign.
As evidence of its growing confidence, one of its main constituents, DEM, now holds the presidencies of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies; earlier this year, its cadre, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, also held the health ministry, until his growing popularity led Bolsonaro to fire him. Mandetta is being talked about as a possible 2022 presidential candidate; DEM never stands presidential candidates.
We are witnessing the ascendance of the old, corrupt, clientelist right at the same time as the massive entry of military figures into civilian government, these two forces now mediated by Bolsonaro and Bolsonarismo. Martins, the aforementioned advisor to the president, recently tweeted that “we can no longer dismiss real, practical, day-to-day politics that happens in neighborhoods, in local newspapers and in the legislative chambers of each municipality.” Anti-politics is out, grubby old conservative politics is in.
If Trump’s defeat and Biden’s victory in the United States represented the restoration of centrist neoliberalism, Brazil’s restoration is of an altogether different variety. It is the old cadres of the military dictatorship and their civilian supporters who are back, but now with Bolsonarista characteristics.
The latter is best understood as, to take the title of a recent book, the “Republic of the Militias”: the empowering of extortion rackets and other organized criminal operations manned by retired and off-duty cops — and their increasing imbrication with the state. Where, from 1964–85, the military and its civilian allies sought to impose order, now they sow chaos.
Brazil’s 1988 Constitution enshrined political mechanisms that kept retrograde local elites in power, preventing the realization of that same Constitution’s many progressive aims. Those contradictions were kept in check for two decades by two factors: the curbing of inflation due to the 1994 Plano Real, administered by the PSDB, and economic growth and mild redistribution in the 2000s, administered by the PT. The growing marginalization of these two parties, whose traditional leaders were at the vanguard of opposition to the dictatorship and for re-democratization, bears witness to Brazilian democracy’s tragic trajectory.
The 1990s and 2000s now increasingly appear as a brief interlude — rather like the period preceding the 1964 coup — when a moderate capitalist democracy achieved supremacy over the retrograde forces that normally superintend capitalist order in the global periphery.
The exit strategies proffered by Arvitzer and Nobre do not make great reading either: collapse into dictatorship, or “managed democracy,” seems plausible — be it with Bolsonaro or without. Should the markets make clear they want the president’s ouster, the Arenão will oblige, with a retired general, Vice President Hamilton Mourão, waiting in the wings.
The alternative is the construction of a broad democratic front to not only push for impeachment, but to institute a new democratic republic — a repeat, in effect, of the movement for democracy in the 1980s. The latter would require the unity of the Left with precisely those the centrist forces who embraced Bolsonaro only two years ago — and who backed the “Temer plan” that accelerated Brazil’s race to the bottom two years before that.
Even should such an alliance materialize, it would be no resumption of the 1994–2016 pattern. Too much has been destroyed — workers’ rights slashed, lawfare institutionalized as a mode of politics to take down political enemies, institutional authority a void, and a brutal spending ceiling inserted into the constitution, whose effect is to constrict institutions that can provide a degree social citizenship, let alone any grand developmentalist plans.
The Left needs to rebuild its base and it needs a program for a new democracy. The good old days aren’t coming back — and they weren’t that good in the first place.