Special Feature Essay: “Protest, Anti-Partisanship, and the Trajectory of Democratic Crisis in Brazil”

By Ann Mische

Updated November 4, 2018:  A few days after I posted the essay below, Jair Bolsonaro was elected as the next president of Brazil. He received 55% of the valid votes to Haddad’s 45%, although a record 30% of the electorate abstained from voting or annulled or blanked their votes. While Fernando Haddad staged a spirited and upbeat campaign and surged in the final two weeks, he did not succeed in mobilizing a broad democratic front against Bolsonaro. Many public officials, intellectuals and celebrities rallied to the cause of democracy and declared votes for Haddad (including some of the prominent jurists involved in anti-corruption proceedings who had previously critiqued and prosecuted the PT). However, key political leaders on the center to center-right spectrum remained silent, or offered ambiguous or tepid support.

A week before he was elected, Bolsonaro gave a speech in which he declared that adversaries should leave the country or be arrested; “you all go to the edge of the beach….it will be cleansing never before seen in the history of Brazil.” The “edge of the beach” refers to a notorious navy torture and execution grounds under the military dictatorship. Bolsonaro’s fans chanted this phrase outside of his campaign headquarters as his victory was confirmed on Sunday evening. This gives a chilling preview of the dangerous pathway that Brazil is charting as it joins other countries in the rightward turn.

Four days after the election, Judge Sérgio Moro accepted Bolsonaro’s offer to become the Minister of Justice in the new government (taking charge of a new “super-ministry” that merges ministries of justice, public security, and transparency). I am tempted to say that I got one point wrong in the essay below – Sérgio Moro did not lose his bet. The new kind of politician that he referred to at that honorary luncheon last May has indeed arisen; Moro placed his bets with the Bolsonaro regime. 

The most charitable interpretation is that Moro thinks he can tame and regulate his future boss’s worst anti-democratic impulses, while continuing to fight political corruption and make the country hospitable to international business investment (in a worrisome echo of many Republicans in the US). The more skeptical interpretation is that his commitment to democracy was never strong, and that his version of the “law and order” discourse is in fact much closer to Bolsonaro’s than I suggested below. Critics have noted his wife’s explicit celebration of Bolsonaro’s victory on social media, as well as questionable release of months’ old plea bargain transcripts damaging to the PT on the eve of the first round of the election.

Regardless of planning or intent, Moro’s shrug of the shoulders and abdication of responsibility that I describe in the essay below now takes on even more troubling registers. The problem is not simply that by accepting a powerful executive position in Bolsonaro’s cabinet, Moro politicizes (and thus discredits) his previous work in the Lava Jato investigations, as some previously sympathetic commentators have lamented. Even more dismaying is his willingness – in the name of  fighting corruption and restoring the business climate – to overlook the violations of human, civil, and social rights that have been promised by the future president, and turn a blind eye to the bloodshed, discrimination, repression, and environmental devastation to come. We need to think hard about what a law and order, anti-corruption platform means in this context.

The new conjuncture unfolds with considerable uncertainty, and multiple scenarios are possible. The future depends not only on what happens within the realm of institutional politics, but also on how we re-imagine our relationship with political parties as a vital bridge between society and state. It will be shaped as well by how we confront the sources of hate and express our commitment to the vulnerable and the marginalized. The global anti-partisan wave that I describe in this essay – stretching from autonomism to autocracy – has many points of political articulation. As scholars, activists and citizens in Brazil and around the world, our job is to keep up the pressure on our leaders, parties, institutions and ourselves to maintain an expansive idea of what “democracy” and “justice” entail, as violence, exclusion and autocracy head into power-drive around the world.

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(Photo by Hilreli, Album EleNão #EleNunca Barbacena: Manifestação realizada em 29/09/2018 na cidade de Barbacena – MG. Creative commons license, some rights reserved.)

October 24, 2018

Under the gaze of international social science, Brazil has often been the good case. While attentive to Brazil’s many historical afflictions – poverty, inequality, dictatorship, criminal violence, hyper-inflation, corruption – researchers have, in recent decades, spotlighted the country’s social and institutional advances. They have argued that Brazil is a case, for instance, in which mobilized civil society provided pressure on elites that contributed to the transition to democracy, in which urban popular movements organized for the expansion of social, political and economic rights, in which innovative and inclusive urban reforms provided a model of socially-embedded development, and in which the fragmented party system achieved a relative (if uneven) institutionalization in comparison to  other countries in the region. Having lived through some of this history and written about the role of youth politics in democratic reconstruction, I have added my brushstrokes to this vibrant, hopeful (if still complex and contradictory) picture of a country I love. Brazil, as Brazilians often say, is “the country of the future,” always at the leading edge of the waves of history.

Brazil is once again riding those waves, although this time not in the good direction. In the first round of its most tumultuous and polarized presidential election since re-democratization, Brazil nearly gave a first round victory to Jair Bolsonaro, the right wing populist candidate who has been compared not only to Donald Trump, but also to Viktor Orbán in Hungary, to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and to other resurgent strongmen around the world.  Bolsonaro is a former army captain, long-time enthusiast for dictators and torturers, and openly racist, sexist, and homophobic candidate with a violence-infused law and order discourse. He has attracted broad-based support that cuts across social class and political divisions. The most recent Datafolha poll puts him at 59% in comparison to 41% for Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), with the country days  away from its second round in the election.

Moreover, Brazil’s party system appears to be in tatters. Center and center-right parties suffered devastating first round losses, the PT lost support, and a small party vehicle for Bolsonaro, the PSL, picked up 44 seats to become the second largest party in Congress. Bolsonaro has promised to open the Amazon to development and withdraw from the Paris Climate agreement, to mow down bandits in the slums, to purge the country of dissidents, and to re-instill traditional values on family and sexuality while pursuing neo-liberal, probusiness economic policies and allying with the Trump administration. While Bolsonaro’s rise has generated consternation around the world, some sectors of global business elites (including the Wall Street Journal editorial board) appear to be averting their eyes from the clear danger of democratic regression and human rights and environmental catastrophes that will accompany a Bolsonaro regime.

This is heartbreaking to watch, and judging from my friends and fellow academics in Brazil, devastating to live through. As there are many smart analysts inside and outside of Brazil providing diagnosis and commentary, I want to focus on a less explored dimension, tracing the current situation back to Brazil’s protest wave of 2013, which I wrote about in a Mobilizing Ideas blog post five years ago and in a 2015 article with Angela Alonso. I want to draw a line from those protests to a more recent set of events involving my own university: the anti-corruption investigation spearheaded by Judge Sérgio Moro, to whom Notre Dame gave series of awards in 2017-2018 .

I will argue that these events are closely linked, if we understand them in the light of the complex spectrum of anti-partisanship in the recent global protest wave and the ways in which generalized disillusionment with political institutions is being appropriated by right wing actors. While my focus here is on Brazil, my argument has broader implications for comparative analysis, as well as for the political practice of so many of us around the world.

In recent weeks, two small but quite different moments from these episodes keep replaying in my memory. The goal of this blog post is to reflect on the connections between them, and on how they are both linked to the disaster unfolding in Brazil.

A chill in the stomach

The first moment was an exchange on Facebook I had with a friend in Rio on June 17, 2013, the day a series of smaller, localized protest in São Paulo jumped scale to the national level during a tumultuous month of protest. This friend was student leader from the 1990s whom I knew from my earlier research on youth politics. He was a longtime activist turned university professor whose parents had been active in resisting the dictatorship in the 1970s. The day before there had been buzz on Facebook that these marches promised to be “historic”; people who identified with the broad progressive sector were excited about the unexpected surge of people in the street, in numbers that had not been seen in decades.  

As the stream of glorious, shining, aerial night protest photos from Brazil’s major cities lit up my Facebook feed, I noticed that my friend was back online earlier than I expected. I posted a comment asking him how it went. “Saí fora (I got out of there)” he said. “It was frightening.” He said he hadn’t felt that chill in his stomach since the days of the dictatorship. “É muito direitista! (it’s very right wing).”  At the ground level in Rio and São Paulo, demonstrators wearing red were being shouted off the street and flags of the PT and other left parties were being burned by protestors. The generalized anti-partisan sentiment in the crowd (“nenhum partido me representa!”) had turned violent on several occasions, generating a growing sense of wariness and unease in Brazil’s left and progressive sectors.

Three days later, on June 20, the protests peaked with over a million people in the street in all of Brazil’s major cities. As Angela Alonso and I have described, the protestors’ grievances and demands were broad, diverse, and internally contradictory. What started as a series of small protests organized by left-autonomist groups against transportation fares hikes in São Paulo quickly mushroomed to address precarious urban infrastructure, poor quality schools and health care, police violence, lgbtq and women’s rights, corruption, taxation, and fiscal accountability. Their protest repertoires were varied as well, with an exuberant, if uneasy, mixing of performances associated with the Seattle-inspired anarchist left, with organized popular movements for social and economic rights, and with patriotic expressions of pride in Brazil.

These streams began to separate out in the coming months, beginning with a surge of anarchist repertoires (in the form of black bloc protests against police and banks) in fall 2013, which were met by police repression and anti-protest legislation. As the black bloc protests receded, Brazil saw intensifying polarization between the traditional left (red) and patriotic (yellow/green) repertoires; this separation of colors was evident during the smaller scale World Cup protests in 2014, and culminated in dueling marches for and against the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in 2015 and 2016. This polarization has intensified over the past year in rallies in support for or opposition to the imprisonment of former President Lula da Silva as part of the Lava Jato (Car Wash) anti-corruption investigations.

From a social movements perspective these shifts have been almost symphonic in their scale and motion, and in their colorful, contentious, at times furious dialogue with each other. Yet it was the smell of fear that my friend transmitted across the internet that has stuck with me. That whiff of warning that caused him (and others) to get the hell off the streets is now billowing through the country. Nearly every Brazilian I know is sick with fear, including academics, activists, and members of marginalized communities. They express this fear in vibrant #EleNão demonstrations, in anguished social media postings, and in critical reflections on the dangerous situation in their country. They struggle to understand why so many in the country are willing to swallow their reservations and vote for a man who just a few years ago was considered a fringe figure with zero chance attaining Brazil’s highest office.

A shrug of the shoulders

Fast forward five years from June 2013 to May 2018. I attended a luncheon at my university honoring Sérgio Moro, the celebrity judge behind the Lava Jato corruption investigations that have shaken Brazil’s political landscape. Beginning as a probe of money-laundering in Petrobras (the state-owned oil company), Lava Jato has deeply challenged Brazil’s culture of impunity, uncovering a complicated web of vote-kickback systems, personal enrichment schemes, corporate payoffs and regional patronage networks. Nearly one third of Brazil’s lower house of congress and 60% of its senators have come under investigation by various branches of Lava Jato, along with current president Michel Temer and many members of his cabinet. In July 2017 Judge Moro sentenced former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to nearly 10 years in prison for allegedly accepting a renovated apartment as a bribe (a charge Lula has sharply contested). This sentence was upheld and then extended to 12 years by an appellate court. Lula was imprisoned last April but remained the breakaway front-runner in Brazil’s presidential race until this past August, when he was ruled ineligible to run for office from prison.

Judge Moro was at Notre Dame to deliver the university’s commencement address and receive an honorary degree. He was fresh from a tour of similar accolades (earlier that week he had received the “Person of the Year” award from the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce in New York). I am not a fan, and in fact had co-organized a faculty panel at the Kellogg Institute some weeks before in which I joined four colleagues in problematizing Moro and the Lava Jato investigations. Among other issues, our panel highlighted recent critiques of Moro’s sensationalized tactics, selective prosecution strategies, flawed legal procedures and shaky use of evidence. Perhaps most importantly, the panel discussed the dangers of the “big bang” approach to corruption prosecutions, involving sweeping and disruptive purges of corrupt politicians. Such approaches can intensify public distrust in political institutions writ large, while creating a power vacuum that is ripe for populist leaders of the right or left (or,  alternatively, that can be “weaponized” by political oppositions).

While I did not want to validate the hero’s welcome, I accepted the lunch invitation out of sociological curiosity and as well as a spirit of dialogue and listening. As expected, Moro got many glowing, supportive comments and softball questions. He also got a couple of questions with more bite. One person asked what he thought of the politicization of the judiciary, to which he became quite defensive. “It’s not fair to see the criminal process as politicized,” he told us. “The guilt is with the criminal that is responsible for the bribes, and not the criminal process.”

He was also asked about the comparison to the Italian experience with “Mani Pulite” (“Clean Hands”), the massive anti-corruption investigations in 1990s that is widely credited with destroying the Italian political class and paving the way for the rise of Berlusconi. Moro was asked whether he thought that, as with Mani Pulite, the Lava Jato investigations could create a dangerous power vacuum. He answered that this was an excellent question, but that “I don’t have an answer.” What happens after the investigations “is not my responsibility.” As a federal judge, his job is to fight corruption wherever he finds it; “criminality should not be left unpunished.” He had faith that Brazil would eventually find a way to deal with the political tensions and disruptions generated by the massive corruption probe. “I hope that honest politicians will arise, and that we will have a strong rule of law in the long term.”  

I was struck by the magical thinking in this answer. What model of social transformation is this that shrugs its shoulders after a major disruption and leaves the messes for unnamed future actors? Can this “not my responsibility” disavowal possibly be in good faith? Moro has studied the Italian case, has stated publicly that Mani Pulite is the explicit model for Lava Jato. What kinds of strategic or long term thinking were he (and other Brazilian elites) engaged in? If none, why not? If they have their eyes on something else, why were they not sharing that? These seemed like questions worth asking.

A possible answer swung into focus In Moro’s wrap-up statement. He described himself as an ambassador and spokesperson for Brazil abroad, in ways that extended far beyond his role as a local anti-corruption crusader. “We are receiving international recognition,” he told us. “You cannot come here and shake my hand and later shit on [Brazilian] business or public affairs.”  His role was to project to the broader world the shift Brazil is making in terms of strengthening democracy without impunity and creating a more efficient economy. In this way, we hope to “improve the well-being of all.”

In Moro’s shrug and in his international ambitions, we see the bet that Brazilian elites were making. They hoped that by removing the PT from power and seizing the reins of the economy, they would be able (a) to save themselves from corruption prosecutions; and (b) to institute austerity measures and liberalization strategies that would allow the economy to come roaring back; while simultaneously (c) reassuring the global financial sector about the financial probity and predictability of Brazil’s investment climate. In an almost comedic display of hypocrisy, congressional representatives who were themselves under investigation for corruption voted exuberantly to impeach Dilma Rousseff, NOT on corruption charges, but on much lesser charges of minor fiscal mismanagement. (Bolsonaro upped the ante on his colleagues by voting for her impeachment in the name of one of the most notorious torturers of the dictatorship.)

That bet has gone terribly wrong. The economy did not come roaring back following the impeachment. Despite draconian austerity measures involving a constitutional amendment that has frozen public spending for 20 years, the economy continues to struggle. Unemployment soared to record levels in 2017; poverty and inequality are rising again, and more Brazilian are struggling to afford the basics. Lava Jato corruption investigations, to their credit, have not stopped with the PT, although they (along with fake news social media campaigns on WhatsApp and other platforms) have exacerbated a fierce and visceral hatred of the PT among a sizable segment of the population. Center and center-right parties did not appear to the population as the saviors of the people once the PT was out of the picture; they were equally discredited by the corruption probe and soundly thrashed in the first round of elections. Instead, popular hopes have coalesced around Jair Bolsonaro, the anti-candidate, the channeler of the virulent anti-partisan sentiment that chilled my activist friend in June 2013.

The spectrum of anti-partisanship

What links these two stories? How do we get from my friend’s chill in the stomach in June 2013 to Moro’s shrug of the shoulders in May 2018, to the possibly catastrophic electoral conjuncture in which Brazil currently finds itself? Judge Moro’s purpose was clearly not to bring about the candidacy of a neo-fascist, racist, homophobic, misogynist pro-violence provocateur with no respect for democracy. While the respective  “law and order” discourses of Moro and Bolsonaro act as a hinge point for popular support, there are important differences between these two figures. I am sure that many Brazilian elites are horrified at their loss of control of the changes they set in motion, and worried about the future of their country. However a segment is clearly betting (as in the US) that a deal with the devil – which amounts to siding with barbarism, bigotry, bloodshed, and retreat from democracy – is worth it to get the pro-business, deregulatory reforms that they crave.

To understand this trajectory, we have to situate these two moments in the context of the wave of anti-partisan sentiment that has swept the global arena over the past decade. Since 2009, the world has seen an expansive cycle of global protest, triggered by a combination of economic and political grievances that include austerity measures, unemployment, inequality, demands for public services, corruption, authoritarianism, police violence and state repression. Economic demands have been interwoven, in varying proportions, with challenges to political leadership and institutions and calls for the expansion of electoral and participatory democracy.

One unifying thread across many of the protests is a strong rejection of traditional party politics which, in some cases (as in Brazil), has manifested itself as a virulent anti-partisanship with strong populist overtones. We heard claims that “no party represents me”  in the 15M in Spain, in the Occupy movement in the US, in protests in the UK, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria, Argentina – the list goes on. Other major protests such as those in Iran, Turkey, Ukraine, Hong Kong, Guatemala, Hungary, India, the Philippines and the Arab uprisings have challenged corrupt and anti-democratic regimes, with a strong undercurrent of political-institutional skepticism even if this has not taken on explicit anti-partisan forms.

In 2013, Brazil was a key exemplar in this surging wave of protest. But by 2018 (as I struggle to explain in my classes on social movements), nearly all of these movements have “gone bad” – protests have been repressed, autocratic regimes have retrenched, right wing populist movements have surged, leaders with clear anti-democratic tendencies have been elected or consolidated power. Brazil is clearly headed in this direction. Even if Bolsonaro is defeated by the PT candidate Fernando Haddad, the wave of hatred and violence that the election has unleashed seems poised to reshape Brazilian politics in the coming years.

I argue that attention to the spectrum of anti-partisanship is key for understanding how the mobilizing excitement that surged around the world in 2009-2014 has brought us to the democratic danger and despair of 2018. Anti-partisanship is not a singular or homogeneous phenomenon. Deep discontent with political parties and political-institutional politics (due to corruption, autocracy, exclusion, inequality, precarious services, or some mix thereof) receives political articulation from both the left and the right.

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On the left, opposition to political parties finds expression in the autonomist or neo-anarchist wing of recent global protest. Advocates of radical horizontalism and direct democracy are skeptical of hierarchical institutions of all sorts, including not only states and parties, but also labor unions, NGOs, professional associations, and other conventional manifestations of “organized civil society.” They find champions among academics and intellectuals (e.g., Holloway 2002; Hardt and Negri 2005; Zibechi 2010; Sitrin 2012) who celebrate the attempts of the “multitude” to establish alternative centers of popular power outside of the traditional state (and associated hierarchical institutions like parties). In marked contrast to Brazil’s earlier protest waves (such as the 1984 movement for direct elections and the 1992 movement to impeach President Collor), “organized civil society” was largely absent from the 2013 protests; instead, the cycle was triggered by smaller protests organized by direct-action style autonomist groups that had been growing in expression on Brazil’s campuses and left circles.

At the other extreme, we see the hostility toward political parties coming from autocracies and dictatorships of various stripes, which see threats to their power coming from organized opposition movements crystallized in parties that contest control of the state. At the extreme these can be called “fascist,” although there are many proto-fascist and/or autocratic varieties, characterized by strong state repression and exclusionary, often nationalist, racist or xenophobic tendencies. In the 2013 protests, the question of whether anti-partisanship is or is not “fascist” generated heated debate between Brazil’s traditional organized left and their neo-anarchist companheiros. Many traditional activists critiqued the anti-partisan sentiment that frightened them at the rallies by raising the spectre of fascism: “Quem não gosta de partido é ditadura!” declared a set of memes circulating on Facebook, with pictures of Mussolini and of Brazil’s military dictators of the 60s and 70s. The left autonomists, however, were indignant at this comparison. “LIES, LIES, LIES!” declared a counter-meme. “A model of government without flags or parties is called direct democracy or pure democracy.”

Today, fascism in Brazil is looming as a real, and not just rhetorical threat, while the autonomists have largely faded from view. I have written elsewhere about the limits of the “new horizontalism” and the dangers of an overly romantic, anti-state and anti-party politics. At their (admittedly rare) best, political parties can provide a vital bridging function between society and the state. It matters for our social, economic and environmental well-being how political institutions are crafted and what people and practices inhabit them. Political parties are an essential vehicle of programmatic articulation and access to the state. However, that is a story for another day. The pathway by which Brazil got to this point requires us to look not only at these two opposing poles of anti-partisanship, but at the murky currents in between.

We have already noted the generalized anti-partisanship at play in the June 2013 protests. While anti-partisan sentiment has intensified over the past decade, Brazil’s partisan ambivalence dates back to re-democratization, as I note in my book, and others have analyzed, Beyond the particularities of the PT,  there are many reasons for the Brazilian population – and for citizens around the world – to be frustrated with political parties and party systems. Brazil has a long history of patronage politics, deal-making among elites, non-responsive bureaucracies, pacts with violent actors – and, as Lava Jato has uncovered, widespread and entrenched political corruption that did not start with the PT (or end with the imprisonment of Lula).

To its discredit, the PT did not live up to its promise to bring a new, transparent form of government (the “modo petista de governar”) to Brazil – although it can be argued that playing the political game with its broad (and broadly corrupt) arc of alliances was was the only way to ensure governability and carry out its programs in the face of a multi-party presidentialist system dependent on coalitional governance in a fragmented legislature. The PT managed to re-elect itself through four election cycles because of its deep social roots (in marked contrast to most of the other parties) as well as its efforts to bridge sector and class, that is, to moderate its discourse as well as its economic policies and veer toward neoliberalism, even as it moved ahead with cash transfer and educational expansion programs that addressed poverty and exclusion.

As long as the economy was good, and Brazil was gaining in stature on the world stage, the middle and upper classes tolerated the redistributive programs that brought 1.3 million people out of poverty, expanded access to education and reduced inequality during a period of impressive economic growth. Brazil weathered the 2008 global recession better than most countries. But by 2012 the economy was beginning to slow; urban infrastructure was crumbling and stretched thin by the “new middle classes,” crime was growing, and the government’s economic policies became entrenched and uncertain. A newly self-confident and empowered judiciary – spearheaded by Judge Sérgio Moro, but also enabled by the anti-corruption measures enacted by the PT in response the the 2013 protests – began to reveal the extent of the graft and corruption through which elite rule is constituted in Brazil.  

In short, there were lots of reasons in general for the discontented population in the streets to be frustrated with political parties, as well as with the conditions of their everyday lives. The repudiation of partisanship expressed both a frustration with the “dirtiness” and unresponsiveness of politicians, as well as a romantic yearning for a unified and “better” Brazilian. It is not deeply autonomist in spirit (although it can be articulated in a pseudo-anarchist, libertarian direction, as in the Anonymous meme), but rather finds a more comfortable home in the patriotic, nationalist, progress-oriented repertoire (“We don’t have a party. We are Brazil!”; “Right? Left? I want to go Forward!”)

In Brazil and many other countries, this generalized discontent with parties has been opportunistically channeled toward anti-incumbency by parties and sectors on the right. (It could, in principle, be articulated by the left as well, but in Brazil the left was in power). Even in 2013, the anti-partisan spirit in the streets was quickly articulated into strong anti-PT and anti-Dilma messages. Diatribes against the PT by figures in Anonymous masks went viral on Facebook, and the initially libertarian, anti-fascist messaging of some of the (many) Anonymous and anti-corruption Facebook sites began to take on a decidedly anti-PT bent. Some of these sites were associated with right wing groups and operatives — an underexplored story of the June 2013 protests that deserves more investigation in the light of the current crisis.   

In 2018, this finds an echo in Bolsonaro’s use of fake news campaigns via WhatsApp groups., allegedly bankrolled  by a group of Brazilian business entrepreneurs. There have also been direct channels of advice between  Steve Bannon and the Bolsonaro campaign (Bolsonaro’s son declared publicly that the campaign has consulted with Bannon on social media use and other matters).

Between 2013 and 2018, the center-right has continued to ride the wave of anti-partisanship in its quest to oust the PT from power. This was carried out through a multi-pronged strategy. The Lava Jato investigations led by Sérgio Moro deepened skepticism about political institutions in general, but directed much of its media heat and prosecutorial fire toward the PT (generating the climate that drove the impeachment). The mainstream media heightened critiques of the left while lionizing Moro and the anti-corruption investigations. And center-right politicians used parliamentary and judicial blocking techniques to shield themselves from prosecution, while preventing Lula from running for the presidency.

The center-right justified this strategy, in the face of warnings, by saying to themselves and others over and over again that “Bolsonaro can’t win.” (I personally have heard this mantra multiple times by supporters of Moro, even from my perch in South Bend.) Or, like Moro, they admitted the possibility of a power vacuum created by the anti-corruption proceedings, but shrugged their shoulders and disavowed responsibility for the sea changes they had helped to set in motion. And thus the chill in the stomach that activists felt in the street in 2013 now threatens to plunge the country into a Narnian winter, as some memes have been joking, or perhaps worse, a long, hot summer of chaos, violence and civil strife.

Blame to go around

Let me just say in closing that I do not think the left is blameless. The PT made its own deal with the devil during the Mensalão scandal (an earlier vote-buying scheme that the PT engaged in in order to secure governability during Lula’s government in the face of its weak position in a fragmented congress). The party has never engaged in adequate self-criticism or internal reforms in response to this scandal, and this has eroded its base of support on both the center and the left. This erosion intensified with the Petrobras scandal, which likewise follows from the PT’s challenges of governability and the resulting need to enter into alliances with traditional parties and politicians steeped in cultures of patronage and graft.

Moreover, while the PT governments prioritized poverty reduction, they arguably did not pay enough attention to improving urban infrastructure and public services for the precarious “new middle classes.” Ironically, given the current attempt to paint Haddad as a proto-Chaves, the PT has come under criticism from the left by becoming too “neoliberal,” rather than the reverse, although its zig-zags and uncertainties in this respect have created some of the antagonism, unease and frustration in the business sector. The PT has invested too much of its leadership focus in the figure of Lula, and as a result, innovative, honest, and administratively competent moderates such as Haddad have not had the space in which to develop a national following.

However the visceral hatred of the PT that has seized control of about half of the population is mammothly out of proportion to these errors, which in turn pale in comparison to the threats to democracy and to humanity posed by Bolsonaro. As even the PT’s historic rivals have acknowledged, the PT has always governed in a democratic manner. The Lava Jato investigations themselves were enabled by steps taken by the PT government to strengthen the independent judiciary and make it easier to prosecute corruption offences. The hysterical comparisons to Venezuela and Chaves are completely misplaced and irresponsible. Recent voices within the PT about the need to regulate the media are potentially worrisome; however they must be understood in the context of a left that has always been committed to a free and independent media, but that has seen the major news outlets consolidate against them, contributing to the deepening of anti-PT sentiment and building momentum toward the impeachment. We need to highlight the longer term trajectories of interaction between contending political sectors that has brought Brazil to where it is today.

Recently there have been calls by some on the center-left to center-right spectrum – as well as by international democracy scholars – to create a broad pro-democracy front to oppose the threat posed by Bolsonaro. This is welcome and vital. However, some of these calls start with a long check-list for the PT of self-criticism, moderation and policy shift in order to secure support from its traditional democratic rivals. While critical self-reflection on the part of the PT is necessary and important, these demands are one-sided and mistimed. There is plenty of blame to go around, and it’s not clear that forcing the PT to engage in public self-criticism while in the final weeks of an intensely disputed election campaign is necessary or wise.

I have argued that one of the pathways to the current crisis has been the center-right’s manipulation of the generalized anti-partisan sentiment of the 2013 protests, giving them public leverage to push aside a democratic election while hyping up opposition to the PT in mainstream and social media. This is the longer-term context in which  the PT has moved away from its broad, class-spanning discourse of previous decades and adopted a stronger “us vs. them” tone. That the PT has managed to emerge from this entrenchment with a strong, smart, and (potentially) bridging candidate like Fernando Haddad is to its credit. One only wishes Haddad had had more time – and political breathing space – to wage his own campaign on his own terms.

If the impeachment of Dilma was one mistake of the center and center-right (as democracy scholars such as Scott Mainwaring, Steven Levitsky, and Fernando Limongi have argued, and as has been at least hinted by some PSDB leaders), Judge Moro’s shrug of the shoulders was another. Magical thinking – combined with sensationalist media tactics, sweeping judicial disruption and mass discontent with political institutions – has consequences that cannot be swept under the carpet. And so the opportunistic attempts by political actors to score electoral (and economic) gains by riding a wave of frustrated anti-partisan sentiment has backfired, and the autocratic pole of the anti-partisan spectrum is staring the country in the face.

Brazil is the country of the future – “always in the future” (as Brazilians typically add with a laugh). The future of the world looks very bleak right now. Can Brazil help to re-direct world-historical currents and re-articulate its own strongest democratic, solidaristic and humanistic impulses? I join many in stubbornly hoping so. In the long term, it will take a commitment to building strong parties with deep social roots that keep their feet firmly grounded in the challenges and counter-currents of the democratic game. In the short term – well, I am fearful. As in the US and in so many places around the world, we need all hands on deck in defense of democracy and humanity.

 

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