The Good Fight

Lessons From Brazil

A disturbing election shows that we can’t count on the lessons of history—or multiculturalism—to save democracy.

Bolsonaro standing next to a podium, grinning after casting his vote in the general election on Oct. 7.
Jair Bolsonaro of the right-wing Social Liberal Party has won Brazil’s presidential election.
Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

Some elections only turn out to be historic with the benefit of hindsight. When Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Communist Party on March 11, 1985, for example, the event did not seem particularly significant to most Kremlinologists. Today, we know that it was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.

In other cases, contemporaries instantly grasped the significance of an electoral upset. Though it was too early then—and remains too early now—to predict what exactly the election of Donald Trump might wreak, the victory of a proud outsider with such open disdain for the most basic rules and norms of liberal democracy clearly heralded the beginning of a new age.

Jair Bolsonaro’s election as president of Brazil falls squarely into this second category.

An extremist outsider until a year ago, Bolsonaro skyrocketed in popularity with a supercharged version of the populist playbook. Railing against a corrupt elite, he attacked gay people, denigrated women, and praised the military dictatorship that ruled the country from the 1960s to the 1980s. On Sunday, he handily defeated Fernando Haddad, a gray standard-bearer of the scandal-plagued Workers’ Party, in a runoff.

Until Bolsonaro’s victory, it was possible (though perhaps not altogether plausible) to tell the story of Brazilian democracy as one of erratic progress. Since the overthrow of the country’s last military dictatorship in 1985, there were about four changes of government through free and fair elections. The country’s GDP grew from about $1,600 to over $10,000 per capita. The commitment to democracy gradually spread.

Even the political turbulence of the past two decades could be given a positive spin: The election of Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, the left-wing Workers’ Party’s previous leaders, showed that Brazilian democracy was capable of integrating groups that had formerly been marginalized into its political institutions. Their subsequent indictments on corruption charges and Rousseff’s removal from office threw the country into chaos and was perceived as illegitimate by many of the party’s supporters, but it also did show that it was possible to hold the powerful to account for their misdeeds.

As of yesterday, it has become impossible to cast the past half-century of Brazilian politics in such a positive light. Instead, it is now the unresolved problems that seem more salient: The deep polarization of society. The vast economic gulf between the rich and the poor. The deep-seated disenchantment with democratic institutions. And of course the fact that even the politicians who set out to clean up the mess have, time and again, turned out themselves to have a penchant for corruption.

As a result, the biggest democracy in Latin America is now in mortal danger. Over the past few years, we have seen how much damage authoritarian populists can do to democracy even in countries, like the United States, that are extremely prosperous and have a very long democratic tradition. Brazil can boast of neither of these advantages: Like many other countries in Latin America, it has never completely managed to shake its authoritarian legacy. And though the country has made significant economic progress in the past few decades, its GDP has not yet reached six digits—still significantly shy of the kind of wealth countries have historically needed to be safe from democratic backsliding.

In short, a democracy with especially big structural challenges now faces an especially ruthless authoritarian challenger. The danger to Brazil’s democratic institutions is very serious indeed.

This fact is, in itself, so horrific that I feel a little reluctant to distract from its significance by drawing broader inferences from it. And yet the developments in Brazil do underline four important lessons that are of huge relevance beyond Latin America. If we fail to understand them, we risk underestimating the dangers that many countries outside of Brazil—including the United States—will continue to face for years to come.

1) The populist wave is still accelerating

Every time populists fail to win an election outright somewhere in the world, well-intentioned hopemongers declare that the populist wave has finally crested.

The reality, sadly, looks different. Even though they were very far from taking power in Sweden in elections this September, for example, the country’s far-right populists did achieve their best ever result. Many other elections this year have brought far worse news: In Hungary, Viktor Orbán was confirmed in office for another four years, with hopes of him ever being removed through democratic means continuing to dwindle. In Italy, populists pulled off an astounding upset, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote and forming an extremist government that is already assaulting democratic institutions.

In the aggregate, the trend is unfortunately very clear: 2018 has been a bumper year for the enemies of liberal democracy. Populists continue to be on the rise and now rule in more countries than ever.

2) No single leader can save us from the populists

The sky, the saying goes, is darkest just before dawn. Since the world feels plenty dark right now, I fervently hope that this piece of motivational folk wisdom will turn out to be true. But I increasingly fear that the inverse is just as likely: In many democracies that have fallen prey to populists, the day has been brightest just before dusk.

Take the case of Lula. Born into dire poverty in the city of Caetés, he became a shining light of Latin America’s left. Under his leadership, the Workers’ Party fought for the poor and pushed for an expanded welfare state—without assaulting democratic institutions or vilifying the country’s corporations. During his first years in office, Lula therefore looked as though he would help to reconcile the country’s least advantaged groups with the political system and to consolidate its democracy.

But in the end, it was, in good part, Lula’s failings that paved the way to Bolsonaro’s victory. Because of economic mismanagement, the gains of the first years faded away the longer the Workers’ Party stayed in office. Worse still, both Lula and his handpicked successor, Dilma Rousseff, were charged with serious counts of corruption.* The fact that such a figure of hope could turn out to be so fallible did much to make ordinary Brazilians profoundly cynical. The ascent of as blunt and angry an authoritarian as Bolsonaro probably would not have been possible without it.

Unlike Lula’s, Obama’s presidency was remarkably free of scandal. The fact that he was ultimately unable to deliver on many of his promises had more to do with the obstinacy of his opponents than with any failings of his own. And yet it is hard to look at the past 10 years of American politics and avoid thinking that there is a certain similarity to the Brazilian case: Obama’s election raised outsized hopes. When many of these hopes were dashed, a lot of Americans grew deeply cynical. And a substantial portion of those cynics then decided to send a giant, orange wrecking ball to Washington.

That, in turn, is not a good omen for countries, like France, that have now invested outsized hopes in charismatic leaders who presented themselves as the last line of defense against the rise of populism. Indeed, after sweeping to office on a huge wave of popularity, Emmanuel Macron is already facing a deeply disappointed electorate. According to recent polls, less than a third of French citizens now approve of his performance on the job. But it is far from clear who might succeed him. So unless Macron, improbably, manages to turn his presidency around, France could face its own Trump or Bolsonaro in 2022.

3) Countries don’t learn from their history

Brazil’s military dictatorship, which ruled the country for 21 years, was exceptionally brutal. When Brazilians finally managed to overthrow the generals and build a seemingly robust democracy, it looked as though the country’s intimate experience of dictatorship would protect it from authoritarian temptations for the foreseeable future. But this turned out not to be the case: Even though Bolsonaro has actively lauded the dictatorship in the past, a clear majority of his citizens have now entrusted him with the highest office in the land. As Marcelo Paiva, a Brazilian writer whose father was tortured and killed by the military regime, wrote in the wake of the election: “I thought that the life of my father and the suffering of my family and of many others was an essential chapter to help Brazil reflect and evolve. We never imagined that our struggle and pain would serve no purpose.”

Another election that took place on Sunday shows that Brazil is not the only country in which elites have long been too willing to assume that a dark past would somehow pave the way for a brighter future. When I traveled to Berlin to talk to some of Germany’s most senior politicians in the fall of 2016, at a time when the far-right Alternative for Germany already enjoyed double-digit support in many polls, nearly all of them assured me that Germans, well aware of the dangers of fascism, would never give the far-right the 5 percent they needed to enter the Bundestag. Less than 12 months later, they got 13 percent in federal elections held in September 2017, becoming the country’s third-strongest party.

Alternative for Germany’s streak of success has only continued since. Just this past Sunday, it took 13 percent of the vote in Hesse, a state that should provide them with less fertile hunting ground. Thanks to this latest victory, the party is now represented in every single state parliament in the country. While Germans are far from handing the levers of power over to right-wing populists, the widespread belief that the Nazi past would make it impossible for a far-right populist party to establish itself in the country has clearly turned out to be deeply naïve; and if that is true of Germany—a country that has grappled with its totalitarian past much more deeply than most—it’s fair to fear that the same could, under the right circumstances, turn out to be true of just about every other country in the world as well.

4) Authoritarian demagogues can thrive in diverse countries

Demography, it turns out, is not destiny.

Particularly in the United States, many people equate authoritarian populism with xenophobia, and xenophobia with white people. A candidate like Trump, they believe, can only appeal to a dwindling white majority running scared because it is about to lose its privileges. A surprisingly hopeful conclusion follows from this frightening premise: Because the United States—and many other countries around the world—are growing more diverse, the potential for authoritarian populists keeps shrinking. If only we get through the next few years, the good side will win the demographic race and triumph over the populists.

Bolsonaro’s success shows that this is simply not the case. Though his views on race relations are hardly enlightened, his form of authoritarian populism is built not on overt racial appeals but rather on sexism, homophobia, and a strident defense of “traditional” values. As a result, Bolsonaro has managed to win well over half of the vote in a country that is already “majority minority.”

The same, I’m afraid, could easily be possible in the United States. Even though Donald Trump is continually stoking resentment against immigrants from Central America, for example, a recent poll showed that more than four in 10 Latinos approve of his performance in office. If even a president who relies on such nakedly racial appeals is capable of winning a lot of support among minority voters, one can only imagine how much more appealing an authoritarian populist who actually tries to mobilize these groups might prove.

In short, the rise of Bolsonaro shows that Brazilian democracy now faces an acute threat; that the populist wave continues to go strong; that we should not trust democratic messiahs to deliver us from the many devils lurking in the shadows; that even countries which have, in living memory, experienced the horrors of authoritarian rule can entrust their fate into the hands of another strongman; and of course that, in moments of perceived crisis, citizens are liable to throw the lessons of their own country’s dark history to the wind. The threat posed by populism is neither short-lived nor cured by any magical tonic known to man. Democracies around the world—not just in Latin America but also in Western Europe and North America—will have to grapple with the danger it poses for many decades to come.

Correction, Oct. 30, 2018: This piece originally stated that former presidents Lula and Rousseff were convicted on corruption charges. Rousseff has been charged but not convicted.