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Bolsonaro versus Brazil’s elites

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In his book Sovereignty (1955), the French philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel observed that one of the significant phenomena in the construction of the modern state was the concentration of the means of communication in the hands of a few. The outcome was an asymmetrical distribution of power. According to De Jouvenel, the more the political power was concentrated in the bureaucracy’s hands, the more inaccessible became the means of communication for ordinary people. In this way, much of the media became part of the soft power exercised by those who control the modern state. The Internet’s advent has radically changed this state of affairs.

The victory of the conservative populist Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential elections is an example of how the Internet is shaping politics. In a country that has lacked a conservative political tradition in recent decades, Bolsonaro won without a structured political party and against the media and political establishment. The media establishment endlessly attacked Bolsonaro and sought to build the image of the leftist candidate as a champion of democracy.

However, widespread distrust of the political establishment has contaminated the Brazilian media establishment. People no longer rely on conventional newspapers to get information. Thus your neighbor who read something on Facebook is now seen as more reliable than the editor of Folha de Sao Paulo, the largest newspaper in Brazil. In a country where 90 percent of the population has access to the Internet, Bolsonaro used social networks to carry his message to the most remote places in Brazil. It was also through social networks that Bolsonaro fought an information guerrilla war to overcome the media establishment’s attempt to portray him as intolerant and dangerous men.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro also won the presidential election because of a generalized revulsion against the corruption and incompetence of leftist political parties. It is no exaggeration to say that this election was about the holders of power and their clients seeking to preserve the status quo against everyone else.

The on-going divorce between those who have political power (the elites) and those who do not have it (the people) is a phenomenon which has been widely debated since Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. Nonetheless, it was the American sociologist Christopher Lasch who best conceptualized this political phenomenon in his book The Revolt of the Elites: And the Betrayal of Democracy (1994). Lasch describes how political elites throughout the West detached themselves from the rest of the population and went on to undertake a social engineering program to ensure their power in the long run. The resulting destabilization of the traditional structures that maintains a social cohesion over time is a feeling of social displacement and malaise towards political life.

A common topic in Brazilian political science of the 1950s and 1960s was the idea of the Brazilian Revolution. For Brazilian theoreticians such as Alberto Guerreiro Ramos and Raymundo Faoro, the history of Brazil can be understood as the struggle of the people against the elites or, as they prefer to call it, the bureaucratic establishment. According to the interpretation of these thinkers, all changes in Brazilian politics occurred within the elites. The numerous changes of political regimes were not revolutions, but a political re-articulation that arises when one faction of the bureaucratic establishment overrides the other. The people, then, are the passive agent of the Brazilian historical process. Brazilian political elites, Faoro writes, have always worked to adjust themselves to possible political clashes without ever losing their primacy over the power of command. Once the elites see their influence in jeopardy, they seek to emasculate the people and prevent the rise of new groups. The process by which the elites try to secure control over the historical process results in the revolt of the elites described by Lasch.

Bolsonaro’s election reflected the populist reaction against these trends in Brazil. His main political argument was concerned with the need to stop the erosion of the community life. He stresses how Brazil’s social fabric is unraveling and that part of the solution to this problem is a return to the West’s Christian roots.

Bolsonaro has redefined the political debate by prioritizing issues that actually matter to the majority of the population. Instead of wasting time debating whether the government should create an affirmative action program for transgenders, he spoke about uncontrolled violence. Instead of endlessly discussing the feminist agenda, Bolsonaro talked about addressing problems of 13 million unemployed Brazilians. Instead of forever insisting that Brazil is a secular country and should be dominated by secular humanism, Bolsonaro said that the Christian majority have the right to speak about moral questions as Christians and not be constrained by the political correctness and intolerance of the left.

One of the left’s most successful strategies, at least since the French Revolution, has been its ability to set the terms of political debate upon its rivals, on how the political dispute should take place. The shift of the axis of public discussion out of the left’s control is Bolsonaro’s first great achievement. Bolsonaro, however, grasped that Brazilians are tired of being treated like idiots by conventional politicians and was able to break the control of what always has essentially been a neo-Marxist movement over the terms of political debate.

Bolsonaro’s new challenge is to turn the spirit of this conservative revolt into a coherent political and economic project that fundamentally recasts the nature of Brazil as a political community. And that, it seems, will be an even greater test for Brazil’s new president.

Homepage photo credit:Protesto contra a nomeação do ex-presidente Lula como ministro da Casa Civil, em frente ao Palácio do Planalto. Date: 16 March 2016, 20:50:01. Author: Agência Brasil Fotografias. Wiki Commons.

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Silvio Simonetti Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.

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