Writing to a friend about his pessimism regarding the future of Western Civilization, Jacob Burckhardt made an interesting observation. The Swiss historian believed that history was not a linear process and that he could see that sometimes that Providence contains some surprises for us. It is with this combination of surprise and pessimism that we should analyze the Brazilian presidential election in which Jair Bolsonaro, a populist candidate with conservative tendencies, who made the defense of traditional Christian values the main point of his electoral promises, received the biggest share of votes in the first round voting on Oct. 7.
Modern Brazil was born in 1985 when the military regime gave way to a civilian government. Raised to power by a civil-military movement that overthrew the proto-communist government of João Goulart, the military decided to build a government based on ”truculence” and contempt towards the very civilian leadership that had supported them. This erratic behavior led to serial mistakes. To begin with, they politically destroyed the main and most popular conservative leader in Brazilian history, Carlos Lacerda, for the simple fact that they did not accept any competition.
General Golbery do Couto e Silva, the mastermind of the regime, created a political theory called the pressure cooker. Accordingly to this theory since the left had been removed from power and the communist guerrillas destroyed, some space had to be left for leftism to avoid social upheaval. The area chosen by the general as an outlet was precisely culture. As a result, after the military finally left power, all cultural outlets had been taken by the left. Left-wing ideas became hegemonic in the universities. In 1964 the overwhelming majority of newspapers were openly anti-Communists. By 1985 the only conservatives working in a newspaper of great circulation, The State of São Paulo, were Lenildo Tabosa Pessoa, and Gustavo Corção.
Surprised by the massive popular support for the army in 1964, the left decided to rethink the strategy of the power seizure. Through Brazilian Civilization magazine, which circulated freely in spite of the dictatorial regime, the left began to look at the Marxism ideas expressed by the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci. Soon, the strategies of domination otherwise known as “long march through institutions” became the left’s new mantra. The Brazilian left understood that the power seizure would not take place through violent means. Instead they turned to systematic and infiltration of institutions – including religious institution.
This cultural revolution by the Brazilian left was extremely efficient. The conservatives and the military ended up facing a life-and-death war over which they had no strategic understanding of its nature. The conservatives were thus marginalized from the political debate, academia, publishing, and the media.
The culmination of this process of conquering power was the division of the political spoils between two leftist groups that took turns in the presidency of the republic.
The PT (Workers ‘Party) and the PSDB (Brazilian Social-Democratic Party) were born among the intellectuals of the University of Sao Paulo, more precisely at the CEBRAP (Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning), a think-tank financed by the Ford Foundation. Among the members of this organization were the sociologist, theorist of the Dependency Theory, founder of the PSDB, and future president Fernando Henrique Cardoso (FHC), plus a dozen radical intellectuals who would join liberation theologians and syndicalist to create the PT.
In the 24 years following FHC’s victory in the 1994 elections, PT and PSDB became the only electoral options. Though the two groups diverge on some issues, they agree on the main goals of the Gramscian cultural revolution: the destruction of the traditional family and traditional social arrangements, feminism, while advancing abortion, and political correctness ideology. Even though the Brazilian population remained mostly attached to values considered conservative, the political system had been shaped to guarantee the leftist hegemony. It was the perfect example of what the German political theorist Robert Michels once described: “The organization is which gives place to the domain of the elected over the electors, the representatives over the people.”
The political changes that Brazil has been going through in the last few years owe much to the advance of the internet, social networks and the translation of conservative writers into Portuguese. Here lies a parallel between contemporary populist movements that have risen against the political establishment. Brexit and other anti-system movements gained strength partly of economic issues but also because they broke through the blockade imposed by the left to create networks of supporters who were unafraid of being demonized by the media. This counter-cultural revolution broke the left’s hold on the political debate. Even those who do not agree with everything Bolsonaro says can see in him someone who dares to speak the truth.
The first wave of protests in the post-1985 Brazil took place in June 2013. It began with a far-left movement demanding free public transportation in the city of Sao Paulo but quickly evolved into a mass movement against the political system as a whole. The Left, especially the PT, tried to weaponize the movement to expand its power but forgot that the PT was the system itself.
In a short time, people who had never had active political participation began to engage mainly through the internet. Many young conservatives came to realize that there was a whole political world that they did not know about; they thus started to build informal communication networks for the distribution of information. These conservatives learned how to imitate the tactics of the left, which they proved to have mastered during the political crisis that culminated in the deposition of the former president Dilma Rousseff in 2016 due to a mix of corruption and economic meltdown. The wave that swept Brazil in the presidential election electorally destroyed the PSDB. The party that had divided power with the PT and served as the means whereby the left dominated the conservative electorate was reduced to irrelevance.
Precisely in the moment that the left started to lose its cultural hegemony, the politically incorrect figure of Bolsonaro, a retired army captain, was able to catalyze the sense of rebellion of a significant part of the Brazilian population against the political system that has been shaped by the left over the past 40 years. He is first and foremost a real change in the Brazilian political life towards a more decent society.
In sum, the Brazilian election suggests that, among other things, the Brazilian t left’s cultural dominance of politics has been destroyed, and the right is being reborn. The next step will be to see if Brazilian conservatives and classical liberals can consolidate their gains culturally as well as politically.
Image: Jair Bolsonaro. O deputado Jair Bolsonaro durante promulgação da Emenda Constitucional 77, que permite médicos militares trabalharem no SUS (Antonio Cruz/Agência Brasil) Wikimedia