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The Paradoxical Nature of the “Ways of Moderation” in Brazilian Democracy

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília

A controversial statement in Brazil these days, when President Jair Bolsonaro seems to have slowed down his blatantly authoritarian utterances, is that “institutions are functioning.” Carlos Pereira, a Brazilian leading political scientist, for example, has long argued that Brazil’s institutions are solid,[1] and, in a recent column for Estado de S. Paulo, a newspaper, wrote: “it is surprising that, even when political actors start to behave according to expectations engendered by institutional incentives and constraints, many analysts still have immense difficulty in acknowledging the virtues of the Brazilian political system.” Alberto Carlos Almeida, also a political scientist, has regularly posted on Twitter that Bolsonaro’s current approach to the so-called “Centrão”, a group of congressmen from different parties normally associated with clientelism and the so-called “old politics”, is a sign of such institutional constraint: “Many people are outraged and lost in their analyses because Bolsonaro’s government has become a government of “Centrão”, even in the Senate… Forget Bolsonaro from 2019, he does not exist anymore. He was swallowed, crushed, and liquefied by institutions.”

Such statements seem shocking for many given what the world has recurrently observed from Bolsonaro’s outrageous behavior before and after having taken office. They contrast with various other perceptions of what is really going on in Brazil, some stressing how, step by step, he has threatened basic freedoms, adopted an illiberal agenda,[2] and effectively tried to erode Brazil’s democratic institutions.[3] In some respects, such movements remind us of what the constitutional literature has called “abusive constitutionalism,”[4] “stealth authoritarianism,”[5] and the like, in which institutional disruption comes from within, in a gradual movement that is more difficult to diagnose as typically authoritarian, but nonetheless highly disruptive to democratic credentials as time goes by. This is, for example, what Conrado Hübner Mendes, a leading constitutional professor, has long argued by stressing that Brazil’s institutions are not working properly, and, instead, are suffering a gradual process of take-over. As he says, “Bolsonaro has not leaned to the center. The ‘Centrão’ leaned to Bolsonaro”. In sharp contrast to those who argue that Bolsonaro’s partnership with “Centrão” would constrain his most authoritarian impulses, Hübner Mendes’s message could not be more straightforward: “’Centrão” is only center for the idiot of literalness, who joins hands with the idiot of objectivity and look at the country from his or her hyperbaric chamber of political analysis.”

This is a fascinating debate and reveals how difficult it is to interpret bolsonarismo in view of the rapid pace of events Brazil has endured at least since 2013. That was the year of demonstrations all over the country with a set of contrasting agendas that went from general calls for social justice to specific ones such as tightening the ban on abortion. In my piece for I-CONnect titled “Brazilian Elections and Demonstrations of June 2013: The Rise of Conservatism?,”[6] I concluded that “as this new vague call to arms took the lead, and the environment of social catharsis validate any and all political claims, conservative leaders were able to seize control of the movement by condemning politics in general while reaffirming traditional conservative values.” Bolsonaro was not on the radar at that time, but the seeds of the movement he would lead some years later were already there and would just get stronger and stronger. The fact that Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election in 2018 as an outlier is less stunning nowadays: Bolsonaro was not there in 2013, but bolsonarismo was fermenting fast.

It is these crossroads where bolsonarismo and Bolsonaro as President meet each other that may help explain such contrasting viewpoints of Brazil’s current reality. Bolsonarismo despises any type of institutional constraint, appeals to “direct democracy”, and adopts a messianic narrative based on national symbols, militarization, and patriotism. Despite the undeniable dysfunctionalities of Brazilian institutions, bolsonarismo does not fit well in a constitutional framework where presidents are strong, but so are the Parliament and the Supreme Court. It also does not fit well in a country whose political system is largely fragmented[7] and where federalism, though very centralizing, plays some role. The vulnerabilities and weaknesses of such a system do not eliminate the fact that, at various levels, there is a reasonable degree of pluralism among the political, economic, and legal forces, and that disputes among contrasting interests have long favored certain mechanisms of coordination, however imperfect, informal, or even immoral and illegal they may be.

It is no wonder that Bolsonaro as President would be an imperfect embodiment of bolsonarismo once in power. It does not follow, however, that institutions are properly functioning or that Bolsonaro is a changed person who was shaped by institutions. Institutions do matter and play a role – Brazil has serious problems, but it would be misleading to simply disregard the institutional improvements Brazil has achieved over the years of democratic life. Yet, though institutions “may even have properties than none of its components or members share,”[8] one cannot deny that longstanding and entrenched interests define how institutions will behave: “Acknowledging that institutions matter is not the same as saying that only institutions matter.”[9]

This is where self-preservation tends to overcome formal and informal boundaries and challenges moral calls of any sort. Paradoxically or not, it may even stabilize the political system. Celso Rocha de Barros, a sociologist, wrote a column for Folha de S. Paulo, a major newspaper, titled: “What will happen if Brazilian democracy is saved because of its defects?”. His argument is simple, but powerful: perhaps, “…in an optimistic scenario”, Bolsonaro might be merely “a wrong turn in the path towards our democracy,” but the legacy is already appalling. It is not only his authoritarian attacks on institutions, freedoms, environment, etc. – this is bolsonarismo in its core, after all -, but the strengthening of what he calls “ways of moderation” that are anchored in clientelism, corruption, and self-preservation. Brazilian democracy might be preserved at the expense of strengthening its own evils.

Brazil is a fascinating case for understanding the paradoxical nature of such “ways of moderation” that may help preserve democracy, but by lowering its quality. It also reveals that the association of democracy with the self-preservation of political actors can be at the very least a morally disturbing call. Even though some historical evidence has shown that successful democracies “must protect those with power to disrupt democracy,”[10] as Barry Weingast puts it, this very concept of democracy seems to be at odds when self-preservation disrupts normative principles of justice, otherness or fairness.[11] Such normative calls have long challenged rational choice models that stress that democracy stabilizes itself – thereby becoming “self-enforcing”[12] – by finding an equilibrium among competing interests. For those normative calls, democracy needs more than stability and cannot, contrary to Przeworski, be “simply a system in which incumbents lose elections and leave when they lose.”[13]

In the end, it seems that Brazil is again dealing with what has long been its Achilles heel. The debates over whether Brazilian institutions are working have lasted for decades,[14] and it is natural that they gain momentum when Brazil’s democracy is challenged by such a shocking figure as Jair Bolsonaro. Yet by delving into such longstanding “ways of moderation,” we may better grasp the centripetal and longstanding forces that have successfully operated inside Brazil’s institutions and which may help explain why Brazil’s democracy may be a half full or half empty glass. It may also help explain why Bolsonaro as President needs to be half bolsonarismo and half Centrão. The question is whether this is a feasible equilibrium. In a scenario of economic crisis as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be at least naïve to count on that. If history is a good omen, we know already the powers of such “ways of moderation,” but history is full of examples of betrayal of its own past.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Paradoxical Nature of the “Ways of Moderation” in Brazilian Democracy, Int’l J. Const L. Blog, Nov. 13, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/11/the-paradoxical-nature-of-the-ways-of-moderation-in-brazilian-democracy/


[1]  See Marcus André Melo and Carlos Pereira Making Brazil Work: Checking the President in a Multiparty System, (Palgrave Macmillan 2013)

[2]  Pedro Abrantes Martins, Freedom at Stake in Brazil: An Illiberal Project Unfolds Under Bolsonaro’s Regime, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 17, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/10/freedom-at-stake-in-brazil-an-illiberal-project-unfolds-under-bolsonaros-regime/

[3]  Antonio Moreira Maués, Bolsonaro’s First Year: Trying to Erode Democracy, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 1, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/02/bolsonaros-first-year-trying-to-erode-democracy/

[4]  David Landau, ‘Abusive Constitutionalism’ (2013) 47 U.C.D. L. Rev. 189, 189-260.

[5]  Ozan O. Varol, ‘Stealth Authoritarianism’ (2015) 100 Iowa L. Rev. 1673, 1673.

[6]  Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, Brazilian Elections and Demonstrations of June 2013: The Rise of Conservatism?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Nov. 1, 2014, available at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2014/10/brazilian-elections-and-demonstrations-of-june-2013-the-rise-of-conservatism.

[7]  See Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Shield Against Authoritarianism? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 24, 2019, at http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/10/the-party-fragmentation-paradox-in-brazil-a-shield-against-authoritarianism/

[8]  Adrian Vermeule The System of the Constitution, 5 (Oxford University Press 2011) .

[9]  Fernando Limongi and Angelina Cheibug Fiegueiredo, ‘A Crise Atual e o Debate Institucional’ (2017) 36 Novos Estudos CEBRAP 79, 96.

[10] Barry Weingast, ’Designing Constitutional Stability’ in Roger Congleton and Birgitta Swedenborg (ed.), Democratic Constitutional Design and Public Policy Analysis and Evidence (MIT Press 2006) 346

[11] See Jürgen Habermas Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory, (John Wiley & Sons 2018) ; Jacques Derrida The Politics of Friendship, (Verso 2005) ; Ronald Dworkin Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality, (Harvard university press 2002)

[12] See Adam Przeworski, ‘Self-Enforcing Democracy’ (2006) The Oxford Handbook of Political Economy 312, 312-28.

[13] Adam Przeworski Crises of Democracy, 4(Cambridge University Press 2019)

[14] See Argelina Cheibub Figueiredo and Fernando Limongi, ’Political Institutions and Governamental Performance in Brazilian Democracy’ in Dana de la Fontaine and Thomas Stehnken (ed.), The Political System of Brazil (Springer 2016) ; Fernando Limongi and Angelina Cheibug Fiegueiredo, ‘A Crise Atual e o Debate Institucional’ (2017) 36 Novos Estudos CEBRAP 79, 79-97; Fernando Limongi and Angelina Cheibug Fiegueiredo, ‘A Crise Atual e o Debate Institucional’ (2017) 36 Novos Estudos CEBRAP 79, 79-97; Carlos Ranulfo Melo, ‘As Instituições Políticas Brasileiras Funcionam?’ (2005) 25 Revista de Sociologia e Política 199, 199-203; Marcus André Melo and Carlos Pereira Making Brazil Work: Checking the President in a Multiparty System, (Palgrave Macmillan 2013); Barry Ames The Deadlock of Democracy in Brazil, (University of Michigan Press 2001)

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Published on November 13, 2020
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