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The Historian of the Future in Brazilian Democracy: The Challenges of Interpreting and Comparing Events of Our Own Time

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development

[Editors’ Note: This is one of our biweekly ICONnect columns. For more information on our four columnists for 2021, please see here.]

For a Brazilian, the prospect of Trump winning the US presidential elections in 2020 could mean that Brazil, with its less robust institutional framework and democratic tradition, would very likely re-elect Jair Bolsonaro as President in 2022. The “Trump of the Tropics”, after all, shares similar strategies of leadership mystification, massive adoption of social media as direct communication with his supporters, and creation of a network of misinformation and parallel reality. Many other typical tactics of would-be autocrats are also present, but Bolsonaro seems to behave as if he is taking his steps in Trump’s shoes, in a symbiosis that looks nothing short of subservient. The playbook looks weirdly similar despite the institutional differences of both countries. Yet Trump lost the election, and, as largely predicted, not only did he not concede, but also did everything he could to contest the results and attack the electoral system. Barton Gelmann, in September 2020, wrote for The Atlantic, the story “The Election that Could Break America,” whose main argument was already in the subtitle: “If the vote is close, Donald Trump could easily throw the election into chaos and subvert the result. Who will stop him?.” He was right, though the outcome – “the chaos candidate and the commander in chief will be one and the same” – did not prevail in the end. Institutions seemed to have worked somehow, but American democracy ended up seeming far less robust. For that Brazilian, this sequence of events certainly looked shocking, but also frightening: What happens if Bolsonaro loses the election? If chaos followed in the US, what about Brazil?

Constitutional lawyers and political scientists are keen on predicting what the outcome of events will be, and the impact of the US presidential elections on Brazil under Bolsonaro is no different. It is a fascinating case for comparative law and politics because similar experiences provide valuable material for observing the many variables that may or may not favor the expected outcome. Moreover, they tend to expose the need to go beyond the traditional approach to constitutional law or political science. More than normative assumptions or rational choice models of all sorts and complexities, such attempts to foresee the future have to deal with the imponderable clash between short and long-term histories, which is intensified by the unsurmountable challenges of comparative studies. The future is always a difficult bet, but it is an even more difficult one if what has long lain beneath the fast-changing events of history is overlooked.

Historians have a singular capacity of grasping such underlying developments in time, the stubborn movements that linger despite the various turbulences and instabilities of the current moment. This is the reason why historians often feel uncomfortable with their own time. The challenges of writing about the present is one that endeavors to shake some historians’ assumptions. Eric Hobsbawm, for example, saw in the experience of writing about his own time a mixture of surprises and deceptions.[1] His advice was somehow already anticipated by another great British historian, Llewellyn Woodward, who, in a paper published in 1966, wrote that “some sort of after-knowledge is necessary if history is to be written at all.”[2] This is the fascinating message that should be in every discussion of the present: we should know “what happened next” or the “sequence of happenings in time.”[3]

This “what happened next” is the imponderable that whoever is aiming to think of potential scenarios in the future cannot naturally still reach. It is certainly paradoxical, but a great analyst of such scenarios has to behave like a historian of the future: he or she cannot forget those stubborn movements of long-term history. As they have lingered for long, the odds are that they will be determinant for molding what is not yet “after knowledge”. The long-term history is where we identify more clearly those self-reinforcing processes, continuously reinforced by a sequence of positive feedbacks that make any change of the path extremely challenging.[4] As time goes by and those processes reproduce over history and gain strength, the future is more and more dependent on that path. In other words, path-dependence, a concept so well explored in distinct areas of social sciences, is a key argument that will not obviously say “what happened next” in attempts to foresee the future but will point to “what probably happens next”. Circumstances and critical junctures may change the course of events, but assuming that they tend to follow a certain path relieves a bit the burden of dealing with the imponderable. As Douglass North puts it, “path dependence is a way to narrow conceptually the choice set and link decision making through time.”[5]

A common feeling by both American and Brazilian scholars is that living under such presidents, who constantly transgress some of the most basic democratic norms, is highly stressful. More stressful still is to observe that disrupting democracy looks much easier than expected, even in countries with a long democratic tradition as the United States. In the end, all that chaos Americans and the world could daily follow in the news after the US presidential elections showed that that surreal outcome Barton Gelmann had foreseen in his piece for The Atlantic looked more and more real. In Brazil, the image of the insurrection at the Capitol Hill was rapidly interpreted as a troubling sign of “what probably happens next” in the country. The playbook was all there: Bolsonaro was one of the last leaders to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory. He waited 38 days to do so and only did it when the Electoral College confirmed the result, not without first alleging electoral fraud. The same narrative was being reproduced in the tropics, leading thereby scholars to conclude that if, “in the United States, the democracy does not seem assured, the scenario for what is left of the Brazilian democracy looks even more under threat.”[6]

Such signs are indeed troubling, even more so when some other variables of the Brazilian context are in play. For example, an argument that has gained strength is the link between Bolsonaro and the military. Since the transition to democracy in 1985, the military looked under control to the point that even the Minister of Defense, from 1999 until Michel Temer took office in 2016, was a civilian. Emilio Meyer and Ulisses dos Reis, in a recent fascinating piece for Verfassungsblog, argued, with some shocking examples, however, how the military has vastly gained space in Bolsonaro’s government (and even before, during Michel Temer’s presidency) and how the Brazilian Supreme Court and lower courts have mostly failed to tackle the situation. The title of their piece is strong – “Brazilian Democracy under Military Tutelage” – and their main argument, based on Haggard and Kaufman’s Dictators and Democrats: Masses, Elites, and Regime Change[7], is that “the ingredients for a weak democracy syndrome are all present in Brazil: poor functioning of institutions; enduring economic crisis; and, praetorianism, that is, the absence of civilian control of the military.” Fernando Barros e Silva, a leading journalist, reveals this drama when he writes in an impactful and enthralling piece for Piauí that “Bolsonaro brought together in an unprecedented way the military and the militias around a Mafia-type government.” The scenario could not be worse: if Bolsonaro loses the election, according to those signs, there will be a fight and blood, and the military and militias will be there supporting Bolsonaro.

Such a narrative is surely well-based and persuasive. Brazil’s transition to democracy, after all, though very participatory and leading to important breakthroughs in the 1988 Constitution,[8] did not solve the military issue. The compromises with the military were shameful for Brazilian democracy: the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1985) were basically kept out of the radar and a general amnesty, introduced by legislation in 1979,[9] was declared constitutional by the Supreme Court in a controversial decision in 2010.[10] Despite that, the very idea that Brazil would be under military tutelage after democracy has long sounded out of place. It has also seemed rather anachronistic: after years of democratic life, imagining a scenario where the military would define the destiny of the nation looked like a grotesque caricature of a country that has some serious dysfunctionalities, but which has nevertheless experienced significant changes in society and largely improved its institutional framework and mechanisms of democracy.[11] The vast literature about Brazil and its institutional development during that time did acknowledge its shortcomings, but also its significant improvements in distinct areas.[12] The landscape started to become bleaker especially during President Dilma Rousseff’s second term and her impeachment in 2016, but the rebirth of the military – and the reappearance of the word “tutelage” – would only gain shape under Michel Termer’s presidency (2016-2018) and become a major concern under Bolsonaro.

However, the question still remains. On the one hand, the very feeling of writing about the present under such stressful circumstances, when we do not know “what happened next”, may lead us to paint some current developments with the specters of the past, overreacting to such facts as if they were more determinant than they really are. The narrative that the military are such central players in Brazilian democracy to the point of setting up a sort of “tutelage”, though well-founded, could suffer from what psychologists call “dichotomous thinking”, which is a “tendency to think in extremes” with the potentiality of “[distorting the] perception of reality”. The fact that Brazil endured a civil-military dictatorship for 21 years and that this a typical tactics of would-be autocrats largely documented in comparative studies would contribute to this phenomenon. On the other hand, misinterpreting such signs or failing to pay due attention to them would place the interpreter among those who may deeply regret his or her severe mistake once “what happened next” is known and the chaos is already installed. In this scenario, the psychological behavior of “unrealistic optimism” or “optimism bias” helps explain why such analyses may have stuck to some positive movements or interpreted them overly optimistically while other structural and more damaging developments were taking place beneath. This is where those who advocate that Brazilians institutions are functioning[13] or that Bolsonaro is being “normalized” by the institutions[14] may deeply regret if “what happened next” shows how terribly they had failed. Under stress, clinging to the slightest sign of hope is a relief, but maybe a short-term one.

There is no easy call here. The failures of analyses are significantly intensified when we are overwhelmed by the craziness of such a fast-pace of events, and even more so when what we hold most dear in our research field – our democracies – happens to be far more delicate. But a historian of the future would narrow his or her choices of “what probably happens next”. In the end, his or her conclusions may be more accurate, but less appealing because what has long lain beneath is just that: processes that have been self-reinforcing over time. This means Brazil’s longstanding evils and achievements, whose switching costs have highly increased since its transition to democracy, which does not deny the power of contingencies.[15] It is quite a consensus that, like Trump, Bolsonaro will not concede, if he loses the election, and that he will even attempt a coup.[16] But there is still a big “if” he will succeed. Moreover, Bolsonaro may also win the elections, which adds a new layer of complexity to this debate. The cards are on the table, but, as Hobsbawm puts it, “whatever our reaction, the discovery that we were mistaken, that we cannot have understood it adequately, must be the starting point of our reflections on the history of our times.”[17]

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Historian of the Future in Brazilian Democracy: The Challenges of Interpreting and Comparing Events of Our Own Time, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 24, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/02/the-historian-of-the-future-in-brazilian-democracy-the-challenges-of-interpreting-and-comparing-events-of-our-own-time/


[1] See Hobsbawm, E. (2009) The Present as History: Writing the History of One’s Own Time. In The Creighton Century, 1907–2007, (Eds, Bates, D., Wallis, J. & Winters, J.) University of London Press, pp. 269-286.

[2] Woodward, L. (1966) The Study of Contemporary History. Journal of Contemporary History, Vo1. 1, 4-5

[3] Id.

[4] See Pierson, P. (2004) Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton University Press, p. 40.

[5] North, D.C. (1990) Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; New York, p. 98

[6] Rafael R. Iorio, Após invasão nos EUA, o que resta da democracia no Brasil está sob ameaça(Carta Capital, Jan. 12, 2021), https://www.cartacapital.com.br/artigo/apos-invasao-nos-eua-o-que-resta-de-democracia-no-brasil-esta-sob-ameaca/

[7] Haggard, Stephan; Kaufman, Robert R. Dictators and Democrats: Masses, Elites, and Regime Change (Princeton, 2017).

[8] See Benvindo, J.Z. (2017) The Forgotten People in Brazilian Constitutionalism: Revisiting Behavior Strategic Analyses of Regime Transitions. International Journal of Constitutional Law, vol. 15, 332-357.

[9] Lei n. 6.683/79

[10] STF, ADPF 153. See Emilio Peluso Neder Meyer (ed.); Justiça de Transição nos 25 Anos da Constituição de 1988 (Initia Via, 2014).

[11] See Vermeule, A. (2007) Mechanisms of Democracy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[12] See Carson, L.D. & Prado, M.M. (2016) Using Institutional Multiplicity to Adress Corruption as a Colective Action Problem: Lessons from the Brazilian Case. The Quarterly Review of Economics and Finance, vol. 62, 56-65; Melo, M.A. & Pereira, C. (2013) Making Brazil Work: Checking the President in a Multiparty System. Palgrave Macmillan, New York; Power, T.J. & Taylor, M.M. (Eds.) (2011) Corruption and Democracy in Brazil: The Struggle for Accountability University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Indiana; Hagopian, F. (2016) Brazil’s Accountability Paradox. Journal of Democracy, vol. 27, 119-128; Mainwaring, S. (Ed.) (2018) Party Systems in Latin America: Institutionalization, Decay, and Collapse Cambridge University Press, Cambridge}

[13] See Carlos Pereira, Contorcionismo Intepretativo (Estadão, Oct. 19, 2020), https://politica.estadao.com.br/noticias/geral,contorcionismo-interpretativo,70003480006

[14] See Marcus André Melo, Bolsonaro e seu futuro (Folha de S. Paulo, Dec. 6, 2020), Carlos Melo, Um Não à Futura “Invasão do Capitólio” (Estadaõ, Feb. 19, 2021), https://politica.estadao.com.br/blogs/carlos-melo/um-nao-a-futura-invasao-do-capitolio/

[15] See Pierson, P. (2004) Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis. Princeton University Press, p. 50.

[16] See Breiller Pires, “Bolsonaro sempre imitou Trump. E vai fazer a mesma coisa em 2022” (El País, Nov. 6, 2020),https://brasil.elpais.com/internacional/2020-11-07/bolsonaro-sempre-imitou-trump-revisitar-a-teoria-de-fraude-agora-e-uma-maneira-de-seguir-magnetizando-as-massas-radicais.html; Esquerda e direita mostram imensa fragilidade diante de Bolsonaro, diz Marcos Nobre(Carta Capital, Feb. 13, 2021), https://www.cartacapital.com.br/politica/esquerda-e-direita-mostram-imensa-fragilidade-diante-de-bolsonaro-diz-marcos-nobre/; Maria Hermínia Tavares, Bolsonaro tem roteiro para o golpe (Folha de S. Paulo, Jan. 13, 2021), https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/colunas/maria-herminia-tavares/2021/01/bolsonaro-tem-roteiro-para-o-golpe.shtml

[17] Hobsbawm, E. (2009) The Present as History: Writing the History of One’s Own Time. In The Creighton Century, 1907–2007, (Eds, Bates, D., Wallis, J. & Winters, J.) University of London Press, p. 284.

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Published on February 24, 2021
Author:          Filed under: Analysis
 

One Response

  1. Mariana L

    When Trump lost the elections it seemed like Brazil also had some hope, but the aftermatch of the results were concerning with the insurrection at the Capitol Hill.
    It’s really hard to “predict” what will happen, as already said, it is hard enough to tell what is happening whithout being affected by the distress we are, living in a governement with so much offenses against the democracy. There is still one year of wishful thinking.

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