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The Call for Politics in the Americas: A Constitutional Turning Point?

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.]

In his fascinating book Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America, Edmund S. Morgan brings very precise words to describe popular sovereignty: “Government requires make-believe, requires the willing suspension of disbelief… In order to be viable, in order to serve its purpose, whatever that purpose may be, a fiction must bear some resemblance to fact. If it strays too far from fact, the willing suspension of disbelief collapses. And conversely it may collapse if facts stray too far from the fiction that we want them to resemble.”[1] There is a fragile equilibrium between fiction and reality at the core of constitutionalism. We need those fictions, but, though they cannot be deemed “self-evident truths,”[2] they should at least bear some connection to the real world, and vice-versa. Democracies are seriously challenged when such a suspension of disbelief collapses, a trend that has proven true with new strategies of mass communication that are strongly adopted by far-right movements. In the Americas, with greater or lesser success, this could be found in Trump (US), Bolsonaro (Brazil), and, most recently, Kast (Chile), just to cite the three most in evidence. But, if disrupting that equilibrium is a major feature connecting them, how the real world – and, particularly, the political system – can be better protected to fend off attacks on such an equilibrium?

Morgan’s words look indeed increasingly detached from some constitutional democracies these days. Concepts – or make-believes – such as liberty, democracy, equality, representation, and the people, for instance, have gone far beyond the disputes that are naturally expected from complex societies living under a democracy. They have been strategically remodeled to operate in a parallel dimension that is not that of constitutionalism, even if they adopt the language of constitutionalism. The playbook is basically the same if we look closely at Trump’s, Bolsonaro’s, and Kast’s political strategies. All of them are species of what Tom Philips and John Bartlett dubbed “Steve-Bannon-style extremists,” but they could also be called the disrupters of that constitutional equilibrium between make-believes and reality. If so, a sequence of comparable developments may serve not only as a cautionary tale of what could happen elsewhere, but also as a normative guideline to fend off such a kind of threats to liberal democracies.

Donald Trump is a fascinating case because it reveals how the imponderable prevails in this new normal. Barton Gellman wrote for The Atlantic a very interesting piece titled Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun,” whose subtitle speaks volume of the growing perception that America’s near future will be once again challenged by Donald Trump: “January 6 was practice. Donald Trump’s GOP is much better positioned to subvert the next election.” His focus is on how Trump has subverted the Republican Party and how he is “preparing in plain view” to “[topple] a free election” in 2024. This is certainly a development that raises serious concerns for America and other democracies, but it also provides some important insights about constitutional and political design from a comparative perspective.

The fact that Trump lost the 2020 elections barred the expected course of action towards an even more accelerated democratic backsliding that normally occurs when would-be autocrats are reelected.[3] It does not mean, however, that he will not be back. Gellman’s words depict a grim scenario that is largely anchored in the very capacity of such movements to disrupt the traditional conception of political parties, which is aggravated by the fact that the United States features basically a two-party system. In such a case, the incentives for taking over the control of a party increases significantly as such movements need to operate by feeding polarization to be successful. A basically two-party system may be a bad omen when a figure like Trump emerges out of blue and speeds up a process of polarization that had been already taken shape for a while before. Polarization and a two-party system may be a perfect match to operate in a critical and disruptive mode for democracy, even if some nuances should be naturally added to such an equation.

More serious still, longstanding ideological identification with one party – many Americans have voted for a single party for generations, regardless of whoever was running – serves well for such a phenomenon. Party identification is normally interpreted as a good quality for democracies, as it strengthens representation, but to what extent? And if a party ends up downsizing to a political character – in the case, to Trump – , what is the impact on the make-believe of representation, which is better embodied by the very plurality of opinions within political parties? Institutional mediation is naturally a hurdle for would-be autocrats, but how could the will of the people – this make-believe – prevail if, instead of pluralism, monologue plays the cards in the end?

A possible institutional design that may lower the stakes of such a configuration is a multiparty system: it, at least, formally disperses disagreement and encourages politics to reach consensus and compromises. A take-over of a party by a certain strongperson with chances to subvert the whole political system would potentially find more obstacles when there are multiple parties. This is where Brazil under Bolsonaro provides an interesting comparison. Brazil features not only a multiparty system, but also one of the most fragmented in the world. Bolsonaro himself was elected through the inexpressive Social Liberal Party (PSL) and, just after a few months in office, left that party. He then unsuccessfully attempted to create a new one – Aliança Brasil -, and governed for over two years without any party affiliation. Just last month, in November 2021, he joined the much bigger and well-structured Liberal Party (PL), which historically operates through pork barrel (if not corruption), because he needed it to run for reelection.

As with Trump, it has never been a matter of party affiliation – parties are indeed a hurdle for them. Yet, if Bolsonaro takes over the Liberal Party, which he will probably not be able to, it will be just one among many others. More interestingly still, in such a fragmented party system, with few exceptions, party identification is practically non-existent. Also here, like Trump, it is Bolsonaro himself who matters, but, unlike Trump, it could be any other party. This means, however, that Bolsonaro does not carry the same inertial behavior of longstanding party affiliation that is found among Republicans in the United States, so he basically depends on his success. This is why, once losing the elections, the chance that he could take advantage of such an inertial effect to run again in the other presidential elections is rather slender.

Yet, what happens in multiparty systems that have practically been dominated by two coalitions at presidential elections? This was the case in Brazil through coalitions led by the center-left Worker’s Party (PT) and the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) until the 2018 presidential elections, when PSDB was beaten by the then Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) as the contender of PT in the run-off. Or in Chile, where the coalitions Concertación (center-left) and Alianza (center-right) have disputed the presidential elections with great stability, but which have just seen the rise of two politicians running outside these arrangements in the second round: the Apruebo Dignidad of now president-elect Gabriel Boric, and Frente Social Cristiana of the far-right José Antonio Kast? As they are result from coalitions in a multiparty system, the incentives for doing politics are high, even if – as it happened in Brazil and Chile – there was some disruption of such a coalitional system in Brazil’s 2018 and Chile’s 2021 elections.

Brazil and Chile are possibly the closest countries in Latin America when it comes to political organization, and both suffer from severe inequality. It is no wonder that they have undergone similar developments: social protests, progressive agendas, political and social backlashes, and, most recently, the rise of far-right movements, even though Brazil had the misfortune of electing Bolsonaro. Timing matters – Bolsonaro was elected still under the Trump’s wave, whereas Boric is already a symbol of the reemergence of the Left in the region. Despite that, their multiparty system may help explain why Bolsonaro fit badly in such a system, which would also possibly take place if Kast had won the Chilean elections.

In the end, multiparty systems tend to arrange themselves in a way that, if the incumbent goes far beyond the expected negotiations and compromises, and begins clashing with such a system, the backlash is very likely and harsh. Bolsonaro attempted by all means to co-opt Congress through secret budgetary grants as his confrontational behavior was collecting defeats in Congress. He has become, however, a symbol of a weak president whose control of politics and public policies have changed hands to Congress and, in some cases, even to the Supreme Court. However, the lack of governmental coordination has proven disastrous in all fields. This is the reason a call for politics may play out with great appeal in the 2022 presidential elections. At this time, Lula da Silva, a center-left ex-president (2003-2010), is joining efforts to run along with Geraldo Alckmin, a center-right politician who was a PSDB member for 33 years, ran against Lula in the 2006 presidential elections, and was governor of São Paulo for four terms. Gabriel Boric, with all the difficulties he will certainly find in a fragmented Congress, divided society, and a constitution in the making, will also be called to politics in Chile. Against polarization, on which such “Steve-Bannon-style extremists” bet their main chips, this is a time of politics.

It is a striking development for democracies where Edmund Morgan’s words have been blurred by the growing collapse of the willing suspension of disbelief, where that fragile constitutional equilibrium has been disrupted, and where those fictions have strayed too far from reality. The revival of politics is nothing other than the call for the reestablishment of that equilibrium. Chile could prove the strength of its own constitutional moment, but whose new government will certainly face the challenges of politics in such a divided society. Brazil is moving towards the revival of Lula da Silva, but, mostly, the revival of politics after years of its destruction. Joe Biden’s victory also symbolizes such a phenomenon. It might be the rebirth of politics in the region, though the resilience of the disrupters of that constitutional equilibrium is still impressively high and can backfire – as now with the risk of Trump’s comeback. In any case, it is a good sign that, at least in Brazil, the attempt to focus once again on polarization as a strategy for the next elections seems increasingly out of place. May politics – and those make-believes – regain their much-needed value.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Call for Politics in the Americas: A Constitutional Turning Point? Int’l J. Const. L Blog, Dec. 22, 2021, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2021/12/the-call-for-politics-in-the-americas-a-constitutional-turning-point/


[1] ES Morgan, Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America (W. W. Norton & Company 1989) 13-14.

[2] ibid. 14.

[3] See R Dixon and D  Landau, ‘Constitutional End Games: Making Presidential Term Limits Stick’ (2019) 71 Hastings LJ 359, 359.

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Published on December 22, 2021
Author:          Filed under: Analysis
 

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