Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

We Should Learn from Historians: Seeing the Future in Brazil’s Political Landscape

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

The election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s next President has sparked a fruitful debate over the expansion of an illiberal mindset across the globe, now reaching the biggest economy in Latin America and world’s fourth largest democracy. For some, Brazil seems doomed to join the club of countries such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey or Philippines, where an authoritarian turn has clearly undermined some of their democratic credentials. These more recent cases, to a greater or lesser extent, are characterized by the strategic use of constitutionals tools to undermine democracy, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “abusive constitutionalism,”[1] “stealth authoritarianism,”[2] “autocratic legalism,”[3] and the like by prominent scholars. By the same token, in the last years, also motivated by the rise of such an illiberal mindset in mature democracies, a series of books have been published on the subject,[4] and the number of posts on academic blogs on the topic has reached new highs. This phenomenon has also fostered a rich network of scholars working on the subject. For instance, this year Tom Gerald Daly launched the fantastic “Democratic Decay Resource,” which is aimed at “[assisting] researchers and policymakers focused on the deterioration of democratic rule worldwide – and to help them work together.” It is a new paradigm of comparative constitutional studies, and Brazil’s would fill the ranks of another relevant case scholars should be closely looking into.

There are certainly symptoms of “democratic decay” in various parts of the world, and Brazil is clearly one case exemplifying this trend, but, as a constitutional phenomenon that appears to be taking place as a wave, researchers should bear in mind the serious methodological concerns when comparing countries whose backgrounds are distinct. Also, the type and power of the illiberal movements in the different countries differ quite strongly one from the other. However, besides the methodological issues comparativists tend to bear in mind, a critical concern that should play a greater role in such analyses comes from historiographic studies. After all, a common symptom in comparative — and also domestic — constitutional and political studies is that they are often knocked down by the very pace of changes. One of the main difficulties for us constitutional scholars and political scientists nowadays is that we are often beaten by the speed and intensity of the events that are passing by in front of us. Who among us has not written a paper which, at the time it is published, already seems outdated?

Historians are very aware of this difficulty in writing about our own time. Eric J. Hobsbawm, the famous English historian, took some time before exploring the twentieth century in his fascinating The Age of Extremes.[5] He expressed this difficulty in his lecture titled The Present as History: Writing the History of One’s Own Times, first presented at the University of London.[6] According to him, there are three main problems when our own moment is the subject of our writing: “the problem of the historian’s own date of birth, or, more generally, of generations, the problem of how one’s own perspective on the past can change as history proceeds, and the problem of how to escape the assumptions of the time which most of us share.”[7] A fascinating example of these difficulties experienced in loco is brought by Tony Judt, another great English historian, who, right at the introduction to his breathtaking Post-War, revealed how lucky he was for deciding to write the book while changing trains in Vienna in December 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall. As he wrote, “what had once seemed permanent and somehow inevitable would take on a more transient air.”[8] History radically changed, the perceptions of that time were dramatically turned upside down, and what was taken for granted revealed itself less safe than ever.

In such times where our assurances about the future of liberal democracy seems deeply disturbed by the world’s recent events, reading historians and the challenges they undertake while writing about their own time should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone tackling the political and constitutional movements of today. As a Brazilian wondering what might be produced by Jair Bolsonaro’s government and reading what has already taken place elsewhere, such as attacks on constitutions, institutions and a deliberate endeavor of political players to strengthen their grip on power, is highly disturbing. But, while the signs are indeed frightening, they seem a bit blurrier when the cautions expressed by historians are taken into account. There is a natural anxiety about predicting what will happen in Brazil, even as a defensive behavior against any foreseeable attack on the country’s democratic credentials. In fact, constitutional lawyers and political scientists have as their primary task the interpretation of such phenomena, but they should also be aware that history has a powerful disruptive effect on such analyses.

At this time, most discussions on what will take place in Brazil seem to concentrate on four distinct patterns. Marcos Nobre, a professor of political science at the University of Campinas, described two of them in a recent column for Piauí, a magazine. According to him, since everyone agrees that Bolsonaro does not currently fit comfortably within Brazilian institutions, there are two groups of people who raise the argument that he will end up adapting himself to them. The first are the “tamers,” who think that Bolsonaro, once in power, will be tamed by the people surrounding him. The second are the ones who “do not believe that the taming thesis is sufficient,” but who put a greater weight on institutions, such as Congress, the Supreme Court, the economy and the very act of governing. Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, from the Brazilian Supreme Court and a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, for instance, in a conference recently held at the University of Externado in Colombia, was quite emphatic in his belief in Brazil’s institutional capacities to protect democracy. The “tamers” and the believers in the “institutional straitjacket”, according to Marcos Nobre, think that analyses immediately concluding that Brazil is heading to an authoritarian turn and a “conservative savagery” are not supported by the facts and “would only serve to boost panic and anxiety.” For these two groups, “the least we should do is await concrete actions of the new government to calibrate the interpretations and the corresponding actions.”

The other two groups do not believe in the capacity of people “taming” Bolsonaro nor that Brazilians institutions are strong enough to fend off more serious attacks on Brazil’s democratic credentials. Where they differ is on analyzing what might come out of Bolsonaro’s government. The first group are those who see Bolsonaro as nothing other than a representation of authoritarianism, and who stress the fact that a number of people originally from the armed forces are assuming strategic positions in his cabinet. For this group, this movement recalls much of the civil-military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985. They argue that although Bolsonaro was democratically elected, as soon as things go bad, his or the military’s authoritarian impulses may come out. For example, Caetano Veloso, one of the most famous artists in the country, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times titled Dark Times are Coming for My Country, and a petition fearing Bolsonaro’s arrival with such a narrative gathered the support of many intellectuals and artists.

The other group shares the same feeling that Brazil will deal in the coming years with an authoritarian mindset in power, but, more than a revival of those “dark times,” bets on a distinct type of government which has all the signs of becoming erratic, and, if there is no effective reaction, may be strong enough to jeopardize Brazil’s democratic institutions. Fernando Limongi, a professor of political science at the University of São Paulo, was emphatic in his last column to Valor Econômico, a newspaper. For him, “Bolsonaro was not elected on his merits or due to a program he defends. He won because he occupied a space left by the fratricidal fights inside the political elite which has governed the country since redemocratization.” To him, Bolsonaro heads a conservative movement that radically disrupted the so-called “post-redemocratization reformist consensus.” The disruption was intense and the problem is that all the signs whether such a movement will know how to govern “points to a negative answer.” Marcos Nobre, the professor mentioned before, follows a similar approach and sees Bolsonaro as the “leader of an antiestablishment government” which, if the opposition does not organize itself and the institutions do not overcome their structural dysfunctionalities, will have ample space to “impose his hegemonist project… at the price of the collapse of democratic institutions, if necessary.”

It is a weird feeling imagining these distinct futures while Brazil is preparing itself for the formal transition of government this January 1. Possibly as never before in Brazil since redemocratization, the future looks so much like the past, a reality that has also been felt elsewhere. But also possibly as never before in Brazil, the present may lie with so many diverse futures.[9] The next years will be of continuous assessment of a present that may align with one, some or none of those four groups of futures. In this melting pot of temporalities, historians and their lessons are more important than ever, as our assurances are certainly now proving more transient, and our analyses are increasingly at risk of being knocked down by the very pace of controlled and uncontrolled events. Brazil has a beautiful history of democratization that must be preserved. Let’s hope that Brazil reveals itself able and strong enough to avoid falling into the grimmer scenarios those futures portray.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, We Should Learn from Historians: Seeing the Future in Brazil’s Political Landscape, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 31, 2018, at:

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

[2] Ozan O. Varol, ‘Temporary Constitutions’ (2014) 102 California Law Review 409, 409.

[3] Kim Lane Scheppele, ‘Autocratic Legalism’ (2018) 85 U. Chi. L. Rev. 545, 545.

[4] See, for example, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt How Democracies Die, (Crown 2018); Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z Huq How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, (University of Chicago Press 2018); Jonah Goldberg Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, (Crown Forum 2018).

[5] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Age of Extremes: A History of the World’ (1994) New York: Pantheon

[6] E. Hobsbawm, ‘The Present as History’ in (ed.), On History (Hachette UK 2011)

[7] ibid

[8] Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (The Penguin Press 2005) 1

[9] See Reinhart Koselleck Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, (Columbia University Press 2004).


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