Democracy Hijacked: The Brazilian Case, a Threat to the Democratic World

Democracy Hijacked: The Brazilian Case, a Threat to the Democratic World

Estevão Bosco

“I’m in favour of torture, you know that!”; “Minorities have to bow to the majority. Minorities fit in or disappear!”; “This time the cleaning [of left-wingers] is going to be wider!”; “I’m going to end all kind of activism!”; “The lighter Afro-descendent over there weighted seven arrobas [unit of measure for weighting slaves in colonial and imperial Brazil periods]!”; “I won’t rape you because you’re not worth it!”; “I’d be incapable of loving a homosexual son.”

These are some statements by Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a retired paratrooper, supporter of the military dictatorship (1964-1985), who turned professional politician in 1988 in the aftermath of a movement for heightening troops’ salaries which threatened to detonate bombs in the barracks; he has since proven to be a mediocre congressman, and is astonishingly ignorant about any public administration topic.

The ascendancy of far-right ideas emerges from a complex set of factors including contextual events and specific features of a particular historical experience. In what follows, I offer an overview of these in the Brazilian case and address a recent development which puts in jeopardy the democratic process worldwide. I draw out the pertinence of the manipulation of public opinion through social media interventions and targeted private messaging by politicians and marketers.

The first aspect to be considered in the electoral success of the Brazilian far-right is the non-engagement of democratic institutions with an examination of the military dictatorship. The New Republic (1988) was built on a universal amnesty. This partially explains, for instance, the unawareness of many Brazilians about the crimes against humanity committed by the regime, and also the remaining authoritarian institutional culture, especially within the police force, and the anti-communism and old-fashioned nationalism in the political imaginary. Without addressing the dictatorship juridically and publically, as Hannah Arendt would say, this subterranean past has re-emerged and is now haunting those living.

However, the political return of the military is not only the result of unawareness. It has deep sociological roots. The Bourgeois Revolution in Brazil, as Florestan Fernandes argues, has led to a particular form of democracy with authoritarian command structures and a state-dependent market economy. The bourgeois revolution did not oppose the oligarchic order; instead, it has meshed a continuous “embourgeoisement” of the oligarchs, and an “oligarchisation” of the bourgeois. The 1964 military coup against João Goulart’s left-wing government had the support of large portions of the (white) middle class and elites – and also from the United States government.  In a broad sense, this support aimed at maintaining privileges and expanding state-secured business opportunities. This relates to the second aspect.

As with many former European colonies, in Brazilian society the homology between social and cultural stratification is correlated with race. The poor have not only less wealth, lower level of formal education (if any!) and lower skilled jobs, but also different skin colour, and often practice different religious beliefs. The reproduction of social structure combines strong distinction by privileged (white) groups (mirroring Weber’s understanding of status), class and race – and, of course, gender, including their intersections. The social policies of the former Presidents, Lula and Dilma, of the Workers Party (PT, in Portuguese), (softly) targeted the social reproduction of inequalities and privileges. This can be taken as part of the sociological background leading to the social turmoil from June 2013 onwards.

Third, there is a conservatism emanating from the proliferation of neo-charismatic churches among the lower and middle classes, which accounts for around a quarter of the country’s population today. In the last ten years, evangelist politicians have been accusing the left of promoting “gender ideology” for defending gender equality and freedom of gender orientation inclusion in the secondary curricula. In response, the Conservatives have launched a “School without Party” movement.

The fourth event is the criminalisation of politics focusing on the PT through cooperation between the mass media and members of the judicial system, particularly those in charge of the ongoing anti-corruption operation called Lava-Jato (Car-Wash). This cooperation has fostered an “anti-PT” sentiment in public opinion, which somehow has echoed with the remains of the military regime’s anti-communist propaganda. Voting for the far-right was also motivated by a “no-PT vote”. Taking advantage of the Lava-Jato success in public opinion, 48 federal agents presented themselves at the elections. Lava-Jato’s judge in charge, Sérgio Moro, who imprisoned former-president Lula in a dubious trial and prevented him from running, has recently been appointed Bolsonaro’s minister of justice. Therefore, Bolsonaro’s election goes along with the politicisation of the judiciary against the PT.

Last but not least, the non-endorsement of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, re-election in 2014 by the main opposition centre-right party, the PSDB, and also the involvement of many entrepreneurs and politicians in corruption scandals, amongst which the PSDB 2014 front-runner and Dilma’s vice-president Michel Temer, led to the undermining of governability in Congress and the worsening of the enduring economic crisis. With significant support from portions of the middle class and elites (and again, with an ambiguous tie to the US government), this culminated in Dilma’s unconstitutional impeachment in 2016, generating a vacuum of power which the far-right occupied. Temer, who is from the centre-right party PMDB, took office and implemented a broad privatisation program which Bolsonaro now aims to extend dramatically.

The non-examination of the military dictatorship; the social, cultural, racial and gender stratification; the criminalisation of politics, and the politicisation of the judiciary; the unconstitutional impeachment and the vacuum of power – all these compose the complex set of factors which led to the dawn of the far-right. However, there is still one key logistic missing, since Brazilians had twelve other voting options over Bolsonaro.

Democracy hijacked
Bolsonaro was stabbed at the beginning of the campaign period in September, preventing him from attending any further activity until the end of the first round. At the second round, despite having been clinically discharged, he voluntarily missed almost all activities. How come he then succeeded, without campaigning and considering that there were many alternative candidates?

What helps explain Bolsonaro’s electoral success is the manipulation of public opinion by politicians and marketers through social media, especially through the WhatsApp “message bombing” of fake news, for which Brazilian and US user accounts were employed. Till the last week of the first round, Bolsonaro was stuck at around 30% in voter intentions polling. Crossing Google Trends data with those from pools research agencies reveals that Bolsonaro’s fake news bombing was fully unleashed in the last week of the first round, jumping the paratrooper to 46% of votes on 7th October. Three weeks later, he was elected.

A group of 156 entrepreneurs funded Bolsonaro’s WhatsApp campaign, which in Brazil is illegal as the country’s electoral law prohibits private funding of political campaigns. The PT and another centre-left party, the PDT, denounced Bolsonaro’s violation, but the Superior Electoral Court took no significant measures.

At the level of discourse, Bolsonaro succeeded in promoting manicheism in public opinion, he opposed good citizens with criminals, people of faith and non-believers, capitalism and statism, patriots and PT-communists. Ideologically, his “democratictarian” project combines conservatism in customs and ultra-liberalism in the economy with authoritarian command. Bolsonaro’s strong affirmation of non-political institutions such as family and religion resonated with a population labouring under the heaviest economic crisis in Brazil’s history, and struggling with the growing violence in the streets, to which state violence offered a palatable and immediate answer.

The efficiency of WhatsApp campaigning lies in the direct access to the private sphere, masking propaganda as interpersonal communication. The consequences for the democratic public sphere are significant. The public sphere is a space formed as individuals gather to discuss matters of common interest (1). Its structure separates political authority and the private sphere, and as such, it functions as a “resonance box” for private concerns coming into public, and for turning public opinion into political action. Public debate steers its formation, which means that it is a critically oriented arena potentially entailing collective learning processes. Accordingly, the public sphere is highly sensitive to developments in information and communication technologies as means through which information can circulate and might sustain citizens’ arguments.

The first consequence of the WhatsApp campaigning is that, when handled for systematic distortion of communication (fake news), the collective will formation goes hand in hand with a growing distrust in social life, jeopardising new possibilities for mutual recognition and understanding. Who are people supposed to believe – the unaware cousin sharing fake news, the journalist, the politician, the intellectual, the priest?

Second, systematic distortion of communication creates a discursively distorted public. Virtually connected, this public formation stems less from reflexive and critical debate than just sharing professionally crafted banners, texts, memes, gifs. Collective will formation tends to rely more on discourse than social condition, which means that public debate might not engage with people’s problems but rather with whatever the campaign marketers have decided strategically to put forward. This furthers a trend towards compromising public debate. In Bolsonaro’s case, this meant being elected without properly confronting other candidates’ arguments.

Third, political campaigning through social media and private messaging expands the tutelage of public opinion by politicians and marketers. The Brazilian election further sheds light on a deepening of what Habermas identified as a trend in the undermining of the principle of publicity by the political use of media power, aiming to control public opinion and hiding strategic intentions. Through social media and WhatsApp, this manipulation has become increasingly effective, politicians and marketers can directly reach citizens without the intermediary of the media, and target specific portions of the population by using big data profiling. As a consequence, power further penetrates public and private spheres, amplifying hegemonic and repressive modes of domination.

In Brazil, corresponding to this, is the wide presence of military officials in Bolsonaro’s government, broad privatisation programs, intellectual coercion, the construction of an “us/them” dichotomy, casting divergent voices as enemies who have to be eliminated. As soon as the first round ended, Brazil witnessed violent attacks from Bolsonaro’s supporters – a total of 8 murders and 150 injured until the end of the election. Days before the second round, law enforcement raided at least 35 public universities alleging that the university infrastructure was being used for electoral purposes – what they found, was mainly anti-fascist pamphlets and banners (!).

A threat to the democratic world
New tools for public opinion manipulation were used to bring Brazil’s military phantom back to life, in the same way that they were decisive in Trump’s election, Brexit, and Salvini’s ascendency, and will be in next year’s European elections. Right populism has transnationalised. It speaks different languages according to particular historical experience but has the same grammar. Whether immigration in the US and Europe or “democratictarian” politics in Brazil, right populism is structured on dualisms, muddying the correspondence between discourse and world, and reducing democracy to the tyranny of the majority. It calls for a return to national self-assertion and tends to undermine peace. It is blind to the intelligence potential of the current cosmopolitan condition. This is perhaps its most latent weakness.

Since the internet is global, international regulation of social media and private messaging usage in political campaigning is urgently needed. However, this is far from sufficient. Although playing an important role, public opinion manipulation does not answer fully why right populism is spreading.

It is my intuition that the receptiveness of the public to right populism lies, in the first instance, in the restricted form of democracy we have experienced thus far: an elite democracy ruled by wealthy people whose private conditions afford them a special status of citizenship. To counter right populism entails more transparency, more direct political participation – in short, more democracy. This has to come along with the recognition of the current cosmopolitan condition. Globalisation has increased the cultural and ethnic diversity of and interdependence among national societies. This is a point of no return. Neglecting this is not making it disappear. Therefore, more democracy also means that we need to develop forms of citizenship corresponding to the cosmopolitan condition we live in.

(1) On the concept of public sphere, see: Habermas, J. “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of the Bourgeois Society”, MIT Press, 1989; “Further Reflections on the Public Sphere”, in Craig Calhoun (ed.), “Habermas and the Public Sphere”, MIT Press, 1992; and “Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy”, MIT Press, 1996, p. 329-387.


Estevão Bosco is an interdisciplinary sociologist and postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Geography at the University of São Paulo (USP), currently a visiting researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Sussex. He is a member of the Research Group in Political Geography and the Environment (GEOPO, USP) and the Centre for the Philosophy of Social Science (SOCIOFILO, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). He is the author of “Risk Society: Introduction to Ulrich Beck’s Cosmopolitan Sociology” (orig. in Portuguese). My thanks to Neal Harris for comments on an earlier draft.

IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Randy Colas on Unsplash