Uneasy Democracies, North and South

Both Brazil and the United States teeter on the brink of uncertain democratic futures.

By Jeffrey W. Rubin:

The modest reforms instituted by Obama and Lula did not alter the causes of the extreme economic vulnerability and racial exclusion to which increasing numbers of Brazilians and Americans across races and classes are subject.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric of torture, border walls, exclusion of Muslims, and denigration of women has produced widespread unease. As Americans across the political spectrum begin to interpret the new language and emotions roiling the presidential campaign, we realize that the fear and distress Trump fosters will not dissipate soon.

Simultaneously, deep political unease has taken root in Brazil, the western hemisphere’s second largest democracy. The “Car Wash” scandal, involving massive payments from the state-run oil company, Petrobras, to politicians and private firms, has morphed into a media- and street protest-driven clamor for the impeachment of Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseff.

The Brazilian right speaks a violent language of policing, militarization, and racial exclusion that evokes Trump’s cadences and meanings. The primary emotions among Brazilians are fear and distress.

These visceral new emotions will reshape democracy in the twenty-first century.

Why are the hemisphere’s two most populous countries, different in so many ways, experiencing such similar emotions? The simultaneity of the crises suggests that they are not primarily about Trump or the Workers’ Party.

The virulence of right-wing politicians in both the US and Brazil and the unease felt across the political spectrum in both countries signal the shortcomings of democracy thus far in the twenty-first century. Politicians and parties of both right and left have failed to provide a vision and politics adequate to combatting the harms of the global economy and of enduring racial and ethnic exclusions.

Since the 1980s, when in power, the right and center-right in both the US and Brazil opened up their countries’ economies without attention to the long-term well-being of ordinary people. As they did so, they ignored or demonized excluded groups and presided over increasing inequality and police violence.

Championing neoliberal economic doctrine, the right in both countries provided no path to economic well-being or social inclusion for most poor, black, or otherwise marginalized citizens. Middle classes–those already existing and the much-heralded global “new middle class”–were provided safety net-free booms that placed them at the mercy of unregulated financial sectors.

The left or center-left, now in power in both countries, has also failed to address the crises of recent decades. Democrats and Workers’ Party politicians alike have approached the need for systemic change with marked hesitation, wedded to the economic status quo.

The experience of the Obama administration demonstrated clearly how little a new chief executive, even one who ran an electrifying campaign and broke racial barriers, could do to change our country’s economy and politics. In a world of status quo Democrats, intransigent Republicans, and unconstrained financial interests, inequality in the US continued to grow apace during Obama’s presidency, little touched by the vagaries of electoral politics as we know them. So did surveillance, deportations, the proliferation of guns, restrictions on abortion rights, and foreign interventions.

A Democratic or Workers’ Party president can mitigate economic and social harms in modest ways. For Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, this meant instituting the popular bolsa familia, a program of social welfare payments to poor families who keep their kids in school, and opening Brazil’s prestigious public universities to Afro-Brazilians and other minorities through affirmative action quotas.

For President Obama, improvement meant extending health care benefits to an additional 6 percent of the population, supporting minimalist financial regulation, and perhaps most significantly, appointing two liberal Supreme Court justices.

These progressive efforts helped millions of Americans and Brazilians grapple a bit better with poverty and exclusion, as well as stay in the middle class. But they did not make headway on the problems democracy must address if it is to be a meaningful and valued system of governance in the twenty-first century. The modest reforms instituted by Obama and Lula did not alter the causes of the extreme economic vulnerability and racial exclusion to which increasing numbers of Brazilians and Americans across races and classes are subject.

Both presidents privileged economic growth on conventional terms over social welfare gains, placating the largest economic players. Hemmed in by their own inclinations as well as the intransigence of congressional oppositions, neither Obama nor Lula changed the structure of their countries’ economies or reigned in the rapidly growing wealth, and corresponding power to shape politics, of the 1 percent.

In Brazil, elites control resolutely-biased national media empires, and in Brazil’s Congress and state-run enterprises, bribes purchase the support of politicians and businesspeople alike. And US politics reflect the vast corporate spending unleashed by Citizens United and the insidious political reach of the Koch brothers and their influential billionaire peers.

As a result, in the US as in Brazil–in the global North and the global South–the meaning and future of democracy are up for grabs.

Democracies as we have experienced them in recent decades move along procedurally, so that things look “democratic.” But they are not very democratic, in terms of representing, distilling, and responding to the felt needs of citizens in inclusive and forward-looking ways. Governments of both left and right have let down their grassroots constituencies, who sometimes have more in common than cultural stereotypes acknowledge.

Our democracies need to do more than move along procedurally, however; they need to improve people’s economic lives, include minorities, mitigate climate change, and foster workable communities. This requires new forms of creativity, boldness and negotiation across conventional political and cultural lines–daunting tasks in a complex and polarized political moment, when democracy is under siege from without and within.

Today, few in public life know how to envision, not to mention achieve, the kind of changes that would enable us all to live sustainably and well. But if our democracies cannot make real headway on this, then we–across the hemisphere and the world–risk increasingly polarized, violent, and fascist politics of the sort we are seeing today–no matter who wins elections.

Image: dapdoesthis

About Jeffrey W. Rubin:

Jeffrey W. Rubin writes on social movements and politics in Latin America and the U.S. He is co-author of Sustaining Activism: A Brazilian Women’s Movement and a Father-Daughter Collaboration and co-editor of Enduring Reform: Progressive Activism and Private Sector Responses in Latin America’s Democracies, as well as numerous other articles and books. Rubin teaches at Boston University, where he is Associate Professor of History and Research Associate at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs.


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