These days, you need steady nerves to join the Brazilian political conversation. Ask Judith Butler, the University of California, Berkeley, comparative literature professor known for her provocative ideas about gender. Two weeks ago, she was hectored by street protesters in Sao Paulo, burned in effigy, and chased by contrarians all the way to the airport.
Butler wasn’t the only target. In recent weeks, sois-disant protectors of public morals attacked a museum and a cultural center in two cities for exhibits they judged offensive to family and Christian values. A male-dominated congressional committee controlled by evangelical Christians voted to outlaw all abortions, including for rape victims. Lefty cyber mobs forced the giant TV Globo network to sideline a prizewinning news anchor for an off-camera racial quip.
Such atomization may be nothing unusual in this era of keyboard warriors. But the fury is troubling in Latin America’s biggest nation, which is roiled by graft, barely emerging from a brutal recession and less than a year away from what could be the most important election since democracy returned more than three decades ago.
Brazil was not always so churlish. Though never the easy-going blender of cultures and creeds touted by the country’s early boosters, this New World stewpot prided itself on fluid social relations, a galvanizing lingua franca, and the absence of brittle pieties.
At its best, such social pliability gave Brazilians a mechanism to cope with stultifying bureaucracy and tensile strength in authoritarian times. At worst, the habit instilled an unfortunate tolerance for quick fixes, godfathers and rule-bending.
Brazil’s corruption gusher has prompted Brazilians to withdraw their indulgence from those in high office who game the rules. An overwhelming majority of Brazilians (83 percent) said they distrust the presidency, national politicians (78 percent), and political parties (78 percent), according to a survey by the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
What’s less heartening is the evaporation of the country’s vaunted tolerance for political differences. “Across Latin America there is no more explosive combination than corruption and recession,” Octavio Amorim Neto, a political scientist at the foundation, told me. “Brazil today is a country of resentment, rage and depression.”
That toxic combination has poisoned political debate. “Fifty years ago, our quarrels were much simpler. The military were in power and students and democrats opposed them. Capitalism and socialism were the banners,” said Brazilian political scientist Bolivar Lamounier. “But after the revelations of flagrant corruption, people don’t believe in anything anymore. Civility is gone, and we’re quickly moving from radical polarization to anomie.”
Although Judith Butler was not even a listed speaker at the Sao Paulo democracy conference, her presence as a coordinator of the debate drew a fierce conservative backlash. “Indeed, they reminded us at the conference why we were right to worry about the state of democracy,” Butler later told Inside Higher Ed.
Rabid conservatives are not the only worry. In March, enraged followers of a historian popular among Brazilian leftists drove him to purge his Facebook page of pictures of a meeting with Judge Sergio Moro, widely loathed by the left for his tough sentences against corrupt higher-ups in the fallen Workers’ Party government.
Social media might have been an antidote to such choler. Instead it’s helped to pump more bile into the debate and to bully select victims. The web guerrillas were not wrong to speak out against what sounded like racist snark from a star television reporter. What’s unforgiveable was shouting down a veteran newsman -- and for the network to cave in to the rabble and yank him off the air -- without giving him a hearing. “In a great society, there should be room for all these tendencies,” said Fernando Schuler, a political philosopher at the Sao Paulo university Insper. “But there’s no one with credibility to mediate the conversation anymore.”
That’s the main reason Brazilian economist and best-selling author Monica de Bolle announced last week she’s mothballing her Facebook page. “People aren’t debating issues or principles, merely defending banners based on their particularly identity,” de Bolle told me. “The perception is that anything goes, and everything can be distorted, which drains your energy and diverts your attention to minutiae and personal feuds. That’s a recipe for extremism.”
Brazil’s digital furies signal turbulence for the political season ahead. The same Getulio Vargas Foundation survey that flagged a clear voter revolt against politics-as-usual also found that nearly two-thirds of voters believed debate on social media was important to pressure elected officials.So who are the political pretenders best poised to ride the social media storm into office? The outliers. Forget former president and political legend Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, or influential Sao Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin. Research compiled by Bloomberg shows the two most prominent presidential contenders on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms are television variety show host Luciano Huck, who’s never held political office, followed closely by ultra-right-wing lawmaker and retired army captain Jair Bolsonaro, who praises the military dictatorship and dedicated his vote to impeach former president Dilma Rousseff last year to her torturer.
Flashy, loud anti-politicians with outsize egos, underweight platforms and a soft spot for playing to the gallery: Where have voters in the Americas seen that before?
By Mac Margolis
Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. -- Ed.