Strong Leaders in Decline? It’s Complicated: A look at Brazil’s Evangelicals and the Election of Jair Bolsonaro
Guilherme Baratho, MAPSS MA’20 and PhD Student (entering 2021), Sociology, Northeastern University
Figure 1. Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump exchanging soccer-style t-shirts during a meeting. Source: Evan Vucci/AP.
Naively, I believed Trumpism would be a relic of a defunct political moment. Yet, it has endured. The appeal of “strong leaders” who operate under the guise of a “politics of discipline” has repeatedly shown that their influence is here to stay. While evidence can be found in cases such as the United States, prominent manifestations of support for these types of candidates have also emerged in the Global South. Inevitably, certain political traits may overlap across different regions, but to establish a thick account, support for “strong leaders” should be understood as contextually specific. Moreover, I would argue, their political appeal is waged on democratic attitudes that are intrinsically fluid.
Politics does not reset, clearing errors and normalizing conditions to a state of resolve after every election. Consider my study on Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Beginning in 1985, Brazil’s re-democratization reveals how theoretical propositions based on “conservative wave” theory or claims of political transition catalyzed by class-actors are insufficient (Soares 2017; Saad-Filho 2018). While those aspects may be included in the overall analysis, alone they obscure local dynamics and critical junctures that amass overtime. Post-dictatorship, Brazilians steadily elected center to center-left presidents while political structure reflected Ann Swidler’s (1986) definition of “unsettled times”—a state of disorder, where “natural” or “expected” processes are in flux. Although corruption and protests alike contributed to this unsettled disposition, my point is to establish an analytical range that is broad, yet contextual. By following the trajectory of Brazil’s democracy and recognizing the complex formation of electoral dispositions over time, we can better identify the conjunctures that led to the rise of Bolsonaro and Brazil’s far-right in 2018.
Marco Garrido (2020) recently presented a conjunctural account of Rodrigo Duterte, the current president of the Philippines, elected in 2016. Establishing a logic of conjuncture, Garrido argues, two components are required: sequence and interpretation. Both are predicated on an understanding of causality that is processualist—”a contingent series of actions unfolding over time” (Garrido 2020: 3). The underlying impetus for Garrido’s explanation is a notion of time that is both lateral and retrospective. Through interviews with upper- and middle-class actors, Garrido provides insight on how they negotiate their support for Duterte. Their fluidity is based on an understanding that is predicated on both current and historical events, as well as contextually political and social ones. Ultimately, Garrido’s account yields a more comprehensive understanding behind Duterte’s appeal and consequent political success, but he also offers fellow researchers studying “strong leaders” a more robust approach to studying their appeal.
Timing is not only critical to when things happen, but also to how and even why they happen. Practically speaking, realizing that support crystalizes over time, with respect to a series of “interconnected reactions to antecedent actions,” reveals a logic to Bolsonaro’s political appeal that stems beyond his actual politics and more so, is tied to Brazil’s political disappointments (Glaeser 2005: 18–19). Frustration alone cannot explain Bolsonaro’s electoral win, but used as an Archimedean point, it can serve as the foundation to examine the trajectory of Brazil’s democracy and the contingency of support for Bolsonaro’s presidency.
Bolsonaro is a political outcome that was constituted in relation to a host of various other events. After Fernando Collor de Melo in 1992, Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment marked Brazil’s second impeachment in less than 33 years since re-democratization. Both politicians were indicted on allegations of corruption, but this is something Brazilians had already become acutely familiar with. A few years prior, Dilma’s predecessor and Brazil’s most popular president to date, Luiz Inácio da Silva, better known as Lula, was also accused of corruption in a scandal that would be known as mensalão (roughly translates to “big monthly payment”). Prior to Lula’s presidency, however, Fernando Henrique Cardoso was also accused of corruption when decentralized cash-transfer programs had been co-opted by the state and municipal politicians began re-directing distribution circuits from their intended outcome, causing a resource “leakage” (Lindert et al. 2007: 46). Despite the primer of these allegations, Dilma’s malpractice had greater repercussions, as her involvement would be affiliated with Brazil’s biggest political corruption scandal to date, known by its neologism as petrolão (roughly translates to “big oil”). With Dilma impeached, Lula was later found guilty on money laundering charges and received a sentence of twelve years in federal prison (Cowie 2018). These events marked the demise of Brazil’s political left.
Bolsonaro faced off against Fernando Haddad, who had been appointed by Lula to represent the Workers’ Party on another executive ticket, a relation that was clear to most voters. Consolidating a clear lead over his opponent early on, Bolsonaro sealed the presidential victory with approximately 55 percent of the votes (Simões and Huang 2018). Yet despite the decline of the center-left and left over the years and the lateral comparison to Haddad, another aspect stood out in this unprecedented victory. In comparison to all previous presidents of Brazil, Bolsonaro “benefited like no other [presidential candidate] from the support of a large section of the Evangelical electorate” (Zilla 2020: 6). From evangelicals alone, Bolsonaro received an 11.6 million voter advantage (See Table 2; Datafolha 2018). Conclusively, this figure is larger than the roughly 10.7 million vote difference in the final result between both candidates. In other words, these numbers constitute Bolsonaro’s true win margin, taking into account voter disenchantment where 20.3 percent of Brazilians abstained from voting and removing the national average of 9.5 percent of blank and null ballots. Approximately 31.6 million evangelicals cast valid votes in the 2018 election. With Bolsonaro netting close to 22.1 million of those votes, he garnered roughly 70 percent of the total evangelical support (Fernandes et al. 2020; Datafolha 2018).
|Distribution of electorate per type of religion|
|Religion||Votes for Bolsonaro||Votes for Haddad||Difference|
|Atheist or Agnoistic||375,570||691,097||-315,527|
|Source: DataFolha, October 25, 2018
Graph originally in Portuguese, translated by author.
Brazilians evaluated Bolsonaro “laterally” and “retrospectively,” that is, in relation to the political actors around him and preceding him. However, as demographer José Eustáquio Diniz Alves argues, “the evangelical vote was [the] definitive [vote] of the presidential election in 2018” (2018; translation by author). Indeed, the question is one that is contextually specific, but standing on the foundations of sequence and interpretation. My research attempts to make sense of Brazil’s evangelicals’ embrace of politics while inquiring into this moment of significant mobilization in support of Bolsonaro’s candidacy.
Peculiarities have inevitably emerged, such as Brazil’s increasing popularity of Evangelical Protestantism at the expense of nominal Catholicism and the expansion of Pentecostals and “neo-Pentecostals” into more affluent neighborhoods (Pew 2013; Guadalupe 2019: 35). These are major shifts given that Brazil is considered the most Catholic country in the world per population and that, historically, evangelicals in Brazil have been characterized by a majority that is black and female, with low education and low income levels (Llaneras 2018; Machado 2012: 73). Therefore, the face of Evangelical Protestantism, along with the traditional discourse of evangelical conservatism, is rapidly evolving and, in this regard, their support for Bolsonaro indicates how rather than just influence, they are seeking to achieve political power.
Political counter-imaginaries abate where discreditation of transcendence is widespread. In Brazil, the opposite trend abounds. This is why evangelicals must be considered a catalytic political force in Bolsonaro’s emergence along with the political right-wing. Subsequently, to critically understand evangelicals as political agents, “everyday interactional contexts and in the workings of organizations and institutions” must be investigated (Brubaker 2006: 72). It could be said that perhaps Bolsonaro’s presidential victory was in part due to a “negative” vote: he won, but more importantly, the Workers’ Party did not. Indeed, there is power to the idea that people voted for the “lesser evil” and through their vote rejected Brazil’s political corruption and expressed their disaffection with the traditional political class. Although Bolsonaro is far from a political outsider: he is, in fact, a career politician, serving twenty-seven years in Congress prior to his presidential candidacy (Prengaman et al. 2018). Nevertheless, the measure of a thick account is “multiple registers of causation” (Garrido 2020: 18). Therefore, global cases of exclusionary politics would benefit from elevating local dynamics and accounting for the contingencies tied to historical and current events, such as I have attempted to demonstrate with my study on Bolsonaro in Brazil. Then, the outcome is something that is wonderfully complex but more authentically complete.
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