Bolsonaro’s Conservative Revolution

Jair Bolsonaro's core support lies with wealthy Brazilians. But the far-right figure wouldn't have gotten this far if he hadn't also established a formidable base among the poor.

Supporters of Jair Bolsonaro on September 30, 2018 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Editorial J / Flickr

It’s Election Day in the periphery of Santo André, a municipality in greater São Paulo’s industrial ABC region. A man in his fifties is selling caldo de cana, a sweet drink made from sugar cane, from his van. As he pushes the cane through the grinder, two men of a similar age, sitting on white plastic stools, chat enthusiastically. The topic is the same one that is on everyone’s lips today.

“I don’t like Bolsonaro, but at least he’ll give the bandidos [criminals] a beating,” says one. “And put an end to Bolsa Família,” the other pitches in, referring to Brazil’s famous conditional cash transfer program. “They don’t want to work, and if you take the money away they just go out and rob.” The first man points his two fingers out like he’s holding a pair of guns, a gesture popularized by far-right presidential favorite Jair Bolsonaro, whose extreme law-and-order platform could accurately be described as exterminationist. His friend imitates the action. All three men laugh. Still chuckling, the drinks seller hands over my drink and my change, “Thank you, have a nice day!”

That night, as the results came in, it was clear that Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party (PSL) party had been the big winner. Bolsonaro himself won 46 percent of the popular vote compared to 29 percent for the Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad. It was a thumping win, but not the absolute majority he needed to avoid a second-round run-off, which will take place on October 28th.

Meanwhile his party — which he joined six months ago and previously held just one seat in Congress — grew to become the second biggest party with fifty-two deputies, just behind the Workers’ Party’s fifty-six. With gains for a crop of other conservative parties sympathetic to Bolsonaro’s agenda, he looks well-placed to be able to pass much of his legislative program. Hard-right candidates aligned, or at least flirting, with Bolsonaro look likely to be elected to governorships in numerous states, including the three most populous in the country — São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro.

Although bruised, the PT survived, its vote holding up especially in the poorer North and Northeast regions. Together with other left and center-left parties, they will cobble together about one-fifth of the seats in Congress. Indeed the PT improved somewhat on its disastrous performance in the 2016 municipal elections, which followed shortly after the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff.

By contrast, the mainstream right-wing parties, the Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) and the Brazilian Democratic Movement party (MDB) were decimated, reduced to the second tier of mid-sized parties. These were the two parties that were most instrumental in Rousseff’s impeachment, but then became embroiled in corruption scandals of their own and tainted by the wild unpopularity of Michel Temer’s successor government.

To summarize, the Left is on the back foot and the mainstream right has collapsed, replaced by a new antidemocratic far-right pole orbiting around Bolsonaro. Brazilian politics has been turned upside down.

A New Cross-Class Coalition

The reasons for this reactionary wave are diverse. As has been noted elsewhere, since the PT’s narrow victory over the PSDB in 2014 there has been a radicalization of the predominantly white middle to upper classes towards authoritarian solutions. This was the part of the population that dominated the street protests calling for Dilma’s impeachment in 2016, but have become disillusioned by the mainstream right. Not all have authoritarian preferences, of course, and many would prefer it if the PSDB continued to represent a viable option. Many dislike Bolsonaro, but their virulent “antipetismo” (hatred of the PT) leads them towards viewing him as a lesser evil.

Whether their support for Bolsonaro is primarily ideological or tactical, this population gravitates around a set of attitudes that broadly fall under the banner of the “New Right” — a current that emerged in Brazil during the mid-2000s in reaction to the PT. Right-wing discourse shifted from traditional elitist and authoritarian positions to emphasizing “meritocracy.”

Opposition to welfare programs like Bolsa Família and affirmative action in public universities became key rallying cries. Despite the rhetoric, however, at root such attitudes were driven by deeply anti-meritocratic sentiments — a desire to block the access of the upwardly mobile, often nonwhite poor into elite spaces. (A infamous example of this was columnist Danuzia Leão’s complaint that it was no fun travelling abroad anymore, now that you could run into your porter in New York).

The demographic breakdown of first-round voting intentions by pollster Datafolha, a few days before the election, shows that 51 percent of voters earning between five and ten minimum wages ($1,261–2,522 USD per month) and 44 percent earning over ten minimum wages ($2,522) planned to vote for Bolsonaro, compared to 12 percent and 15 percent respectively for Haddad. Meanwhile, 42 percent of those self-defining as white planned to vote for Bolsonaro, compared to 15 percent for Haddad. (That said, the relationship between race and class in Brazil is complex and should be treated with caution. While the middle and upper classes are predominantly white, whites are not predominantly well-off. Furthermore, racial self-classification varies significantly according to both income level and region of the country.)

However, the growing radicalization and authoritarianism of Brazil’s traditional middle and upper classes is insufficient to account for Bolsonaro’s surge. After all, as the PSDB discovered after four successive electoral defeats to the PT between 2002 and 2014, this group makes up little more than a quarter of the population and is insufficient for winning the presidency.

In fact, Bolsonaro’s victory represents the construction of a new electoral coalition that has greater cross-class appeal than the PSDB has achieved since the late 1990s. The same polling data revealed that among voters earning between two and five minimum wages ($504–1,261), 39 percent planned to vote for Bolsonaro compared to 18 percent for Haddad. Even among those earning under two minimum wages ($504), 21 percent favored Bolsonaro compared to 28 percent for Haddad. The data on race tell a similar story. Among those self-defining as “pardos” (brown/mixed race), 30 percent preferred Bolsonaro, compared to 23 percent for Haddad, while among “pretos” (black) the figure was 18 percent against 23 percent.

The question of why wealthy, white Brazilians have shifted from the mainstream to the far-right is relatively straightforward. A more interesting, and more important, question is why a significant number of lower-income and nonwhite Brazilians are now expressing support for Bolsonaro. How has Bolsonaro been able to bring together elites wishing to block the social mobility of the popular classes, and a significant proportion of those they seek to block, within the same electoral coalition? And how long can this last?

Understanding “Bolsonarismo Popular”

As with any trend involving large numbers of people, there is no single explanation for “Bolsonarismo popular” — ie. Bolsonaro’s appeal to lower-income people. Some, thanks to the media’s relentless attacks on the PT, have developed antipetista attitudes similar to those of elites, complaining about everything from PT corruption to high taxes to the unfairness of racial quotas in universities. However, in my experience, such attitudes are relatively rare.

I see no groundswell of “popular liberalism” [“liberal” in the Brazilian context referring to a more conservative, market-friendly attitude] in the peripheries, contrary to the claims of a controversial report published in the aftermath of the PT’s municipal defeats in 2016. The lip service many lower-income people may pay to meritocracy and self-sufficiency is over-ridden by the desire for better public services and indignation about elite privileges. If you scratch the surface, most want greater equality and for the wealthy to pay more to make this happen.

Others opted for Bolsonaro for religious reasons. Neo-Pentecostal churches have grown hugely in recent years, particularly in poor urban peripheries. In recent elections, these churches have leveraged their influence among congregants to get ever-increasing numbers of conservative deputies elected to congress, swelling the Evangelical caucus and powering its highly reactionary political agenda.

Until now, the movement had not had a perceptible impact on the presidency, both because presidential votes are less subject to clientelistic influence and because a major, unapologetically religious conservative had not yet contested the presidency. In this sense, Bolsonaro — himself an Evangelical, who is virulently opposed to women’s and LGBT rights — represents the “coming out party” of this quietly growing movement. The fact that many Catholics support Bolsonaro for similar reasons, meanwhile, suggest he represents a broad swath, rather than a narrow sectarian strain, of religious conservative opinion.

It is true that neo-Pentecostal churches have grown precipitously among the poor and built a powerful clientelistic machine. It is also true that Bolsonaro’s agenda fits with a broader popular conservatism among lower-income groups. As shown by a Datafolha survey last year on Brazilians’ social attitudes, poorer people are more likely to think that those who believe in God are better people, that abortion is a crime that should be punished, and that drugs should be prohibited. They respond well to Bolsonaro’s claim to be resisting the “deconstruction of heteronormativity” and to proposals of forced internment for drug addicts.

However, this does not mean support for Bolsonaro represents doctrinairereligious conservatism among the poor. While some self-identifying Evangelicals fully absorb the doctrine, most do not. Indeed, these churches struggle to control their members, who move between different denominations and mix different spiritual beliefs. Even as the Evangelical churchgrows massively, Brazilian syncretism remains alive and well.

Further, a “live and let live” attitude still tends to reign among the poor on most issues. While many low-income Brazilians may think in terms of traditional gender roles and are uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex marriage, most believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society and that women should be able to dress how they want without fear of rape. At least we can say that a campaign centered on issues of gender and sexuality would not on its own persuade large numbers to vote for the far right.

So what would? I would posit two main reasons. The first is a simple incumbency effect at a moment of severe crisis. The PT was in power for thirteen years, and so, rightly or wrongly, were first to be blamed as the economy and massive corruption scandals detonated simultaneously. The MDB, with PSDB backing, took over for two years and things didn’t improve, so it also became tainted with the crises.

However, it should be noted that among the poor, disaffection with these mainstream parties had a very different logic to the highly partisan anger of wealthy antipetistas. Most poorer voters never believed the PT were more corrupt or incompetent than other parties and, although they did not actively oppose it, were not especially enthused by Dilma’s impeachment. Their cynicism was soon vindicated by the unmitigated disaster of Temer’s government.

These attitudes betray widespread resignation among the poor towards politicians in general, of whom they have learned to expect little. However, many also express residual support for the PT, and especially Lula, who is remembered as the president who took many out of poverty and put poor kids into university. Of course there is also widespread disappointment with the party, not only for failing to sustain that progress once the crisis struck, but also for its longer-term failure to improve core public services like health care and education.

However, few poor people ever saw the mainstream right as offering a meaningful alternative. I would suggest that their anger about the economic crisis and corruption scandals are fundamentally motivated by a desire for more redistribution, whereas the elite’s embodies indignation about the limited redistribution that already occurred under the PT. In any case, with the mainstream parties all implicated in the crises, both groups became receptive to any candidate who was sufficiently distant from the incumbents to look like an “outsider” and who sounded as angry as they were.

But of the all the self-styled outsiders who have been touted as possible saviors of the nation over the last two years — including libertarian businessmen, crusading judges, fundamentalist pastors, celebrities and ex-footballers — why is it Bolsonaro who has been able to capitalize? This brings me to the second key driver of Bolsonarismo popular, which I believe to be decisive.

Unlike candidates who are primarily concerned with questions that for most of the poor are of secondary concern (if not largely irrelevant), such as sex education, free markets, or the fine details of corruption investigations, Bolsonaro’s campaign is rhetorically centered on an issue that is a genuine priority for those living in the favelas and peripheries of large and medium-sized cities across the country: security.

Nationally, levels of violent crime have risen steadily for years. In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, recent spikes notwithstanding, the long-term trend has been for violence to fall. However, this is in large part due to the consolidation of territorial control by criminal factions. In many other cities, it has exploded. The state has been unable to seriously address the problem.

Rio’s favela pacification was initially popular and successful in reducing violence in the city, but proved too expensive to be sustainable, particularly as the state fell into bankruptcy. A policy of mass incarceration in São Paulo has only strengthened and expanded the reach of the powerful First Command of the Capital (PCC) criminal faction from the state’s prisons. Elsewhere, police appear unable to prevent the criminal activities of armed groups, and are often exposed as being complicit in them.

Meanwhile, low-level criminal actors and those mistaken for them (overwhelmingly black and brown teenagers) die in extraordinary numbers. With police unable to prevent everyday criminality within legal constraints, off-duty officers and local vigilante groups increasingly seek vengeance outside the law.

The uncomfortable truth is that a hidden and diffuse paramilitary war against proletarian criminals is already a reality in Brazil. Even more uncomfortably, it is supported by huge numbers of favela and periphery residents. While parties of the Left and mainstream right publicly condemn such acts, Bolsonaro defends them. Indeed, by loosening gun controls and removing legal constraints on police violence, he wants to make this secret war official and to escalate it. Many in the peripheries of cities like Santo André do not like Bolsonaro, but think “at least he’ll give the bandidos a beating.”

From the Ashes

The Bolsonaro surge is a dramatic moment in Brazilian politics, but it is one that has been building from different directions for some time. There has been a radicalization of the reactionary middle and upper classes, determined to destroy the PT and its project of moderate redistribution by any means necessary. There is the creeping rise of radical religious conservatism, amplified by the Evangelical caucus’s disproportionate influence in Congress compared to its rather less sturdy roots in society.

And there is the growth of penal populism, which is widespread across the social spectrum, but constitutes a particularly significant element of Bolsonaro’s appeal among the popular classes. Bolsonaro brings these different trends together in a way the mainstream right never could. Beating back the surge depends on identifying the contours of this new electoral coalition and exploiting its contradictions.

The most obvious of these is that elite Bolsonaro voters want to turn the clock back to the pre-PT era, when they did not have to share universities and airports with those they still believe to be their inferiors. They will want tax cuts for themselves and to see social security and public services (which they do not use anyway) gutted. On all of these fronts, lower-income Bolsonaro supporters want precisely the opposite.

The likely finance minister in an eventual Bolsonaro government, Chicago Boy Paulo Guedes, will push to give elite Bolsonaristas everything they want. It is essential that this be widely understood as the intended result of an elitist economic agenda. Up until now, Bolsonaro has cultivated ambiguity in this regard, allowing for the perception that he could be a worker-friendly nationalist in the mould of Getúlio Vargas. Instead, he needs to be understood more as an anti-populist in the mold of Augusto Pinochet.

A second, more difficult challenge is to encourage a rupture between the fundamentalism of the Evangelical caucus and church leaders, and the relative moderation of church members. This will be most effective if it comes from within the churches themselves. It would need to be framed around tolerance and nonviolence — highlighting how Bolsonaro fails to adhere to the principles of his own faith.

This is, of course, a difficult balancing act for left-wing forces who want to deepen women’s and LGBT rights. There is no silver bullet for resolving these tensions, but it is essential that lines of dialogue remain open. A starting point would simply be acknowledging that in favelas and peripheries Evangelical churches are social hubs, where people make friends and take part in cultural activities, at least as much as they are places of worship. This is especially the case for poor black and brown women who are generally deprived of such spaces, many of whom are the mothers of young men victimized by gang and police violence. Such women can become crucial allies in resisting Bolsonarismo, but we must accept that they will do so on their own terms.

A final challenge relates to the war on low-level crime that Bolsonaro looks set to unleash across urban Brazil. As others have noted, it is difficult to believe that this will not produce a great deal of violence in the near future, overwhelmingly directed against poor, dark-skinned young men from favelas and peripheries. This will not reduce criminality, of course, which is fed by lucrative illegal markets co-ordinated by powerful networks that operate across and beyond the national territory.

Knowing this, the Left should unapologetically continue to focus on violence-reduction approaches. In the wake of favela pacification and other unsuccessful experiments with “proximity policing,” it is not clear what that might even look like and new ideas must be explored. Meanwhile, the slow work of building towards long-term goals of police demilitarization, inequality reduction, and investment in education and youth development must continue.

However, this will not satisfy those who want security now. Perhaps the best the left can do at present is to recognize that for the poor this represents more than mere bloodlust. Concerns about insecurity are legitimate, even if the belief that killing and imprisoning ever greater numbers of “bandidos” is not. It will be an uphill battle, running counter to both common sense and the prevailing, vengeful mood. But Bolsonaro’s low-income supporters need to be persuaded that the police militias and vigilantes whom they believe can offer greater “security” will only become “bandidos” themselves in the process.