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A ‘populist’ revolt of elites against the people

Branding Bolsonaro ‘a populist’ betrays a fundamental inability to describe the political reality of the world we live in, writes DONAGH DAVIS

FOR months, opinion polls consistently indicated that Lula, leader of the Brazilian Workers Party (PT), would comfortably win the 2018 election and return to the presidential palace after an eight-year absence—if he weren’t in jail, that is. 

In last Sunday’s real, Lula-less election, decisive victory went instead to Jair Bolsonaro — a far-right ex-army officer who celebrates the torturers of the junta era by name from the parliamentary floor, and boasts about killing and imprisoning thousands of political opponents once in power—especially those of the PT.

How did we get here?

This is a big question without an easy answer, but a first step is to critically scrutinise common wisdoms surrounding Bolsonaro’s win. 

Mainstream media coverage of Bolsonaro frequently casts him as a “populist—”part of a worldwide wave that has brought rabble-rousing demagogues to power, from Manila to Rome to Washington DC and beyond.

In short, many media voices tell us: “It’s populism, stupid.” (“IPS” for convenience.)

There is at least some truth to this. Part of the “Trump effect,” in particular, is to shatter taboos, and embolden political challengers to “say the unsayable.” No doubt Bolsonaro and his backers keenly noted this, and factored it into their presidential run. 

This connection is significant — as is the apparent enthusiasm of the likes of Steve Bannon and even Trump himself for Bolsonaro.

But these outward affinities mask serious problems with the IPS line. This can be illustrated via a quick thought experiment. 

We know the polls tell us Lula would have won—had his political opponents not jailed him on vague “corruption” charges before the election. Lula, the most significant Brazilian political figure for generations, is famous for challenging his country’s social, political and economic elites, his pragmatic and ideologically nimble building of a big-tent coalition representing “the people,” and his promise to drastically redistribute wealth — a promise he incidentally fulfilled. 

But what would happen if a political challenger took power in a Latin American country tomorrow on a platform identical to Lula’s? How would the mainstream media portray this?

That was a rhetorical question. We all know they would call it “populism.”

This thought experiment forces us to ask how two apparently contradictory points can be squared. How can Bolsonaro and hypothetical anti-Bolsonaro — the type of person Bolsonaro’s backers would throw in jail given half the chance — both be “populists?” How is it that the mainstream media can frame all of the above in terms of “the populist threat?”

It’s not all a conspiracy. In reality, many mainstream commentators simply have no clue as to how to make sense of today’s topsy-turvy politics. Faced with a world they no longer understand, they have responded with emotionally satisfying bedtime stories in place of analysis. “Populists” are second only to Russian spies in the cast of bogeymen populating these tales. Worryingly, these commentators have also started believing their stories. 

This does not just apply to journalists. Many academics who “work on populism” would also struggle to provide a robust definition of the phenomenon, let alone a convincing theory. (If you doubt this, ask some and see what happens.) But commentators will continue to buy into the “populism” discourse, because it makes them feel better, and it sells. They are getting high on their own supply. 

We see many examples of the fatal malleability of the “populism” concept — and it is what enables professional commentators to describe political figures that are in many ways each other’s opposites using the same handy buzzword. Salvini and Maduro? Populism. Erdogan and Putin? Populism. Le Pen and Mélenchon? Populism. Even Corbyn can give Farage a run for his money in the populist stakes, depending on whom you listen to.

But Brazil is a particularly stark case in point. Of all the possible ways to tell the story of how we got to this juncture, saying “it’s populism, stupid” spectacularly misses the nub of the issue. 

The real story is complex and contains multiple moving parts: brutal class struggle and mass slavery stretching over centuries; the long-running conflicts within the elites between relatively progressive developmentalists and hardcore reactionaries; the military junta’s torture chambers, and guerrilla warfare; the PT’s long march through the institutions, taking of power and compromise with the elites; the recent tearing up of that compromise by the same elites; their decision to drag Bolsonaro, a mothballed relic of the dictatorship era, out of obscurity and into power; and of course, shadowy geopolitical forces. 

Against this background, framing the story in terms of “populism,” as if Bolsonaro were equivalent to a Beppe Grillo or a Pirate Party, does not just show a lack of imagination or analytical acumen. It shows something much deeper—a stunning deficit of what we might call “reality comprehension” capacity.

But so what? Does it really matter how mainstream commentators frame these events, or what vocabulary they use in doing so? Alas, yes. Because if we follow their lead, we will end up basing our prognoses for action on diagnoses as faulty as theirs of Brazil.

For what happened in Brazil is almost the diametrical opposite to many of the “populist revolts” journalists have perceived elsewhere. Elsewhere, people have voted for “populists” for many reasons—but particularly because they felt that centrist and technocratic elites could or would not hear them as they saw their livelihoods crumble in an era of apparently permanent economic crisis. Those centrist and technocratic elites duly reacted with horror to the “populist turn” of the people.

In Brazil, however, the “populist” revolt is largely one of elites against the people. Growing tired of their historic compromise with the PT, and all the inconvenient wealth redistribution it entailed, they impeached Dilma and jailed Lula—both on insubstantial “corruption” charges. 

Then they rehabilitated a torture-nostalgist from the fringes of parliament, and carried out illegal psychological warfare on the electorate (particularly via “fake news” on WhatsApp) until they voted for him. Local elites and even foreign capitalists have reacted with delight. The Brazilian stock market is rallying.

Sure, you can describe this as a “populist revolt” if you really want. But you could also describe it as something pretty close to a coup.

We need to understand how this happened. We need to know how it was possible to turn an electorate that all data indicated would vote for Lula — if he were at liberty — to voting instead for a man who may look like a Simpsons caricature of a middle manager, but talks and thinks like a Simpsons caricature of a fascist dictator.

The concept of “populism” will not get us very far in making sense of this. A good rule of thumb is that if a concept is so broad it applies to almost everything, then either we are talking about the general theory of relativity, or else it’s just not a very good concept.

Professional commentators have been so busy hyperventilating about Russian bots that they failed to notice this. Their oxygen-imbalanced brains have become politically, historically and sociologically illiterate. Their stories make little sense. But they still have the gumption to complain that no one listens to experts anymore.

Donagh Davis teaches at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

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