November 9, 2018
“We’re witnessing a democratic system in crisis [in the United States and in Brazil],” said Ramon Stern, administrative manager of the Watson Institute’s Brazil Initiative, which sponsored a November 6 teach-in analyzing the implications of Brazil’s presidential election of Javier Bolsonaro. Hours before the U.S. midterm elections’ polls closed, Ramon said, “The threat to democracy the world is facing has to be remedied by more than a ballot box.”
In Brazil and beyond, democracy can be manipulated to fulfill the needs of the ruling classes rather than those of marginalized groups – people of color, women and LGBTQ+ individuals – Stern explained, warning that Brazil is using democratic institutions to install a neo-fascist government. Bolsonaro’s rise mirrored President Donald Trump’s: few believed either candidate could win before gaining popularity through social media’s dissemination of “fake news.”
“In the run-off election, the Social Liberal Party’s Bolsonaro earned 57.7 million votes, while votes for the Workers’ Party’s Fernando Haddad and invalid/null votes totaled 84 million,” said Brazil Initiative Director James Green. “Positioning himself as Brazil’s Trump, Bolsonaro held core support from middle-class white Brazilians, upset by initiatives stripping them of long-held privileges.”
Green warned that Bolsonaro, by appointing retired general Augusto Heleno as minister of defense, abandoned Brazil’s tradition of civilian oversight of the military. Bolsonaro proposes immunity for police who shoot to kill individuals allegedly involved in criminal behavior, and supports widespread public access to firearms. A right-wing initiative, Escola sem Partido, advocates banning ideological discussions in all classrooms – including conversations about such topics as gender and women’s rights.
Green, panelists Stern and visiting Brazilian scholars Túlio Ferreira and Ana Carolina Santos do Nascimento, participated in a provocative Q-and-A session with audience members.
Just as Brazil refuses to address its racist policies, Professor of Political Science Juliet Hooker found Republicans’ failure to repudiate xenophobic and outright racist appeals in the U.S. deeply worrisome. “The campaign was dominated not by economic anxiety, but racialized anxieties,” she said. Hooker, Eric M. Patashnik, Julis-Rabinowitz Professor of Public Policy, and Political Science Chair Wendy Schiller participated in a November 7 noontime panel, “The Impact of the Midterm Elections.” Susan Moffitt, director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy at Watson, hosted the program, co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Public Policy Undergraduate Concentration.
Acknowledging that the American electorate dislikes single-party rule, Patashnik noted that bipartisan legislation on infrastructure and prescription drug pricing is possible but not assured. For certain, he said, the Democrat-controlled House will protect the Affordable Care Act from legislative repeal, block large cuts to social services and tax cuts for the wealthy, and might use its subpoena power to investigate Trump’s returns and the administration’s relationships with Russia and Saudi Arabia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will continue his aggressive campaign to confirm more conservative federal judges, Patashnik added. He also anticipates decision-making being pushed to state and local government, given the country’s geographic polarization and the conservative Supreme Court. That, said Hooker, will lead to highly asymmetrical protections for at-risk groups.
“Americans want government that works, but we fight about what that means,” said Schiller, who predicts Trump will not make the ACA repeal a 2020 campaign issue, given popular support for government-sponsored health care. Democratic gubernatorial wins in several Midwestern states that Trump won in 2016 bode well for developing a strong 2020 presidential campaign infrastructure, and the overwhelming support for the Florida ballot initiative to reinstate voting rights to felons may have a ripple effect beyond Florida, she predicted.
Panelists discussed myriad other topics, including the impact of high voter turnout, the significant number of women of color elected, and how progressive voters can build new coalitions.
The meme “Elections have consequences; words matter” resonates in Brazil, the United States and Pakistan. On Nov. 30 at 2:00 pm, in the Joukowsky Forum, the Center for Contemporary South Asia at Watson will host a teach-in and discussion about Pakistan’s recent elections. A panel of leading writers, thinkers, journalists, and analysts will offer a multidimensional perspective on the recent elections in the context of political life and culture in Pakistan.