A simple, and wrong, narrative dominated coverage of last weekend’s rampage through Brazil’s National Assembly, Supreme Court, and Presidential Palace in Brasila. The storyline: Democracy itself under attack. Disgruntled now ex-President Jair Bolsonaro supporters tried to take over the government just like some of ex-President Trump’s followers did on January 6th 2021. First off, the condemnation of the rioters for violence and the destruction of property was rightfully condemned, including by Bolsonaro, himself, in Miami. Leaders in the Americas and Europe criticized the actions as an assault on democracy. And its ethos.
The story is more complicated but no less sad. The majority of the rioters appear to have been poor people who live in the region and exist off the hand me downs of patronage, which is deeply entrenched in Brazil. The inchoate hooliganism of landless and now potentially jobless people cannot be condoned as just a economic protest. Likewise, a quasi-peasant revolt over lost subsistence wages is not an organized ideological assault on liberal democracy. If the protest was against democracy it was against practices, which leave thousands vulnerable to the whim of politicians.
The issue is not so much who to blame but what to blame. The foremost cause is a patronage system run by both sides of the political spectrum, which had led to the new, but previous, President Lula da Silva’s original downfall. Any transition of power leads to economically-driven civil unrest. A quick scan reveals similar protests when Lula lost before.
What to do? Corruption and patronage needs to be wrung out of Brazilian government and economy. Duh, you think. That is a long term homework assignment for the next two generations of Brazilian politicians of any hue.
More immediately, Bolsonaro, should he decide to stay engaged in real, as opposed to symbolic,politics, will have to go back to the trenches to take on one of the toughest and least rewarding job in public life — to be the Leader of the Opposition. In Brazil, that means walking the blurry chalk line between ineffectual remonstrance and insurrection.
That sounds more dramatic than the actual job. Most democrats countries broadly defined have corralled the existential struggle for power within a flimsy but resilient box of the legislative procedure, decentralized local power, and public opinion. The Opposition exists to criticize government actions and policies. Hold them to account. And keep doing it until they improve and meanwhile offer new ideas to tempt the public to their corner. Research, Communications, and people-to-people contact is a hard slog, but it is the sole to electoral victory. The only true victory.
Going forward, Bolsonaro can skip the pressure to issue baptismal vows of obedience to the goodness called democracy. Bolsonaro can legitimately ignore many, though not all, accusations. What he and his allied parties have to do is the job they are paid to do. Not bring down the government, but hold the government to account so that the people can decide. The challenge is to inspire through hope and vision and to provide clear and detailed answers to tough questions- — starting with taming corruption and patronage.