An American virus infects Brazil

Partisan loyalties, political instability and Brazil’s relatively young constitution.

No, this is not about COVID or some other physical malady. It’s about how excessive political polarization is negatively affecting two of the world’s largest democracies in a way that threatens to erode their political institutions.

The United States has one of the oldest functioning constitutional documents in the world dating back to 1787, when its founders negotiated a political union of 13 states based on a federal division of powers with sovereignty at each level divided among legislative, executive and judicial branches. Americans in turn borrowed many of their institutions from the centuries-old English and later British constitution, in which a balanced power-sharing arrangement among King, Lords and Commons developed, not by deliberate design, but out of the vicissitudes of history.

Beginning in 1889, following the abolition of the monarchy, Brazil borrowed its own political institutions from the United States, establishing legislative, executive and judicial institutions, and even a federal division of powers. Nevertheless, despite drawing on institutions that were working well in the U.S., Brazil suffered through two periods of dictatorship: the first lasting from 1937 to 1945 when President Getúlio Vargas wielded dictatorial powers, and the second from 1964 to 1985 when a military junta ruled. The 1988 Constitution re-established civilian rule in what was now called the Republica Federativa do Brasil, or the Federative Republic of Brazil. Thus, in contrast to the U.S., whose constitution has functioned for 234 years, Brazil’s current constitution is only 35 years old. As with most institutions, the longer a constitution is in effect, the more respect it will command from its citizens. The U.S. Constitution has acquired a venerability prompting some Americans to view it as divinely inspired, a belief associated with the Latter Day Saints. One needn’t go that far, of course, to recognize that, after so long a time, it has proved its durability. 

However, Brazil has now experienced six republics, one more than France’s post-1789 five. Because its current constitution is still young, its institutions remain vulnerable to occasional outbreaks of political instability. Under such conditions, loyalty to the constitution may take a back seat to partisan allegiances in the hearts of many Brazilians. If your favoured party or candidate pushes an ideological narrative which you support, you may come to look at the constitution and its mandated procedures as obstacles to its implementation. This was true of many early 19th-century American abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison, who viewed the U.S. Constitution as a “covenant with death” and “an agreement with Hell.” What they had overlooked was the possibility of amending the Constitution to rectify the abuses of slavery while maintaining continuity with their nation’s history. And such amendments did indeed come following the end of the Civil War, with further reforms implemented in the 1960s.

Shifting loyalties

Until recently, I had thought that a tradition of fidelity to democratic procedures was so firmly entrenched in the American political culture that it would be difficult for a would-be autocrat to dislodge it. My hope was that, after nearly two and a half centuries, ordinary Americans were so wedded to their political institutions that they would esteem them above their narrow partisan loyalties, willingly allowing their political opponents to assume office if they won an election. In Westminster democracies, we speak of government and official opposition, the latter of which we sometimes style His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. Americans do not use this language for obvious reasons, but a similar tradition persisted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. When a president was defeated at the polls, he would invariably promise to co-operate with his successor and call on his supporters to accept the new occupant of the White House as their president even as they might continue to oppose his policies – but always by constitutional means. The new occupant would in turn promise to be president for all Americans, even those who had voted against him.

Observers of this ritual might doubt the sincerity of the two contestants, but the ritual itself was important for maintaining peace and for the proper functioning of the country’s political institutions. As the late Sir Bernard Crick put it, politics is the hard task of peacefully conciliating diversity within a particular unit of rule. If people are too loyal to their particular narratives, often labelled ideologies, and if their loyalty outweighs their fidelity to the very institutions that make conciliation possible, the alternative could be open conflict. Carl von Clausewitz famously said that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Crick strongly disagreed. If people have come to blows, this represents nothing less than the failure of politics. No longer willing to sit down and talk things through with their opponents, such people have abdicated the responsibilities of citizenship and yielded them up to a political illusion holding them in its grip.

This is why I was so disappointed in 2016 to see so many Americans supporting a presidential candidate whose personal history of corrupt business practices and lack of political experience made for someone whose basic competence and integrity could at least be called into question. Once he had come to power, he used his public office to advance his own personal brand, placing his family members into important advisory roles. More seriously, he proved unable, or at least unwilling, to unite Americans beyond his own support base. He appeared to revel in aggravating his political opponents, calling them losers and various other epithets. Worst of all, when in 2020 it looked as though support for his presidency was ebbing, he made accusations of fraud and held out the possibility of not recognizing the validity of the vote. That his was an obvious ploy to avoid becoming one of the losers he so despised apparently bypassed many of his supporters, who should have seen it more clearly.

Two insurrections

When on 6 January 2021, Trump’s supporters invaded the Capitol building as Congress was preparing to certify the election results, I was even more disappointed. So many Americans had come to believe Trump’s prevarications that they were willing to respond to his loss with violence. With the January 6 hearings now in the past, we have learnt considerably more about what Trump did and did not do on that fateful day. And what we know now has not made Trump look good. I’m sorry to say that I am no longer confident that many Americans continue to value their political institutions above a particular partisan narrative into which they have bought rather thoroughly.

Two years and two days after the January 6 insurrection, supporters of Brazil’s outgoing president, Jair Bolsonaro, staged a similar insurrection in Brasília, ransacking, not only the Congress building, but the Palacio do Planalto, and the seat of the Supreme Federal Tribunal. My heart sank as I heard the news, because I had stood outside these buildings during my visit in 2016 (see photo below). I had been fascinated by Brasília as a small boy, and reading about it had sparked in me a childhood interest in architecture and city planning. How awful to see people breaking glass windows and ransacking the edifices at the centre of Brazilian political life.

It was apparent that Bolsonaro was trying to play the card that Trump had played in 2020. If he would not be winning the election, then he would claim fraud and call on his supporters to come to his defence. Like Trump, Bolsonaro did not attend the inauguration of his successor but was away in Florida. In many respects, playing this card is more dangerous in Brazil, with its young constitution, than in the United States, with its considerably longer history of constitutional government. This makes it all the more important for the United States, whose influence extends far beyond its borders, to keep its political institutions in good working order and not to allow a would-be leader with narcissistic tendencies, who managed to slip past an inadequate vetting process, to occupy the corridors of power. Americans like to see their country as a shining beacon of democracy for the rest of the world. But if their own institutions are not healthy or have been hijacked by someone whose loyalty is primarily to himself, this will inevitably have an impact overseas. It is worth noting that wherever an American-style presidential regime has been imported, it has not worked nearly as well as in its homeland. In many cases, it has led to outright dictatorship.

Toxic divisiveness

America is sick. It is increasingly polarized for reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. Each side despises the other and deems it unworthy of being heard. Hilary Clinton could speak of a “basket of deplorables” to describe her political opponents. Barack Obama spoke disparagingly of small-town people clinging to guns and religion and harbouring antipathy to those unlike themselves. President Biden last year issued warnings against “MAGA [Make America Great Again] Republicans,” which was almost certainly unwise given the nature of his office and his partisan affiliation. So the toxic divisiveness is not just on one side of the ledger.

There are many Brazilians who have good reasons to oppose the new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known by one and all as Lula, who previously served as president between 2003 and 2011, and was imprisoned for over a year on corruption charges in 2018-2019. Many voters were undoubtedly disappointed by the choices they had before them in especially the second round of the election. Nevertheless, if Brazilians can manage to affirm their political institutions and the procedures put in place to ensure a peaceful transfer of power, then they have a good opportunity, not exactly to become a shining beacon of democracy to the world, but to aspire to those hallowed Canadian principles of peace, order, and good government. And that will be enough.

This article originally appeared on Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist


  • David Koyzis

    David Koyzis is a Global Scholar with Global Scholars Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2nd ed., 2019) and We Answer to Another: Authority, Office, and the Image of God (2014). He has written a column for Christian Courier since 1990.

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