As many that read these pages are aware, we have family members based in Brazil. We have visited the nation twice over the last several years and taken a particular interest in its affairs. The country dominates South America, ranking 7th in the world in population and possessing the globe’s 12th largest economy. The Brazilians are a warm, sensual, creative people and their land is both bountiful and beautiful. Like the United States, Brazil was first claimed a colony by a European power – in its case, Portugal (making it the only South American nation whose native language is Portuguese rather than Spanish) – and, like the United States, has a history marred by African slavery. Unlike the United States, its democratic roots are surprisingly short. After being governed through the centuries by monarchy or military dictatorship with sporadic stabs at democracy, Brazil’s true democratic system of government only took hold in the 1970s.
Current rightist Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, in the aftermath of corruption scandals which engulfed then-President Dilma Rousseff. Mr. Bolsonaro has been called “the Trump of the Tropics.” His COVID denials and their devastating effect on his people, combined with his policies facilitating deforestation (he would call it, “development”) of the Amazon jungle so crucial to combat Climate Change, have caused Americans to take greater note of Brazilian issues and politics than would otherwise have been the case. His effective use of social media was core to his election victory, and thereafter pivotal in building an even deeper loyalty among his followers after he took office. He has consistently maintained a flagrant disdain for those who oppose him, engendering an antipathy in his adversaries corresponding to the allegiance of his adherents.
Perhaps because of the relatively short tenure of true democracy in Brazil, the merits of the system are a subject of genuine debate among Brazilians. When we visited this past summer, a Rio de Janeiro paper reported upon a poll indicating that a solid – but not overwhelming – majority of citizens favored democracy over autocracy, while at the same time a similarly-sized majority believed that the country would run more efficiently under autocracy than it did under democracy.
As all who care are aware, Brazil has just emerged from a bitterly-partisan presidential election in which Mr. Bolsonaro was defeated by former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva by a margin of slightly less than 2% of 120 million votes cast. Mr. Bolsonaro, who before the election consistently criticized the Brazilian electronic voting system that impartial experts find above material reproach, declared in August that he would only accept the outcome of his contest against Mr. da Silva if the vote was “clean and transparent,” and that he saw only three alternatives for his future: “being arrested, killed or victory.”
Earlier this week, almost two days after Brazilian election officials announced Mr. da Silva’s victory, Mr. Bolsonaro (through an aide) acknowledged his defeat and indicated that he would facilitate the transition to Mr. da Silva. Despite this acknowledgement, unrest currently continues among Mr. Bolsonaro’s supporters.
There was no notion of this post on the docket. I was prompted to enter it by a November 2nd Wall Street Journal report of Mr. Bolsonaro’s concession: “… [E]nding a tense silence of 45 hours in which he had refused to acknowledge the results even as his allies urged him to do so. … On Tuesday, the governor of São Paulo state … became one of the latest to call for the president to concede. ‘The elections are over, we live in a democracy,’ he told reporters. … Mr. Bolsonaro’s [de facto concession] came as politicians called on him to acknowledge the outcome to help tame protests … [Emphasis Added].”
One can reasonably surmise that during the “tense … 45 hours” described by the Journal, Mr. Bolsonaro and his sons (his closest aides) were soliciting the assistance of military and political allies across Brazil to contest Mr. da Silva’s electoral victory. If such was indeed the case, it is clear that not enough of these followers were willing to engage in an attempt to overturn what they knew was a valid election result to keep Mr. Bolsonaro in power. I suspect that Mr. Bolsonaro conceded not because he wanted to, but because he had no choice.
The Journal report made me reflect what might have been here, in 2020. The vote totals of the state presidential races considered too close to call on Election Night were announced within a week after the election, a determinative number in favor President Joe Biden. It’s all good – and indeed, vital to our system of government – to respect the legal process; even I initially nodded at Republican bromides asserting that Mr. Trump had the right to contest his defeats in court. That said, professional politicians know their states. Republican former WI Gov. Scott Walker, both the most savvy and virulently-partisan Wisconsin politician of his generation, made clear via tweet within hours after Wisconsin results were announced – before he or others grasped that then-President Donald Trump would simply choose to disregard facts in his quest to retain power — that although the contest was close, Mr. Biden had won Wisconsin. Most if not all of the Republican party leaders and officials in each of the states narrowly won by Mr. Biden undoubtedly understood early on that that Mr. Trump’s challenges would have no appreciable effect on the election’s outcome. They didn’t need to wait for their states’ respective formal election certifications or Congress’ January 6th formal counting of the Electoral College votes to acknowledge Mr. Biden’s victory. Had they and right-wing propagandists such as Fox News done what Mr. Bolsonaro’s political allies have done – as soon as the result was objectively clear even if avenues for futile legal challenges remained, called in chorus upon Mr. Trump to concede and gracefully lay the ground for his opponent’s succession – it seems, at least to me, that despite his inevitable subsequent thrashing, Mr. Trump would have been politically hobbled, surrounded by a small cabal insufficient to sow the level of cancerous doubt and seditious impulse which we now confront.
But they didn’t have the … guts. (You know that wasn’t the word I was thinking as I typed this, or you were thinking as you read it.) Despite over two centuries of American experience, they didn’t have the love and respect for democracy shown by officials in a South American nation with scant experience in true self-government.
Brazilians have a wry saying about their country: “Brazil is the future, and it always will be.” Maybe so; but right now, the future of its democracy seems brighter than ours.