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Ideas

In Brazil And U.S., Elections As Stress Tests For Democracy

After the Brazilian presidential election and the American midterms, checking the temperature on the state of democracy in a world that has been heading in the opposite direction for too long.

U.S. voters cast their ballots for the 2022 midterm elections in New York City.
François Brousseau

-Analysis-

MONTREAL — Beyond climate change and the return of inflation, the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic, we can add another element threatening the stability of the world: the backsliding of democracy and faith in a system based on the rule of law, free expression, and a sovereign choice of leaders.

The V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden publishes an annual report that has tracked this decline.

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, there was a growing desire for democracy around the world, and the number of people living under a system of freedom and the rule of law was on the rise. But that number has been decreasing since the beginning of the 21st century.


More recently, there has been a rise of regimes like China’s, which no longer pretend to play the democratic game and openly showcase a kind of “anti-model” for governance.

The disenchantment of democracy 

The problem at the heart of the democratic world, mostly in Europe and in America, is the support for a system long associated with peace and prosperity. A system that has often been carried out with political and economic success, for example, the extraordinary progress of Eastern Europe between 1990 and 2000, and even some Asian countries. (There are still notable exceptions to the link between democracy and economic growth. Furthermore, "exporting" of democracy does not work as well when it is forced upon through military means.)

The U.S. and Brazil are among those countries that have lived, loved and defended democracy— for a few centuries in the case of the first, and a few decades in the case of the latter. But they have both recently witnessed a certain disenchantment with democracy.

Meanwhile, in Italy and Sweden, we have seen the rise in power of distant descendants of Fascism and Nazism (directly in Italy, and indirectly in Sweden where there was “support without participation”), but with thorough respect and validation to democratic principles.

The rise of fascism

Photo of Brazilian supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro holding up a sign SOF Brasil inRio de Janeiro

Supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro camp in front of the Eastern Military Command, Rio de Janeiro

ZUMA/Silvia Machado

The situation is quite different in the U.S. and Latin America. In both cases, the system itself is challenged due to its elections and separation of powers, which is often questioned and undermined from within.

It's a program, an aspiration and method that can be described as fascism.

The threat to democratic order is not detailed in a party’s catalog. But they develop over time and end up becoming one and the same due to statements made by leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Their desires, slogans, explicit or implied threats, their systematic use of insults to talk about rivals ends up defending a program, an aspiration and method that can be described as fascism.

The rallies for these leaders are sometimes physically dangerous places for anyone who dares to think differently and express themselves, even for journalists who just come to do their job.

The "cult of personality," the denigration of the electoral system, the support of firearms (as common in Brazil as in the United States), the call for revolutionary action in the streets (January 6, 2021), statements like, "It's a merciless struggle between Good and Evil" (Bolsonaro, before the presidential election) ... are all signs that converge.

Can we point to victory for this fascist aspiration, based on a real mass movement (49% for Bolsonaro on October 30, 47% for Trump in 2020)? Not yet. The presidential elections in Brazil and the mid-term elections in the United States have shown, on the contrary, that the resistance exists.

A democratic majority

Bolsonaro only took two days to come out of his sulking period and let his entourage convince him to give up, to the great displeasure of certain supporters who wanted to replay January 6 "Brazilian style." It was also important that the army wasn't on board with attempting a coup, and that the friends of the departing president would be well represented in Congress. It amounts to a victory of the admirable Brazilian electoral system.

In the United States, half of the population still concerned about democracy, went to the polls to preserve the Democratic majority in the Senate and greatly limit the Republican majority in the House.

But it's not as simple as saying "the good guys" won and "the bad guys" lost. In key states like Arizona, Michigan, or Nevada where Donald Trump had tried to undo his defeat in 2020, voters rejected candidates who could have then rigged or hijacked the elections in those states.

As of now, November 2022, in Brazil and the United States, the battle-line trend of democratic decline has come to a halt. But the war is not yet over.

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