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Brazil’s President Lula on Preventing Threats to American Democracy


Today’s featured essay is a Washington Post op-ed published on January 8, 2024, written by the President of Brazil, Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva.

Most sitting presidents of foreign countries do not spend their time writing op-eds for American newspapers.

Americans though are worried about threats to American democracy. Liberals and centrists are worried about the MAGA movement. There are concerns about the insurrection of January 6, 2020. There are concerns that if Trump were elected, he and his supporters would impose on the United States a permanent conservative authoritarian government.

Lula fully understands these issues. He ran against an incumbent populist conservative – Javier Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro had long been associated with paramilitaries and death squads in his native São Paulo. His government was run on a tough-on-crime, anti-ecological platform favoring hostility to human rights and aggressive deforestation of the Amazon .

Lula beat Bolsonaro in the election. Then Bolsonaro tried to retain power militarily, similar to the way Trump tried to stop Congress from certifying Biden as the winner in the U.S. election. His death squads and supporters showed up on the Planalto, Brazil’s equivalent of the Capitol Mall, and invaded the buildings of the National Congress and the Supreme Court.

The Bolsonaro coup failed, just as Trump’s attack on the Capitol failed.

Since regaining the Presidency (He had previously been President between 2003 and 2011), Lula has been able to do a lot for Brazil. He reinstituted a number of highly effective anti-poverty programs that he had instituted in his first presidency. (These had either been diluted or eliminated by his successors.) He instituted strong protection for the Amazon and reduced deforestation dramatically. Despite the left-wing nature of his policies, economic growth rates have been robustly positive. In 2023, Brazil’s economy outperformed that of every other major country in South America including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay.

So what does Lula say about Trumpism in the United States and in the world in general? If you can get behind the paywall, you can read his statement in its entirety on the Washington Post website. If not, here are the main points.

1) The fear that is widespread in populations around the world is based on economic precarity. There are few long term job guarantees any more. Employers can lay off workers at a moment’s notice. Years of cutting welfare benefits have eliminated long-standing social safety nets. People rightfully feel their economic situations are fragile and could change at any time. Economic insecurity leads to a culture of fear and paranoia.

2)  Economic precarity has come from a global strategy of economic development that vastly favors the rich over the poor.  Inequality is rising precipitously. This produces a working class and middle class living in precarity, and a super-rich class whose privileges are obvious. Workers are keenly aware that other people are benefitting at their expense. This leads to widespread resentment and suspicion.

3) What is happening within nations is also happening across nations. The poorest nations of the world are falling behind in a process of globalization that benefits the United States, Western Europe and China. This leads to international resentments that lead to all forms of militancy and hostility to both China and the West.

4) At the same time, we face crushing overall problems that require global cooperation. These include the climate crisis, the energy crisis, the challenges of feeding a growing global population, and the rise of xenophobia, ethnic hatred, and international warfare.

5) The media industry has moved to a modality of misinformation for profit. Sensational lies generate exposure, attention, and greater ad revenue for the media companies themselves. Increased inflammatory content weakens the prospects for both democracy and mutual trust. The world becomes increasingly polarized and incapable of meaningful joint action to solve problems.

6) Lula suggests two solutions to all of this:

a) Economic insecurity and precarity has to be addressed. Poor people in fear of losing everything take increasingly desperate measures. Lula does not explicitly address what such measures would look like in the New York Times article. However, as a union leader, and as Brazil’s president, he has advocated greater worker protection against dismissal, higher minimum pay, and greater economic security measures for the poor in terms of food aid, cash aid and access to medical care.

b) Attention has to be turned to misinformation campaigns in the media. This requires global solutions – since otherwise purveyors of malicious disinformation can simply move offshore to do their broadcasting.

*  *  *

In the United States, this all seems difficult to pull off.

But then nobody thought these things could happen in Brazil either.

How Brazil pulled off labor victories that would be very difficult to obtain in the United States is a story that requires its own web essay. The short version of the story is that Brazilian labor unions have been willing to build complex bridges with other political groups to win coalition victories that produced gains for workers. This happens less often in the United States for a variety of reasons. But such coalition victories have occurred and are possible.

On misinformation campaigns, Brazilian law has strict regulations of political speech designed explicitly to prevent misinformation in political campaigns. This would seem to allow for rich possibilities of the government censoring political speech for partisan purposes. In actual practice, the courts and lawyers that administer Brazilian electoral law have been non-partisan, even-handed and are widely respected in Brazilian society. Their courts really can censor outrageously false claims.

Americans would argue we have free speech – and in many large and important ways – we do. However, we also have laws against libel and slander. The protection provided by slander laws is quite non-trivial. Dominion Voting Systems was able to sue Fox News for slander concerning false claims about rigged election counts on Dominion Voting Machines. That remedy was very slow to be activated. However, the financial damage done to Fox News was substantial. Would it be possible to generate a faster mechanism for defending against knowingly false slanderous and libelous claims? I am not a lawyer, but some mechanism might be possible.

Lula as a labor leader and as a President, was able to achieve very real improvements in social conditions in Brazil. America has far more resources than Brazil does.

Surely we can do something to correct for economic precarity, and the vulnerability of our lower and middle classes. We might even be able to do something to preserve the truth.

Lula did this in Brazil while maintaining high rates of economic growth for the Brazilian economy as a whole.

If Lula can protect Brazil’s vulnerable poor, without doing any damage to his economy,

Why can’t we do the same?

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