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Cecilia Lero on Why Voters Choose Anti-Poor Anti-Elite Authoritarians
Cecilia Lero is a brilliant political scientist at the University of São Paulo – the number one university in Brazil. She is an expert not on only Brazil, but on the Philippines and the United States with a fiercely original take on the political changes of our times. Here she addresses the question of the so-called populist authoritarian presidents – Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil and Duterte in he Philippines. These are anti-democratic figures whose appeal to the voters is a simultaneous attack on big government, political insiders and the marginalized poor – blacks and illegal immigrants in the United States – slum dwellers in the Philippines – blacks and slum dwellers in Brazil. These leaders don’t try particularly hard to actually deliver economic benefits to their poor and middle-class supporters – but their constituents still love them.
The standard explanations for why these leaders come to power is either pure prejudice and racism (Blame the white supremacists), the rise of conservative media (blame Fox News) or frustration with government (Anti-Tax sentiment in the U.S., Anti-Corruption in the other two countries)
Lero makes a far more sophisticated argument. She discusses the previous rise of “neoliberal” governments – governments that rolled back benefits to the middle class and poor while facilitating the rise of a super-rich financial elite. Deregulation allows individual bankers and speculators to make a fortune. Cutting government spending leads to a more precarious economy that threatens middle class well-being.
She discusses the incompatibility of “neoliberal” government with leftist and moderate politicians that claim to want to provide benefits to the poor. A beleaguered middle class and a not-at-all beleaguered upper class both feel threatened by such progressive possibilities. She calls this conservative reaction “counterrevolution” and links it to the incompatibility of democratic politics – which promises government solutions to all ills with neoliberal politics – which wants to gut the capacity of government to do anything.
The combination of empty promises with declining ability to deliver on those promises is toxic.
This analysis is fiercely original and applies to many other places besides the countries Lero refers to in her article.
Her analysis implies a huge global shift to authoritarian politics – states that rule by force and intentionally persecute the poor and the weak.
If she is right – we are all in big trouble.
Here is Cecilia Lero’s analysis:
An elected leader who dismantles democratic institutions, coddles extreme right wing and often violent elements in society, and stokes fear and thus hate of both “the elite” (despite being an elite himself) and a marginalized group in society in order to consolidate his base and distract from misgovernance. No, I’m not talking about Trump. Well, not only him.
Leaders, and more importantly, constituents that support leaders like this, have been popping up all over various regions of the developed and developing world. In the developed world, leaders or parties that follow these patterns have gained electoral success in long-established democracies, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Austria, Denmark, France, the Netherlands and Finland. They have also gained a foothold in the developing world, including some of the world’s largest democracies such as the Philippines, Brazil, India, and Turkey. Given the weakness of state institutions and the vulnerabilities associated with poverty, these leaders and their supporters have had disastrous effects on their populations and, arguably, the world (1).
These leaders are often described as populist. But, there are important limitations to this term. Populism describes a rhetorical political style whose most commonly understood characteristic is that it emphasizes that all political legitimacy rests with the people as opposed to the “elites.” At face value, this does not appear to be a bad thing. In fact, it appears to be a laudable confirmation of democracy. The first problem, however, is that “populism” says nothing about the leader’s ideology. Performative populism can be used to assert the rights of the people in the face of a predatory political and economic class, or it can be used to assert that a political leader, as the supposed voice of “the people”, is not beholden to democratic institutions, owes no accountability to anyone but his own supporters, has no obligation to protect minorities, and does not even have to recognize verifiable, objective truths (science and education, after all, are tools of the elite, while folk thinking, even if it is based on xenophobia and ignorance, is pure and legitimate).
Second, “populist” says nothing about the demand side of the equation. “Wannabe” leaders that use populist rhetoric are always around, but why is a significant part of the citizenry receptive to them at a particular place and time? Convincing theories exist for why we have recently witnessed the rise of this kind of leadership in the United States and Europe (see Norris and Inglehart 2019), but can we find a more parsimonious explanation that is also applicable to poor countries?
We propose counterrevolution as a paradigm to understand the demand side of this phenomenon. It is important to remember that even when these leaders are no longer in power, vestiges of their rule will continue to shape political institutions and social relations (think the sway Trumpism still has on the Republican party even after a decisive electoral defeat). In countries where these leaders or parties have not attained the highest offices, they are still able to have substantial effects on public policy and discourse. Democratic defenders and those striving for more inclusive societies will have to deal with constituencies demanding this leadership style for some time to come.
Counterrevolution, broadly defined, is a social reaction to a revolution (Bello 2019). We conceive of two kinds of counterrevolution. The “classic” variety is an upper- and middle-class reaction to a lower-class revolution. The “anti-system” variety is one that seeks to undo a revolution that has since become institutionalized (if incompletely) into a new system. The Nazi regime is the emblematic example: According to Goebbels, the fundamental aim of the movement was to “erase 1789 [the French Revolution] from history.”
The movements that have swept to power the contemporary crop of political leaders and parties referred to as populist authoritarian, illiberal, exclusionary, and extreme right-wing are a combination of both varieties of counterrevolution. As with the classic variety, a characteristic common to all of these movements is that they foment and utilize anger directed at an “underclass”, as if this underclass were responsible for holding the country back from greatness. This “underclass” may be defined by any criteria the leader finds convenient, but is usually opportunistically based on who has been historically demeaned and stigmatized in society. Contemporary examples include immigrants, black and indigenous people, Muslims, drug users, and urban slum residents. At the same time, consistent with the anti-system variety, these movements exhibit a desperate frustration with the state of the political system overall in their respective countries. The leaders are praised for “not being politicians,” and their supporters expect them to make drastic changes with little to no regard for respecting norms and state institutions, even those that protect democracy and guard against the abuse of power. This distrust of the entire political system makes supporters especially vulnerable to conspiracy theories and fake news, as any information that does not jive with what they want to believe may be the result of a media and research/university industry captured by the establishment.
These two varieties of counterrevolution reflect the inherent contradictions between democracy (2) (or the expectations created by democracy) and neoliberal capitalism. Liberal democracy, which after the Cold War had come to be perceived as the dominant political system and the apex of political evolution (Fukuyama 1992), creates expectations of social and economic inclusion among historically excluded and oppressed groups. At the same time, neoliberal capitalism, which has proliferated worldwide since the economic crisis of the 1970s and with renewed vigor since the end of the Cold War, is all about minimizing the role of the state and emphasizing the preeminence of the market and the individual, which makes social and economic inclusion impossible.
How does this tension play out? Historically excluded groups demand social and economic inclusion. This may take the form of, for example, demanding access to better services, economic opportunity, cultural and ethnic recognition, or any combination thereof. It is impossible to overcome historic and systemic marginalization without state intervention. Yet, states often can’t (because of lack of capacity) or won’t (because of lack of political will) keep
up with demands for inclusion. At the same time, these demands threaten the privileged position of the upper but especially the middle class. It is impossible for the state to simultaneously implement social and economic inclusion and maintain regimes of privilege. Inclusion, by its nature, demands confronting privilege.
Simultaneously, neoliberal capitalism naturally exacerbates inequalities (Piketty 2013) and sells the myth of meritocracy – that those who hold privileged positions in society deserve them, while turning a blind eye to whether or not these privileges are vestiges of historic and systemic injustice (see Bloodworth 2016; Markovitz 2019). The promise of social mobility appears like a rigged game because it is, and efforts at inclusion begin to appear frustrating and futile and their intended beneficiaries unworthy. The middle forces thus imagine a coalition between the undeserving underclass and the corrupt elite.
Consider the case of Brazil. Presidents from the Workers’ Party that ruled from 2002 to 2016 instituted a number of social programs aimed at reducing extreme poverty and recognizing the historically oppressed black and indigenous populations. At the same time, the Workers’ Party’s maintained a coalition with finance capital as well as a spattering of conservative political parties (some would argue necessary coalitions, but that is another discussion), severely limiting the extent to which the party could push for meaningful inclusion and true equality of opportunity. Middle and upper classes saw the government spending billions of reais to uplift the poor, but millions of people remained poor. This was taken as evidence that anti-poverty programs do not work, and only serve to encourage people to be lazy and expect handouts. At the same time, the super-wealthy became even wealthier while the political establishment delivered sub-par services and engaged in corruption. The series of events surrounding the impeachment of Workers’ Party President Dilma Rousseuff in 2016 up to the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 was marked by the dual hatred of the poor and non-white as well as the established political class – a counterrevolution against both the underclass (the classic variety) and the system that has been rigged by the elite (the anti-system variety).
How, then, do we fight back against counterrevolution mutating into even more repressive, authoritarian regimes with popular support? We must begin by disabusing ourselves of the notion that these leaders will merely collapse under the weight of their own incompetence and hypocrisy and everything will naturally fall back on track. Rather, we must recognize that the combination of liberal democracy with neoliberal capitalism is not “the end of history” but rather a system with inherent contradictions. We must also recognize that dictators, and those aspiring to be such, learn too. In fact, they have been adept at hijacking the discourse of democracy and the value of work to further authoritarianism and entrenched privilege. These counterrevolutionary leaders and constituencies are not mere hiccups in the inevitable realization of idealized democracy and inclusion, but phenomena that require a radical rethinking of the kind of social and economic regimes to which we aspire.
1. See https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/01/amazon-deforestation-surges-to-12-year-high-under-bolsonaro, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/brazils-variant-breeding-ground-is-a-threat-to-the-entire-world/2021/03/04/8c3f7a2e-7c4f-11eb-a976-c028a4215c78_story.html, https://theconversation.com/why-modis-india-has-become-a-dangerous-place-for-muslims-132591, https://www.hrw.org/tag/philippines-war-drugs
2. It is important to note that the figures considered the hallmark of this movement: Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary, and the plethora of right nationalist parties that dot Europe participate in and were chosen through legitimate elections.
Bello, Walden. 2019. Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right. Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing.
Bloodworth, James. 2016. The Myth of Meritocracy: Why Working-Class Kids Still Get Working-Class Jobs. London: Biteback Publishing.
Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.
Markovitz, Daniel. 2019. The Meritocracy Trap: How America's Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. New York: Penguin Books.
Norris, Pippa and Ron Inglehart. 2019. Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press.
Picketty, Thomas. 2013. Capital in the 21st Century. Harvard University Press.