The Brazilian 2022 elections generated a buzz in the global media. For the first time, it opposed a current president seeking re-election, Jair Bolsonaro, against a former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva or Lula.
Bolsonaro — an authoritarian far-right who is often referred to as “Trump of the tropics,” whose mandate was marked by contempt for human rights, scandals of corruption, and accusations of genocide — faced off against Lula, a center-left social democrat who governed the country in two terms from 2003 to 2010. Perhaps because those years were remembered with nostalgia due to it being the decade of the Brazilian “boom,” Lula closely won even though Bolsonaro weakened the institutions, with his followers’ attack on the Congress, Supreme Court, and the presidential palace in the Jan. 8, 2023 riots being the most visible and extreme case.
To describe this scenario, commentators frequently stated that Brazil was polarized between “extremes,” and that “polarization threatens democracy.”
But is polarization the problem here? And is polarization really such a demon? In our opinion, even though the concept is useful, the way it has been widely used by the media is a mistake.
The heart of the problem of the language of “polarization” is that it implies an equivalence between the two sides framed as pitted against each other. Repeating ad infinitum that Brazil is polarized implies that the country is divided between two dangerous extremes. In short, it suggests that Lula is a doppelgänger of Bolsonaro, his far-left distorted version. Or, much worse, it normalizes Bolsonaro, interpreting him not as an authoritarian extremist, but as an ordinary politician. This generates a false equivalence between authoritarian reactionism and the center-left. It normalizes fascism. The rhetoric of polarization offers people the idea that choosing between democracy and authoritarianism, between a democratic center-left and a Brazilian version of fascism, is something to ponder — and that it is a difficult choice.
THE POWER OF LANGUAGE
“Populism” is another label that has often propagated these types of dangerous false equivalences.
How did the term become an epithet to classify such disparate groups — from socialists to conservatives, from personalist demagogues to fascists? We can find in history a possible answer.
In an essay published in 1926, the Marxist theorist Evgeni Pachukanis drew attention to a trick that the media and liberal intellectuals applied: treating fascism and Bolshevism as synonyms. For almost a century the horseshoe theory has placed liberalism as the democratic and moderate center that is opposed to the extremes, which are any alternatives that bring any instability to the markets. It is symptomatic, for example, that F.A. Hayek, the late liberal economist, projected a theory in which any state intervention would be considered totalitarianism. The term populism became a tool to disqualify any attempt to question liberalism, whether on the right or on the left.
The heart of the problem of the language of “polarization” is that it implies an equivalence between the two sides framed as pitted against each other.
A different and interesting approach was taken by political scientist Ernesto Laclau in his book “On Populist Reason.” He identified what are supposed to be the most basic characteristics of populism: anti-elitism and massive popular support. Laclau conceptualized populism not as a political system — and therefore analogous to socialism or liberalism — but as a political tool inherent to mass democracies. In this sense, populism would be a kind of defense mechanism for a democracy that has degenerated into an oligarchy. Following this, Laclau removed the negative connotation of the concept, contesting the Manichean view that sees it as a danger to democracy. Such a notion, by itself, would consist of a paradox: if the essence of populism responds to the population demanding more democracy, how could it, therefore, be undemocratic?
In any case, this is not the most frequent way of understanding “populism.” In the hegemonic view, more implicit than explicit, the populist is the one who puts the interests of the market at risk. Following this interpretation, this would be a danger to democracy, especially when it is polarized between “right-wing populists” and “left-wing populists.” This generalization of the use of the term populism has dangerous implications. By being taken in the same label as the left and even some fragments of the center, the gravity of right-wing populism — that is, fascism — is diminished.
Even more concerning is the disbelief in encountering contemporary fascism. People do not believe that what they see in front of them could be fascism, ignoring that it can exist at different levels — from social movements with no perspective of power — for example, mob rioters — to leaders who conquer the government and slowly convert institutions into fascist structures, such as Bolsonaro himself. For example, the army and police forces collaborated during the Jan. 8 riot.
Robert Paxton already noticed this in 1998 in his essay “The Five Stages of Fascism,” in which he states that far from being rare, fascism is a virtuality of contemporary mass democracies. What prevents us from seeing a new Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini emerging every day is not some kind of mystic defense, but simply that most of these movements tend to die in their first stages, without being able to root themselves in the political establishment.
It is not without reason that in Brazil, with the dispute between Lula and Bolsonaro, we have seen the rise of a third way, posing itself as a moderate center. From Luciano Huck to João Doria, from Rodrigo Maia to Sérgio Moro, politicians who were until recently aligned with Bolsonarism suddenly started to present themselves as moderate centrists. The discourse of populism and polarization provides a rhetorical pathway for repentant Bolsonarists, or even the traditional right, who used to vote in favor of radical federal government projects in Congress, to become “moderates” overnight.
POLARIZATION IS NOT THE PROBLEM
Polarization should not be whitewashed away. Not only does polarization exist, it also is not a problem. On the contrary, it is fundamental to any healthy democracy. As Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonistic democracy shows, polarization, as long as it is based on mutual respect for the rules of the democratic game, is what makes the wheel of democracy turn. In other words: for democracy to work, it is dissent, not consensus, that is essential.
It makes no sense, then, to aim for a “consensus for the good of the nation.” Consensus can only exist under an authoritarian government. In a democracy, the only consensus you need to have is what John Rawls defined as overlapping consensus: agreement on basic mutual rights like freedom of speech and association, as long as they don’t infringe on the basic rights of others. That is, not even freedom of expression should be absolute, but this is another extensive discussion.
The innocuous rhetoric of “polarization” or “populism” serves clear interests. It is necessary to question its use: is it logical to call characters as distinct as Lula and Bolsonaro populists? Or does it make sense to call “polarized” a country supposedly divided between Lula, a politician who, with all his potential flaws, has always respected the Brazilian democratic process, and Bolsonaro, who doesn’t go a day without attacking it?
Polarization is not a problem; it is necessary to call the virus by its true name: fascism is not “populism.” Even though Hannah Arendt may have herself made the mistake of false equivalence, on this point she was precise: in “Eichmann in Jerusalém” she noticed that the fascist is a family’s father, the “good citizen,” our childhood friend so absorbed in conspiracy theories that he has lost all trace of his identity, in short, it is, or can be, any of us. Fascism is not something that only happens in movies, it’s not a huge scarred man or an extraterrestrial zombie as Hollywood loves to portray. Cass Sunstein described this well in his book “Can it Happen Here?” He wrote, “in every human heart there is a fascist waiting to come out.” The rhetoric of polarization and populism helps to feed this virus.
Sergio Schargel is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the Federal Fluminense University (UFF).
Guilherme Simões Reis is a professor at the School of Political Science at Unirio (Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro).