Culture wars in a fragmented Brazil, a guide to understanding what happened in Brazilian election

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First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. Brazil is a country without communicating vessels. If the social situation will not escalate into civil war and Lula da Silva takes office within the (minimum) regular functioning of institutions, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. However, the challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts.  

Francis Fukuyama (2018) discussed how resentment became the wood for the fireworks of populist radical right parties amid the rise of identity politics. While the left abandoned the material struggle for better work conditions, adopting the so-called woke post-material agenda, focusing on the specific feelings of oppression felt by the minorities groups, the right followed the same path, moving from a liberal market agenda – based on the demand for “less state” in the market – to a nativist agenda (Zúquete, 2018) based on the intersection of whiteness (race), nationalist, religious moral and the resentment of being left behind from rural areas and an urban working class that experienced a gradual loss of earnings. The combination of those elements was crucial for Brexit and Trump’s election (Mondon & Winter, 2019). 

So, the struggle between a globalist left and a nativist right frame what is called “culture wars.” The concept borrowed from the German dispute between Bismarck and the Catholic Church in the 19th century (kulturkampf) is related to a dispute about nonnegotiable conceptions embodied in cultural and moral spheres such as abortion, sexual rights, racism, and the place of religion in daily politics, educational and public affairs (Hunter, 1992). This has all to do with the Brazilian political situation and the last two presidential elections. 

Two Brazil and Country of the Future (That Never Came)

Stefan Zweig once called Brazil “the country of the future.” Alongside racial equality – there named racial democracy – that future never came. Brazil remains a promise, part of a fulfilled growth in the BRICS promise. This is not due to capitalism as a global exploitation system (Christian, 2019). Brazil is a country that does not know or trust each other, a country of deep contrasts, barely connected by the nationalism of Vargas’ authoritarian regime, the development impetus of President Kubitschek and the modern and integrative vision of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. 

Despite Cardoso’s efforts, Brazil remained a giant with clay feet, with a significant part of its population remaining in a fragile situation, like those described in Jorge Amado’s novels. The dispossessed that Collor de Mello tried to galvanize against the “marajás” (maharajas) returned through Lula da Silva, electing a president who linked the workers’ struggle to business guarantees and was caught up in the corruption plot, a reality endemic in Brazil. 

The zeitgeistpopulism, was essential in 2018’s Brazilian elections (Reno, 2020; Tamaki & Fuks, 2020). Brazil elects a compulsorily retired military man, nostalgic for the military dictatorship, whose hero, Brilhante Ustra, was the greatest torturer of that period. The President’s name is Jair Messias (meaning Messiah) Bolsonaro, a federal deputy for Rio de Janeiro between 1991 and 2018, with no relevant political work, famous for sleeping during Senate debates. His discourse of hatred of Northeasterners – a collective figure that in the popular imagination represents laziness – blacks, homosexuals, the arts and culture, and the left, combined with a campaign of disinformation and fake news (Maranhão Filhos et. al., 2018). like never experienced, was essential for his election. Still, as a candidate and then as President, Bolsonaro divided the country like never before. Under the guise of the fight against corruption, which he managed to portray as an “invention” of Lula da Silva’s party, were wrapped up post-material issues that formed the culture warswhich determined not only his election but the election of Donald Trump, from which the Bolsonaro team (essentially commanded by the latter’s sons) drew inspiration. Thus, a Christian moral wave, especially evangelical, swept the country against abortion, “gender ideology,” and “cultural Marxism.” The struggle between a progressive, black activist, feminist, LGBT+ country and a country linked to white supremacy, the heritage of the colonels, historical racial privileges, and a conservative morality gained centrality (Stefanoni, 2018).

The Evangelical Factor 

Culture wars have been the core of Brazilian politics since 2018. To understand what is at stake, one needs to understand the role of religion in Brazilian society and the combination of evangelical spiritual combat (Da Silva, 2007) alongside white medium-class supremacy/privileges. 

The abolishment of slavery in Brazil in 1888 did not solve any structural problems in Brazilian society, remaining a place of coloniality (Quijano, 1997). The Constitution of 1824, in the advent of the republican era, was erected in an intellectual atmosphere of biological and cultural racism; disposing of that African heritage thus presents a danger to social development, contaminating from bottom to top. Therefore, taking advance of the scientific perspective of the time, the marginalization and persecution of African descendants and their cultures were established via the law. We can still see it in Law nº 6.001 of 1973 concerning the native status, typified as a minor that may be emancipated. The decades of 1930 and 1940 were intense in religious persecution against Afro-Brazilian religions, with the Catholic Church taking a position, defending a circumstance of spiritual combat against them, from 1950 to 1970 (Ferreira Dias, 2019). 

Meanwhile, in 1960, Canadian pastor Robert McAlister arrived in Rio de Janeiro and founded the New Life Church, the first neo-evangelical church in Brazil. His target was the low classes from the favelas. However, he realized that Afro-Brazilian religions were deeply disseminated among them. Contrary to the Catholic church, which defended the illusion of those religions and their “fake gods” and entities, McAlister adopted a different and effective strategy. While recognizing their power, he places the source of their strength in the Devil. Thus, their god (Orisha, Vodun, Inkice) and their entities are no longer a delusion of primitive thought but the manifestation of the Devil, evil forces that must be fought. 

From there to today, spiritual combat gained visibility and increased severely. In some locations in Brazil, the adherence to these neo-evangelical churches is 100 per cent. Pastors became powerful and wealthy via the theology of prosperity, which advocated that whatever is given to the church and the pastor will be doubled (Gabatz, 2013). They bought television channels and newspapers; they created a chain of power from local communities to the Parliament. The most preeminent of these Churches is the Universal of Bishop Edir Macedo. With time, they created an Altar Gladiators army devoted to fighting Afro-Brazilian religions and practitioners. Religious terrorism became part of daily life in Brazil, with the support of relevant politicians (Santos, 2012). 

Culture wars against the globalist left, classified as cultural Marxist, reached their apogee with Bolsonaro’s candidacy in 2018, with his evangelical agenda against minorities’ rights, universities, democracy, and the rule of law (Ferreira Dias, 2020). 

Lulas Reelection and What Comes Next 

First of November brought Lula’s reelection as President. He won but did not win. The results leave the country in the same polarization and without any chance of reconciliation. It is a country without communicating vessels. The Senate remains strongly Bolsonarist. São Paulo elects, and Rio de Janeiro re-elects, governors of the same tendency, with Haddad, Lula’s potential successor losing in São Paulo territory and running out of political capital for the future. 

Despite Lula’s victory in court, the narrative of the president-bandit prevails among the white, evangelical, and middle-class electorate. Suspicions of corruption, militia formation and human rights violations in the Bolsonaro do not demobilize his highly-regimented electorate. Once again, Brazil is an adapted copy of the US. Even though Lula has the support of moderate evangelicals and much of the economic and business elite, a fact that makes any fantasy of Venezuelization of the country (which never occurred) impossible, the truth is that the cultural battle against the so-called “cultural Marxism” in favor of an evangelical hyper moral and class rights alienates the Bolsonarist electorate, which survives well without Bolsonaro, since he is an ancient historical and social product that has always been alive in Brazil. 

Predictably, the pro-Bolsonaro popular militia is taking the streets, claiming electoral fraud, and asking the army to take control of the country. Meanwhile, some of the world’s top leaders have rushed to recognize Lula’s victory, signaling that he is the desired interlocutor. The same happened with figures close to Bolsonaro, such as the governor of São Paulo. The transition is underway peacefully after Bolsonaro realized that he would not have desired civilian support nor from the military. The Head of the Civil House, Ciro Nogueira, the Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes (great ideologue of neoliberalism in Bolsonaro’s government) and Geraldo Alckmin, Lula’s Vice President and man of the center-right, have started the transition process. Democratic institutions seem stable and secure. 

Nevertheless, Brazilian democracy will enter its most decisive chapter since the end of the dictatorship. Lula will need to (i) establish agreements that allow him to govern, which seems possible with the enlargement of his political platform, (ii) be impolite, (iii) purge the party of corruption, (iv) find mechanisms to combat poverty and violence, (v) restore the rights of minorities that have been suspended, without making this his cultural agenda, (vi) correct the social and state asymmetries in the best possible way, aiming at a continuous process of balance and approximation of the country, (vii) prepare the succession by encouraging the other parties to find democratic and qualified cadres that guarantee a healthy political alternation without a populist and cultural war approach. The challenge is Herculean because what is at stake, from now on, is to save democracy from its most terrible ghosts. 


References

Christian, Michelle. (2019). “A global critical race and racism framework: Racial entanglements and deep and malleable whiteness.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 5.2: 169-185.

Da Silva, Vagner Gonçalves. (2007). “Neopentecostalismo e religiões afro-brasileiras: Significados do ataque aos símbolos da herança religiosa africana no Brasil contemporâneo.” Mana, 13: 207-236.

De Albuquerque Maranhão Filho, Eduardo Meinberg; Coelho, Fernanda Marina Feitosa & Dias, Tainah Biela. (2018). “Fake news acima de tudo, fake news acima de todos: Bolsonaro e o ‘kit gay’, ‘ideologia de gênero’ e fim da ‘família tradicional’.” Correlatio, 17.2: 65-90.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2020). “O Messias já chegou e livrará “as pessoas de bem” dos corruptos: messianismo político e legitimação popular, os casos Bolsonaro e André Ventura.” Polis, 2.2: 49-60.

Ferreira Dias, João. (2019). “’Chuta que é macumba’: o percurso histórico-legal da perseguição às religiões afro-brasileiras.” Sankofa. Revista de História da África e de Estudos da Diáspora Africana, 22: 39-62.

Fukuyama, Francis. (2018). Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

GABATZ, Celso. (2013). “Manifestações religiosas contemporâneas: os desafios e as implicações da teologia da prosperidade no Brasil.” Revista Semina,12.1: s.p. 

Hunter, James Davison. (1992). Culture wars: The struggle to control the family, art, education, law, and politics in America. Avalon Publishing.

Mondon, Aurelien & Winter, Aaron. (2019). “Whiteness, populism and the racialisation of the working class in the United Kingdom and the United States.” Identities, 26.5: 510-528. 

Quijano, Aníbal. (1997). “Coloniality of power in Latin America.” Anuario Mariateguiano, 9.9: 113-121. 

Renno, Lucio R. (2020). “The Bolsonaro voter: issue positions and vote choice in the 2018 Brazilian presidential elections.” Latin American Politics and Society, 62.4: 1-23.

Santos, Milene Cristina. (2012). O proselitismo religioso entre a liberdade de expressão e o discurso de ódio: a” guerra santa” do neopentecostalismo contra as religiões afro-brasileiras. MA Thesis. Universidade de Brasília. 

Stefanoni, Pablo. (2018). “Biblia, buey y bala… recargados: Jair Bolsonaro, la ola conservadora en Brasil y América Latina.” Nueva Sociedad, 278: 4-11.

Tamaki, Eduardo Ryo & Fuks, Mario (2020). “Populism in Brazil’s 2018 general elections: An analysis of Bolsonaro’s campaign speeches.” Lua Nova: Revista de Cultura e Política, 109: 103-127.

Zúquete, José Pedro. (2018). The identitarians: The movement against globalism and Islam in Europe. University of Notre Dame Press. 

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