Scary As: Working-class demobilisation produces a perfect political storm. It emboldens the worst elements of the Right even as it causes the political discipline among working-class conservatives to weaken. The result is an apparent coming together of right-wing middle- and working-class voters: usually around a charismatic right-wing leader like Jair Bolsonaro (above) who is willing to give eloquent voice to all those inflammatory prejudices which, in less extreme political circumstances, are kept out of “mainstream” discourse.
PRESIDENT-ELECT JAIR BOLSONARO and Halloween are made for each other. If you’re attempting to evoke feelings of fear and dread, then the next President of Brazil is indisputably the right man for the job. For sheer terror, however, nothing beats contemplating the people whose votes propelled him into office.
What does it say about the 55 percent of Brazilian voters who supported Bolsonaro that they were willing to set aside his open support for the former military dictatorship. (Apparently its biggest failing was not killing enough dissidents!) Or, that they refused to be put off by his overt expressions of racism, misogyny and homophobia? (He’d rather his son was dead than gay.) How could a country which, for the past decade-and-a-half, has voted for the Workers’ Party, suddenly be persuaded to elect the “Trump of the Tropics”?
One might just as easily ask: How could the people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 possibly have voted for Donald Trump in 2016? Or: What made the men and women of Waitakere, Labour supporters for most of their lives, deliver their votes to National’s Paula Bennett in 2008? What is it that leads people to vote against their own objective interests?
The straightforward answer to that question is the subjective rage of a hard-pressed and/or deeply disillusioned electorate. Such was certainly the case in Brazil. Under the Workers’ Party, the Brazilian economy, following an impressive initial surge in the early 2000s, succumbed to a vicious recessionary one-two punch inflicted by the global financial system. After lifting the living standards of 20 million of the poorest Brazilians, the Workers’ Party was bullied by its Wall Street creditors into imposing a grim austerity regime on the Brazilian working-class.
As if this wasn’t enough, an unflinching team of official investigators has, over several years, exposed political corruption on a truly massive scale. Its stain spread inexorably through the entire Brazilian political class; undermining and ultimately destroying two Workers’ Party presidents (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as “Lula”, and Dilma Rousseff.) In the election just past, districts which had been Workers’ Party strongholds for decades went to Bolsonaro by wide margins. Partly, this was a reflection of angry and embittered Workers’ Party supporters seeking revenge; but mostly, it was the consequence of mass working-class abstentions. Huge numbers of former Workers’ Party supporters simply stayed home.
The disillusionment of working-class voters, and the demobilisation of working-class political strength it encourages, produces two extremely dangerous political effects. First, it allows the Right to shrug-off any obligation to conduct itself responsibly. Without the consciousness of having to behave itself – or suffer dire electoral consequences – the Right feels free to up-the-ante by encouraging its more unruly elements to give free rein to their most incendiary rhetoric. The result is a swift and pronounced deterioration in the political climate – an environment in which the Right is obviously best placed to flourish.
Restraint having become electorally counterproductive, the scene is thus set for the second extremely dangerous political effect to manifest itself.
Strong and progressive working-class parties not only discourage the parties of the Right from behaving badly, they also serve to isolate and disarm the more conservative elements within their own ranks. These people may privately abhor many of the policies advanced by the Left’s leaders – especially those relating to race, sexuality and gender. But, so long as “their” party delivers economically, the open expression of racist, sexist and homophobic views is resisted. If, however, their economic security and status is undermined by their own party’s policies, and its support declines accordingly, then the willingness of working-class conservatives to go on biting their tongues will decline with it.
Working-class demobilisation thus produces a perfect political storm. It emboldens the worst elements of the Right even as it causes the political discipline among working-class conservatives to weaken. The result is an apparent coming together of right-wing middle- and working-class voters: usually around a charismatic right-wing leader who is willing to give eloquent voice to all those inflammatory prejudices which, in a less extreme political climate, are kept out of “mainstream” discourse.
Conservatives from all classes are thereby encouraged to use their vote as a weapon against all those social elements deemed responsible for their loss of security and status.
The result is a Jair Bolsonaro; a Donald Trump; or even – lest we Kiwis begin to feel too smugly superior to all those sad Brazilians and Americans – a Rob Muldoon.
This essay was posted simultaneously on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Thursday, 1 November 2018.