With the eyes of the "converted"

Image_Elyeser Szturm


Why does Bolsonarista discourse have adherence? Or, why does a portion of the population still seem to say, “so what?”

April 22nd is a historic date, the beginning of the Portuguese exploration and expropriation of our territory, riches and population. As Marilena Chauí remembers[I], to carry out such an undertaking more than strength was needed. The colonizing task also had to make use of the construction of a myth, we were the promised land, we were part of divine history, all that was missing was the agent to concretize it, save it. 520 years later, on the same day, we still see men rising to the status of saviors, or, at least, selling the idea that they can save Brazil from its corrupted destiny. This is what the video of the ministerial meeting reveals, released for dissemination by the Minister of the STF, Celso de Mello. Being a meeting that takes place when the COVID-19 pandemic was already hitting the country hard, it was expected to find, at the very least, evidence of planning for the crisis. But the central theme was not the health crisis. After all, the government must “address the political issue as well. It's true? So it is… this is the concern we have to have, because the struggle for power continues”, declared the president. It was actually an ear-pull, the opportunity for ministers to show how much they are in fact committed to the government's political project.

There is no shortage of analyzes about the ill-fated video on social networks and newspapers. While some see reinforcements for Sérgio Moro’s “award-winning denunciation” and the possible fall of the president, others point to the weakness of the evidence, which reinforces a characteristic trait of the then minister and former judge. Even worse, the video could serve to reinforce the Bolsonarist base, after all, it was not a ministerial meeting, but a rally behind closed doors. The tone was so emphatic that it seemed like it knew it would one day hit prime-time screens. Anyway, there is no lack of viable interpretations or questions for the plot: when will the reaction of the political institutions directly degraded during the showmic come? Is this just another display of weakness and a chapter in a saga that is coming to an end?

I would like to draw attention to my selection bias: the kind of popular appeal emanating from presidential and ministerial speeches is worrying. And the question that remains is: why does this type of discourse have adherence? Or, why part of the population still seems to say: “so what?”, in the face of what, for some, is a sign of barbarism or a serious crisis of democracy. Ministers and the president did not present proposals, but competed for the highest number of curses; others preferred to rely on conspiracy theories – Indians would have been deliberately contaminated to overthrow the government, according to Minister Damares – than on scientific data. The lack of strategy and planning to face COVID-19 is clear, as well as the perversity of some statements. In addition to the mockery against STF, governors and mayors, one of the suggestions was to take advantage of the fact that the people and the press are distracted by COVID-19 to pass the herd, open the gate and destroy the environment once and for all in the name of supposed growth (Minister Ricardo Salles), or even worrying about private hospitals, after all they are losing clients (Former Health Minister Nelson Teich).

It is not new that the Bolsonarist strategy is based on what he said and then he said he didn't say it. Despite everything, his speech still appeals to a section of the people. We can rant, denounce and disagree, but a strategy to reactivate the progressive left needs to take seriously the reasons for this appeal. Although the rise of the right and an authoritarian discourse is not a privilege of Brazil and the factors for such reemergence are varied, I call attention to two dimensions directly related to the functioning of representation: the dimension of political education and the inclusiveness of our democracy. It is necessary to remember that the images that the representatives offer the people are multiple and are in competition, waiting for the adhesion of an audience. Adherence to the speeches depends, on the one hand, on the different performances activated by the representatives and their communicative abilities. On the other hand, the way discourses have resonance in the social fabric. The reception of these speeches by those represented and the evaluation they make about the performances are mediated by the context in which they are inserted, by the knowledge, information and experience they have of and with the world[ii].

First, with regard to knowledge and information, political representation is not independent of a process of political literacy. For Frei Betto, former special adviser to Lula, the Workers' Party did a lot for politics in terms of material gains, transforming citizens into consumers, but left aside its project of political education[iii]. In addition to diagnosing the problem, inequality or corruption, for example, people need to be able to think about its causes, structural dimensions. The lack of political literacy, added to the constant changes in the process of political communication, can directly affect democracy if we take into account the close relationship between information and political education. In a world in which the candidates' agendas and the topics dealt with are less and less filtered - a role previously played, even if in a limited way, by the traditional media - citizens are increasingly exposed to polarized arguments, instead of different worldviews[iv]. Furthermore, we know that, despite the discourse that social media allow direct communication strategies, they continue to be mediated by different interests and by the unequal power of resources, which affects the type of knowledge that is transmitted and accessed.

Second, representation involves not only contact with discourses, but also experience with their results. As much as leftist governments have advanced in the conquest of rights, we know that structural limits were not exceeded and that inclusion was limited. With several people remaining on the sidelines and with a generalized feeling of insecurity, a speech back to a safe past is increasingly appealing, even if anti-democratic. Low experience with democracy and incomplete citizenship in terms of social and civil rights make defending the rule of law something very abstract, once again moving the pendulum of democracy[v]. How to tell this people expropriated for more than 500 years that there is something valuable, like the idea of ​​rule of law? Or even that citizens cannot arm themselves, when the very State that should protect us kills a 14-year-old youth for being suspicious – that is, black and peripheral? How can we explain that the Supreme Court whom the ministers want to arrest and which we defend is the same Supreme Court that endorsed the parliamentary coup and who changes opinions like someone changing his toga? How to explain that corruption is an evil, but that fiery speeches or a “good” man are not enough to deal with it?

In this sense, if we try to look with the eyes of the “converted”, it is possible to perceive how some speeches have appeal. Between the enunciation of the speech and its adhesion there are several possibilities of interpretation. For example, for the president “It has to be a government with… with pride. Expose yourself, show that we have the people on our side. That we are submissive to the people.” Does anyone disagree with that? For Minister Ernesto Araújo, the president's project is not “simply efficiency, strength, economic growth, but freedom... the fight against corruption, the... the reinvention of a Brazil that is... free, of a Brazil free of these , yeah… ills that we know”. Sounds like a statesman? And appealing to the moral dilemma that fuels elections so intensely, at least since 2010, Damares declares “this government is a pro-life government, a pro-family government. So please. And then when we talk about values, Minister, I mean that we were, yes, on the right path”. Values ​​and family we all defend. And to end with the republic's major kiss-up “It is [necessary] to put an end to this crap that is Brasilia. This here is a cancer of corruption, of privilege” (Abraham Weintraub, Minister of Education). A more than widespread image, unfortunately, of this beautiful city. Reinforcing the argument, the president rectifies “What Weintraub is talking about […] are people here in Brasília, from the Three Powers, who do not know what a people is. I talk to some, they don't know what beans and rice are, they don't know what a supermarket is. He forgot. Do you think money falls from the sky?[vi]. The appeal to people without food and in need is not a privilege of the speeches given by Lula.

There are two options, we can turn our nose up at the lines or try to understand them. It is undeniable that the conservative right has appropriated the rights discourse. In this context, there is a great political challenge that implies not denying the shortcomings, the challenges of politics and the correct anger of corruption, but politically translating to the people that there are ways to deal with these problems. This cannot be done without political education and without a radically inclusive project of politics. As I said, the reasons for joining the discourse are varied. It's not just lack of knowledge or exclusion. Those who want to maintain the status quo and their privileges also consciously embark. Although this is also a result of poor coexistence with democracy. Furthermore, populist discourses are not essentially spontaneous, they are also used strategically to deepen political crises.[vii]. The fact is that Bolsonaro may fall, as he seems to be exaggerating his tone when he lacks allies, but his speech will still resonate. Among the more or less 50% who are dissatisfied with the government today, many would easily adhere to “salvationist Morism”, even if without respect for the law. The problem will not go away then, but it will be more alive than ever in 2022. It is therefore necessary to listen better and imagine another way of doing politics.

*Debora Rezende de Almeida is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UNB.

[I] CHAUÍ, Marilena. Brazil: founding myth and authoritarian society. São Paulo: Perseu Abramo Foundation, 2006.

[ii] SAWARD, Michael. The representative claim. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

[iii] BETTO, Friar. The blue fly. Editora Rocco, 2006. For the author, the Zero Hunger Program, for example, originally contained this educational dimension, but was transformed into a compensatory policy.

[iv] Gurza Lavalle, Adrian. Democracy, representation and social networks. Available in: https://constitucionalismo.com.br/democracia-representacao-e-redes-sociais/

[v] AVRITZER, Leonardo. The pendulum of democracy. São Paulo: However, 2019.

[vi] All speeches were taken from the audio transcript of the ministerial meeting, on April 22, 2020. Available at: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2020/05/leia-a-integra-das-falas-de-bolsonaro-e-ministros-em-reuniao-ministerial-gravada.shtml           

[vii] Moffitt, b. The global rise of populism: performance, political style, and representation. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016.


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