In search of the lost center


By João Feres Júnior*

The only consistently oppositional parties in the Chamber are PT and Psol. The center is inhabited by Rede, PDT and PSB. Everyone else in the House votes with the government, almost always.

Among the many novelties brought by the 2018 presidential election, one of the most important from a political point of view was the resounding defeat of the center, or rather, of the forces and parties that occupied the center of the ideological spectrum. The favorite representative of the center-right, Geraldo Alckmin, got just over 4% of the valid votes in the first round. If the communication paradigm that prevailed throughout the New Republic was still valid, whoever has party structure, financial resources, time for Free Electoral Propaganda (HPEG) and support from the mainstream media, would have a high probability of reaching the second round. Alckmin had it all and failed.

The PT, either because it is historically the leading party isolated in popular identification or because of Lula's charisma and popularity, managed to reach the second round. But nobody occupied the place that formerly belonged to the PSDB. On the contrary, the victory went to Jair Bolsonaro, a candidate who was very weak in all the elements of the old paradigm: insignificant party and coalition, meager official funding, meager television time and unfavorable treatment of the press – even if in the long term the big media created the ideological conditions for his victory.

After the electoral tsunami, the political forces that do not make up Bolsonarism still seem to be operating in accordance with the old paradigm, that is, they are in search of the center. The PT planning a policy of alliances that would hold back its electoral bloodletting in the municipalities and the parties of the old center-right launching balloon candidates. All, however, continue to work with the most basic assumption of the old paradigm: the normal distribution of the universe of voters along the ideological spectrum. In less technical words, this means that the ideological preferences of the electorate are distributed along a bell-shaped curve, with few radicals left and right and the mass of voters around the center.

This premise is the basis of the median voter theory, according to which, in two-party systems, the candidate who captures the voter in the middle of the distribution (the median) wins. Such a theory of Political Science, originally designed to explain the American political system, seemed to be so good that it worked for other political systems as well, including ours. Now, the Letter to Brazilians was a strategy that Lula used to capture the center with the aim of winning the election. It worked.

But signs that there was something wrong with the premise on which such a calculation was based have already become evident with the victory of Republican candidate George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore in 2000. Bush was not worried at any point during the campaign in making concessions to the center, adopting a neoliberal and cryptoracist agenda, while Gore insisted on appearing to be the most moderate candidate, promising to combine the interests of the market with those of society. In terms of the ideological distribution of the electoral spectrum, Bush bet on consolidating a “mountain” on the right that was bigger than the mountain on the left. Instead of a bell-shaped curve, or a dromedary hump, we had a curve in the shape of a camel's back.

Trump employed this tactic, further radicalizing speech on the right, and it worked again. And in 2018 we witnessed the arrival of this innovation in Brazil. The country that until recently did not have a single party that assumed the identity of the right, suddenly saw an extreme right candidate win the election. Bolsonaro, like his American predecessors, bet that the consolidation of a right-wing base through a radicalized discourse could guarantee him victory. It worked.

Given this state of affairs, would the strategy of recomposing the center be reasonable, or even feasible?

A solid analysis of this question needs to take into account two fundamental elements of contemporary democracy, political representation and public opinion. The representation, made by parties and politicians, dominates the so-called institutionalist analyses. Public opinion, on the other hand, tends to attend analyzes that are more concerned with the deliberative aspect of democracy, that is, how people form their preferences or adhere to values ​​and worldviews. Unfortunately, most of the analyzes produced by publicists on duty focus exclusively on one element or another.

Where is the center on the plane of representation? A recent survey carried out by the Brazilian Legislative Observatory ( of roll call votes in the Brazilian Congress shows a very high level of governmentism in the Chamber and Senate. The only consistently oppositional parties in the Chamber are the PT and the runt PSOL. The center is inhabited by Rede, PDT and PSB. Everyone else in the House votes with the government, almost always. On a scale of governmentism from 1 to 10, 73,4% of deputies had a score greater than 7 and 50% reached 9 or 10.

In the Senate the polarization is even more acute. On the left we have PT, REDE, PDT and PSB and on the right all the rest of the party spectrum. There is simply no center.

If in the election we witnessed the melting of the center right, which produced a second round in which the center left faced the extreme right, after the election, when national politics focuses on the executive and legislative relationship, a polarization is reproduced between a small left, led by the PT, with a crushing government majority, which includes the former centre-right parties, such as the PSDB and the DEM.

Where would the center be in the realm of public opinion? To try to answer this question, we need to deconstruct the concept of public opinion, which is always so elusive. It is actually only justified counterfactually, that is, without the assent of public opinion, institutions would have to sustain themselves exclusively by coercion in the periods between elections. As this is not the case, then we must assume that there is a climate of legitimacy, whether passive or active, that allows things to work minimally. In fact, there is a periodic occasion in which public opinion is embodied and can be observed, albeit in a limited way: elections – when they are asked to express their wishes and preferences, which are then quantified.

If we think of the 2018 election from this angle, posing our central question, we will see that part of the opinion center supported the PT candidate, Fernando Haddad, and part of it migrated to Bolsonaro’s extreme right proposal, thus leaving its initial position. Antipetism may have played a key role in this second phenomenon. Even so, the PT remained where it was, that is, occupying the left band of the political center, but the center right melted electorally, and slipped to Bolsonaro's side.

What, then, would be the probability of this center being recomposed? What would make the electorate abandon the camel model and go back to the dromedary? What would be the necessary actions for this undertaking to recompose the center to succeed, whether for the benefit of the old center-right or the PT?

I end this short reflection with these questions. It seems to me that the old days, when parties, election time, press coverage and debates played a decisive role in the election, are gone, never to return. I think there have been important changes in political communication patterns that can no longer be ignored. But that is a subject for an upcoming article.

*João Feres Júnior is professor of political science at the Institute of Social and Political Studies (IESP), at UERJ. He is the coordinator of GEMAA – Affirmative Action Multidisciplinary Study Group ( and of LEMEP – Laboratory of Media and Public Space Studies.

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