There is nothing more democratic than polarization

Clara Figueiredo, body research, digital photomontage, 2020
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By GUILHERME SIMÕES REIS & SERGIO SCHARGEL*

The theory of the two extremes normalizes the barbarism that represents fascism in Brazil

The annulment of former President Lula's convictions in 2021 generated a buzz in the media. Any television newspaper doubled over on the subject. The most distinguished journalists and political experts raised the alarm: “polarization threatens democracy”. Well, polarization exists and the concept itself is valid, but the way it has been treated by the newspapers is a mistake.

The heart of the problem with repeating ad infinitum that Brazil is polarized is to imply that the country is torn between two dangerous extremes. In short, that Lula is a doppelganger of Jair Bolsonaro, his distorted far-left version. Or, so much the worse, normalizing Bolsonaro, interpreting him not as an authoritarian extremist, but as an ordinary politician. A false equivalence between authoritarian reactionism and the left is reproduced. In short, the rhetoric of polarization offers people the idea that choosing between democracy and authoritarianism, between the democratic left and a Brazilian version of fascism, is a very difficult choice.

Another label that has served the purpose of propagating this false equivalence is “populism”. 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 the possible answer.

In an essay published in 1926, the Marxist theorist Evgeni Pachukanis drew attention to a trick that the media and mostly liberal intellectuals applied: treating fascism and Bolshevism as synonyms. The classic horseshoe theory for almost a century places liberalism as a democratic and moderate center, as opposed to the extremes: any alternative that offers minimal instability to the markets. It is symptomatic, for example, that a liberal like Friedrich Hayek, without any democratic concern by the way, projected a theory in which any state intervention would be misrepresented as totalitarianism. In short, the term populism has become a tool to disqualify any attempt to question liberalism, whether on the right or on the left.

In a very different approach from the one that has been disseminated on TV programs, but also in best-sellers about the dangers to democracy, the political scientist Ernesto Laclau traced a genealogy of the concept in his book “The populist reason”. He identified what were supposed to be the most basic characteristics of populism: anti-elitism and mass base.

It is interesting that Laclau seeks to understand the concept not as a political system – and therefore analogous to socialism or liberalism – but as a tool inherent in mass democracies. In this sense, populism would be a kind of defense mechanism for a democracy degenerated into an oligarchy. In this way, Laclau removes 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 exactly 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. In the same vein, this would be a danger to democracy, especially when it is polarized between “right-wing populists” and “left-wing populists”.

By being equated by the same label with the left critical of capitalism, fascism has its gravity clouded. People do not believe that what they see in front of them can be fascism, ignoring that it can exist at different levels – from personal preferences and movements with no perspective of power, passing through leaders who conquer the government and even States that have their institutions converted in a fascist state.

It is not without reason that one notices the growth of politicians, with the fall in popularity of Bolsonaro and the annulment of Lula's convictions, who seek to position themselves as a third way, as a moderate center. From Huck to Doria, from Maia to Moro, there was no lack of someone, even until yesterday aligned with Bolsonarism, who suddenly became a moderate center. The discourse of populism and polarization provides a veneer for repentant Bolsonarists, or even the traditional right, who continue to vote in favor of radical federal government projects in Congress, to become “moderates” overnight.

Bias not only exists, it 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 even less sense, therefore, to aim for a “consensus for the good of the nation”, to repeat a mantra that always reappears. Consensus can only exist under an authoritarian government.

In a democracy, the only consensus you need to have is what John Rawls defined by overlapping consensus: agreement on basic mutual rights like freedom of speech and association, as long as they don't infringe 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 enough to notice which actors repeat it frequently. It is necessary to question its use: is it logical to call characters as disparate as Lula and Bolsonaro populist? Or does it make sense to call polarized a country supposedly divided between a politician who, with all the flaws he may or may not have, has always respected the Brazilian democratic process and another who doesn't go a day without attacking it?

Polarization is not a problem and it is necessary to take the bacillus by its true name: fascism is not “populism”. Even though Hannah Arendt may have made the mistake of false equivalence, on this point she was precise: the fascist is the father of the family, the “good citizen”, our childhood friend so absorbed in conspiracy theories that he has lost track of his identity. real, in short, we.

It's not something that only happens in movies, it's not a huge scarred man or an extraterrestrial zombie as Hollywood loves to portray. Cass Sustein realized this very well when she spoke in her book “Can it happen here?” (no English translation) that “in every human heart there is a fascist waiting to come out”. And the rhetoric of polarization and populism helps to feed this bacillus.

*Guilherme Simões Reis Professor of Political Science at the Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro (UNIRIO).

*Sergio Scargel is a doctoral student in Brazilian literature at USP.

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