the state of democracy

Fritz Wotruba, Untitled from Flight 1969, published 1971


Author's preface to the newly released book.

This book brings together my Sunday columns on Estadão from April 2016 to April 2021, dedicated to the theme of democracy. During the period, I published 250 columns on politics, public management, economics, geopolitics, trade, social relations, culture, religion and response to the pandemic – often mixed, in cross-sectional analyses. Almost half, 120, dealt with democracy, of which I selected 100 for this collection. These numbers reflect a reality: in these five years, democracy has undergone the greatest stress test since the end of the Cold War, three decades ago.

The test is, to a large extent, gradual and subtle. In the period, there were few classic military coups, such as the one in Myanmar, in February 2021, in which the civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested, after the overwhelming electoral victory of her party, and a military junta took power.

The period was characterized by the growth of another form of authoritarianism: the capture of democratic institutions with tricks that to some extent follow the letter of the law, though not its spirit. Until they started changing the laws to make the robbery irreversible.

The outcome is not necessarily the perpetuation of a ruler in power, as occurred in Venezuela, Russia and Turkey. It may simply be the normalization of public behaviors that were previously unacceptable; bring to the so-called “public square”, the former agora, speeches and attitudes that were previously restricted to the domestic environment, or to the bar table.

This fortuitous movement ends up resulting in quite tangible setbacks with regard to the quality of the debate, the space for negotiation and the limits previously imposed on gender, sexuality, race, origin and religion prejudices. The subordination to moral, religious, cultural and identity contents transforms politics into a caricature of itself, and the State and the laws, into arsenals of a tribal war.

At the heart of the strategy is the lie. It has been a notable feat (for the worse) in recent years to relativize facts to the point of equating them with versions; the weakening of reality, converted into “narratives”, opinions, subjective preferences.

Lying has always been a valuable weapon in the arsenal of politics. But over time democracies have developed tools to diminish liars' competitive advantage. Journalism plays a central role in this, alongside education and the action of attentive citizens.

The media business model was weakened by the emergence of digital platforms, which cannibalized journalistic content, offering it for free and focusing on distribution, and no longer on the product, its monetization.

While financially asphyxiating traditional media companies, digital platforms began to indiscriminately distribute false news and opinions without foundation in facts, mixed with information verified according to the criteria of journalism. It was a prize for lies and for populism, which has resurfaced with force in these five years.

When this process of deterioration in the quality of debate and leadership in democratic regimes had reached its peak, spreading to large and populous countries such as the United States, Brazil, Mexico and, to some extent, India, Covid-19 emerged.

The pandemic is a test for the quality of management in a country, and for its adherence to scientific guidelines and factual truth, both relegated to the background by the populist strategy. It is inevitable to observe the Darwinian opportunism of the virus.

The column's debut year, 2016, was marked by the plebiscite that approved the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, by the narrow margin of 52% to 48%. The “yes” campaign, full of lies about the economic cost of remaining in the bloc, had as one of its main architects Boris Johnson, who would later be elected Prime Minister, taking advantage of the competitive advantage of promising things impossible to fulfill, in the tortuous negotiation of the terms of the Brexit.

To crown 2016, Donald Trump was elected president at the end of the year, making the American political scenario unrecognizable. From then on, populism gained enormous momentum – the theme of the first and, not by chance, longest chapter in the book.

The following year, France, the birthplace of the Enlightenment, shocked the world with a run-off in which far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose National Front has roots in the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, won 34% of the votes. wishes. Then came the elections of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in Mexico, and Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. And of Alberto Fernández the following year, with the lady of populism Cristina Kirchner as vice-president, despite her profusion of problems with the Argentine justice system.

During this period, Lava Jato spread across Latin America, with a huge impact especially in Peru and Ecuador, as Odebrecht's contracts in those countries were being dissected. Evidence and scandals appeared in many countries in the region, but were suppressed by less independent public ministries.

While these earthquakes shook democracies, in darker parts of the world authoritarianism was consolidating. An ill-explained failed coup in Turkey gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan the pretext to elect a new national enemy alongside the Kurds: the Hizmet movement.

The persecution of the group ended up involving Brazil through the request for the extradition of Turkish naturalized Brazilian Ali Sipahi. And here, a modest victory for journalism. My column published on June 23, 2019 was cited by defense attorney Theo Dias in the Federal Supreme Court judgment in August of that year. In it, I describe Hizmet and argue that the charge of terrorism is baseless. The extradition request was denied.

I wrote the column in Beijing, on the Sunday before publication, before leaving for North Korea, where I would spend a week without internet and under strict surveillance. This was my life before the pandemic. The constant travels are reflected in the columns. I hope it will be a pleasant and useful read, an opportunity to think about the winds that have been blowing in the world and where they are taking us.

*Lourval Sant'Anna holds a master's degree in journalism from ECA-USP. Author, among other books, of The fate of the newspaper (Record).


Lourival Sant'Anna. The state of democracy: 100 columns in Estadão about the great challenge of our time. São Paulo, e-book, 2021. 224 pages.


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