About the alleged polarization

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By Leonardo Avritzer*

The release of former President Lula from the cell where he was held at the Federal Police in Curitiba, as a result of the decision of the Federal Supreme Court on the interpretation of article five of the Constitution, as well as the enormous excesses and illegalities perpetrated by the Public Ministry, weakened the discourse of impunity among those who wanted him to remain in prison.

After all, it is difficult to defend this argument based on what we know today about the Lava Jato operation and the collusion it sponsored between the Public Ministry and former federal judge Sérgio Moro. A new narrative immediately emerged arguing that Lula's release reignited polarization in society and politics in Brazil.

The concept of polarization has two main meanings, the first has common sense as its central point, meaning only “divergence of “political” attitudes between ideological extremes” the Wikipedia definition that has been used by the vast majority of journalists and political columnists. However, polarization is a much more complex phenomenon expressed more adequately by the increasing distance between different political poles, since extremes always exist and their existence does not seem to be the problem. The problem occurs when the distance between right and left increases and the analytical question is to understand the meaning of this expansion.

In 2014, Jane Mansbridge, then president of the APSA, American Political Science Association, constituted a task force to analyze the issue of polarization in politics in the United States. In the book in which several authors commented on the result of the work, two issues of extreme relevance were pointed out. They are valid for Brazil today.

First, despite the illusion that the two US parties, Democrats and Republicans, moved to extremes, the task force data showed that the movement to the right of the Republican party corresponded to almost the entirety of the polarizing movement; secondly, the results of the work showed that although a large part of the media pointed polarization as a partisan movement, it had a strong anchorage in a movement in the public sphere (the results were published in the book Political Polarization in American Politics).

It is worth using this work to understand the cries against the renewal of polarization issued by Brazilian media actors. Despite almost everything that is written about polarization as a dispute between extremes, Brazil can be placed in the same position as the United States with regard to political polarization. It originates from the growth or radicalization of the Brazilian right.

Issues such as the attempt to rehabilitate the authoritarian regime, the praise of torture, the attack against human rights and the reaction to environmentalism come from a very well delimited political field. If these issues increase the distance between the poles, it is because the right has decided to tread paths once forbidden. Thus, we have a case of widening the distance between right and left caused by the radicalization of conservative sectors in our country to the right.

It is worth analyzing our center, in panic since the departure of former president Lula from Curitiba. Brazil has a political center whose main characteristic in recent years has been to refrain from defending democratic institutions and the 1988 Constitution from the attacks that both have suffered from conservative sectors. Adherence to the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff and the Temer government put the center in a difficult position because it made clear a selective adherence to the issue of the fight against corruption. No one has shown this selectivity more than former President Temer.

Jair Bolsonaro thus appeared as an extreme right-wing solution that associated Lava Jato, market and attacks on democracy. The role of the center and especially of the mainstream press was to relativize these attacks by trying to place them in a perspective of attacks on democracy by the right and left. The best example was National Newspaper the day after the first round of the 2018 election, in which it was equivalent to closing the STF and asking for constitutional revision.

The assertion of an equal radicalization of the extremes does not hold up. On the contrary, both the Workers' Party and former President Lula have accepted controversial court decisions since 2015. Lula's condemnation tinged with political elements, which continues to this day with the preposterous decision of the TRF-4 regarding the site of Atibaia, is just another proof of this atypical coalition in which the market, supporters of AI-5, and enemies of the rule of law come together to attack democracy in Brazil. Thus, the problem is not whether there are extremes, but what are the relations of each of the poles with democracy.

The reorganization of a democratic center in Brazil cannot do without a democratic left, or it will completely fail. The recovery of the economy, together with a pro-rights agenda that has a positive impact on the lives of the poor population and, finally, an environmental agenda that allows taking care of the Amazon, the rivers and the Brazilian coast, simultaneously mistreated by the captain president and his allies, will only be realized if Brazil does not succumb to the easy discourse of polarization and finds the elements that unite those who defend the democratic tradition.

*Leonardo Avritzer is professor of political science at UFMG.

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