The extreme political polarization witnessed during this year’s Brazilian presidential election is connected to the class divisions exacerbated by the Workers’ Party’s public policies which ignored the middle class. This was the main conclusion of a recent study published by the World Inequality Lab, authored by Amory Gethin and Marc Morgan, combining inequality statistics and opinion polls to try and contextualize the current moment of Brazil.
The nine-page report, entitled Brazil Divided: Hindsights on the Growing Politicisation of Inequality, argues that the Workers’ Party’s focus on creating public policies for the poor, growing the income of this segment largely at the expense of the middle class, caused significant cleavages across society culminating in the election of Jair Bolsonaro.
It is no secret that the Workers’ Party’s traditional voter base transformed dramatically after the election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, in 2002. Originally a party favored by middle-class left-wing intellectuals, once in government, the Workers’ Party began to appeal far more to poorer voters hovering above or below the poverty line. This was due the heralded welfare programs instated during Lula’s government, such as the conditional cash transfer initiative Bolsa Família, the huge Growth Acceleration Program (PAC)—which expanded investment for housing, infrastructure, and sanitation, among other areas—and the considerable increases to the minimum wage made during Lula’s years.
The report also points out a commonly understood fact, that during the Workers’ Party years, the classes which saw the highest growth in Brazil were the poor, and the very rich. The poorest 50 percent of the Brazilian population saw its income increase by some 42 percent between 1998 and 2014. Meanwhile, the very top percentile of Brazilian adults, the so-called top 1 percent, also saw its income shoot up by similar proportions. Compare this to the middle class, particularly those between the 70th and 99th percentile, who saw their income grow below the national average, and in some cases contract, over the years Workers’ Party remained in government.
A split society and a populist president
So how do these different levels of income growth in the last 15 years translate into political polarization, and, ultimately, the election of Jair Bolsonaro? First of all, the trends between the poorer and middle-class in Brazil have created an apparent cleavage in society. Whereas the less affluent groups benefitted from the Workers’ Party’s pledges to reduce inequality and redistribute wealth, this, in turn, squeezed the middle-class and left it fighting for space with those underneath.
Coupled with the economic slowdown and eventual recession, these two huge portions of Brazilian society were left increasingly opposed. The World Inequality Lab study picks up on a Datafolha opinion poll from 2017 which does a good job of illustrating the social, economic and political differences between the poor and middle-class.
The survey asked Brazilians about the issues which would be the most important to them in the then-upcoming presidential election. Health came in first place, followed by corruption and unemployment. However, when crossed by monthly income, a much more striking comparison can be made: of the bottom 50 percent of earners, health and jobs are the most important subjects for over half, while corruption and violence were cited by only 23 percent; for the middle 40 percent, corruption and public security take on a much more important role, and the proportion most concerned about health and employment decreases.
This ostensibly leaves us with two distinct groups, one which is most worried about unemployment and health, and another—wealthier—which is concerned about corruption and violence. So, where does Jair Bolsonaro come in?
Of the main presidential candidates, Mr. Bolsonaro was the only one who could declare a firm stance on both corruption and violence. His image as being a “clean” politician—amid the corruption scandals affecting a large part of his peers—and his heavy-handed law and order stance on crime made him appealing to this middle 40 percent.
Interestingly, the authors of the study point out that while in the United States and Europe, support for far-right populists is largely linked to working-class voters, in Brazil, the rise of Jair Bolsonaro has been supported and made possible thanks to highly-educated middle class and business elites.