Sociologist Esther Solano was tired of hearing left-wing militants calling Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters “stupid.” A professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) and at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, she believed ignorance, racism, or anti-democratic views were not the only motivating factors behind supporters of the former Army captain. Ms. Solano knew, of course, that the far-right candidate and frontrunner in the presidential race (when Lula is not on the ballot) rose to prominence despite (or maybe because of) his outrageous comments about LGBTQ people, blacks, and other minorities.

But she decided to investigate what leads some Brazilians to get behind such an extreme character.

In a research financed by the Friederich Ebert Foundation, Ms. Solano interviewed 25 Bolsonaro voters from different social backgrounds, kinds of employment, and age groups, over 2017. Her findings became the article Democracy’s crisis and right-wing extremisms, released earlier this year. In an interview with The Brazilian Report, Ms. Solano explained some of her findings.

According to her, Bolsonaro is only a symptom of a general dissatisfaction Brazilian citizens feel towards the political system. Even if he fails to get elected, his presence has already damaged public debate.

What motivated you to research this topic?

Since 2014, I have been researching the pro-impeachment demonstrations. Apparently, everyone there was against the Workers’ Party. But one thing that appeared early on in the interviews was that there was a very strong anti-political sentiment. They said: “I vote for the Social Democracy Party, but I do not trust them, everybody is corrupt.” We began to realize that Mr. Bolsonaro’s name was emerging as the only one they perceived as honest, ethical, and an outsider politician.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It was the beginning of what is brewing now. It caught my attention. In parallel, I saw the inability of large sectors of the progressive side of politics to understand what was happening, often ridiculing the phenomenon. [This research] came as a response to that. Academia must recognize all kinds of political phenomena, regardless of ideology.</span></p></blockquote> <h4>What was the main finding of your research?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There are people who would vote for Mr. Bolsonaro because they are racist, homophobic, or they are violent. But there are a lot of people who see it as a response to a crisis of representation. For these people, voting for Mr. Bolsonaro is akin to venting their frustration.  They cannot stand [traditional] politics anymore. There is a deep discomfort with the system and people end up voting for someone from outside, who does not belong to the system. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">I say it&#8217;s a phenomenon of &#8220;conservative rebellion.&#8221; It is rebellious because it says &#8220;fuck everyone, nobody represents me&#8221;, but it comes from conservative people who want a return to order, old customs, a more organized society, with defined hierarchies, discipline, authority. It is a desire for going back to the past.</span></p></blockquote> <h4>What does this &#8216;order&#8217; look like, so desired by Bolsonaro voters?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It&#8217;s a social order. They are people with a strong cognitive, cultural, and emotional inability to adapt to the world as it is today &#8211; a very complex, accelerated, dynamic, heterogeneous world. They are people who see these changes as threats. [Mr. Bolsonaro] has a very strong anti-feminist, a very strong anti-LGBTQ stance. All the progressive advances we have had, which were very large, [Bolsonaro voters] react as if they were an enemy threatening their way of life. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">They are people who do not want to see in this a collective social advance. They react as if these advances directly threatened their lives, as if the natural hierarchy of things were being subverted. They say that Brazil is a mess, a social chaos, that feminists and gays are dominating all spaces in the public arena, and they are afraid of it. </span></p></blockquote> <h4>Why are these people unable to understand and live with modern changes?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">I interviewed people from popular classes, people from the suburbs, very poor people, and very rich people, who had access to a theoretically higher quality of education. What came across was that even those who had access to high-quality formal education did not have a political, critical, or civic education. I think that is precisely what is lacking. There is a lack of democratic education in schools, universities, and in society. Bolsonaro polls very well among university students, people with higher education. This is a very important point. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Brazil still has a very strong racist, conservative and unequal matrix. Bolsonaro represents all this. It is a country that is built historically on very large inequality, very powerful elites, the genocide of black people, poor people, a patriarchal and racist structure. This is what Bolsonaro represents, he is a figure who is connecting to these historical values.</span></p></blockquote> <h4>Have you found a complete convergence between the values defended by Bolsonaro and those defended by his supporters? Or does a vote for Bolsonaro in itself express the feeling of rebellion?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Rebellion is important, but if you are not a conservative, you are not going to believe Bolsonaro. The two things work together. But there is another important point. When you argue that Bolsonaro spouts hate speech, that he&#8217;s a misogynist, a racist, a homophobe, everyone I interviewed said &#8220;this is an exaggeration of the press.&#8221; They argue that, in fact, he is a nice, democratic guy. People tend to minimize the things he says, perhaps because he presents himself in a caricatural fashion. People say, &#8220;he&#8217;s honest, he&#8217;s sincere, so he exaggerates sometimes, he doesn&#8217;t say what the press wants to hear.&#8221; </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">On the one hand, they find this positive, that he says these things because he is straightforward, he is not a candidate who sticks to a script. I call this the &#8220;banalization of hatred&#8221; because people do not see it as hate speech, they think it&#8217;s just an exaggeration of his personality, they minimize the content of his discourse. I think that&#8217;s why he&#8217;s so accepted, because people do not see, or do not want to see, that what he&#8217;s saying is racist and undemocratic. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Another important thing is the reaction of people to identity politics: feminism, racism. They feel threatened by it. Most disadvantaged and middle-class people talk about a phenomenon we call &#8220;jumping the queue.&#8221; &#8220;Blacks want privileges, gay people want privileges, what about people who are middle-class and white? Don&#8217;t they get any privilege?&#8221; There is a certain reaction to this phenomenon. They feel marginalized and abandoned by the government.</span></p></blockquote> <h4>In the article, you speak of a &#8220;Brazilian social reconfiguration&#8221;. What are the characteristics of this? What is the responsibility of this phenomenon for the growth of Mr. Bolsonaro?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">First, it caused a conservative reaction to the penetration of progressive guidelines. The radical right exists in the world, this we have already seen. But in Brazil, there are very important economic effects. Starting with Operation Car Wash. As it is very theatrical, it is often in the press with declarations of judges, manifestations of public opinion. It ends up transmitting a message that everyone is corrupt, that politics is not good, everyone is dishonest. An anti-political message. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">People say &#8220;I used to believe in politics, but after Operation Car Wash I do not believe in it anymore.&#8221; There is also the impeachment, the coup. Even for people who think it was just an impeachment, there is a sense of fragility and institutional disrepute. The perception is that the system does not work, that everything runs on privileges. </span></p></blockquote> <h4>Why doesn&#8217;t the traditional right have the same appeal as Mr. Bolsonaro?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Take the Workers&#8217; Party, for example. It has voters, but it also has militants. It is a party that was created in the grassroots, that has social groups behind it. Right-wing parties have voters, but they do not have the same militancy. In this moment of crisis, this is important. The idea that everyone is corrupt got too strong and reached politicians from the Social Democracy Party, for example. And there is also the idea that [the Social Democracy Party] is a traditional party, it&#8217;s more of the same, it does not do anything different. The denial of politics did not hit only the left.</span></p></blockquote> <h4>Many people have used the strategy of ridiculing and calling Mr. Bolsonaro voters ignorant or stupid. What will that behavior accomplish?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">It is necessary to differentiate the candidate from the voter. The intention to do this research came precisely from my discomfort with people qualifying Bolsonaro voters as stupid. It&#8217;s arrogant. This is absurd because it feeds violence, fuels polarization and makes you reject the important things that Bolsonaro voters are saying. The discomfort with the system, public safety issues &#8211; we know that the left does not propose anything in that area. When you disqualify the other as an idiot, you are refusing to accept that there are issues we need to reflect on. It&#8217;s blindness. Direct attacks against them are negative because it causes a violent reaction from Bolsonaro&#8217;s followers. It is very difficult to deconstruct Bolsonaro because he is very demagogic. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The ideal situation would be to deconstruct him in debates based on government programs, for example. There are few attacks based on programmatic issues. Marina Silva adopted an interesting behavior with him. The issue discussed was the situation of women. It was not aggressive, but it was direct. She even quoted the Bible. As Brazilian society is very polarized and divided, a leftist person, even if he or she has good, clear arguments, will not be able to speak to the Bolsonaro voter. His voters have a cognitive block. It&#8217;s hard to fight it. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The right &#8220;came out of the closet.&#8221; Many people talk openly about racism, homophobia. He provokes it, he says it on television, he opened the door for that kind of message. The young people, unfortunately, have captured these messages very well. This is already in place, even if he does not win the election. This is the danger. Bolsonaro is capable of going to the second round, he is not losing votes fast. I always say that even if he does not go to the second round, if he does not win the election, the danger remains present. It is a symptom. It may wear out, but there will be other Bolsonaros. And it also provoked the &#8220;bolsonarization&#8221; of the public sphere. </span></p></blockquote> <h4>What are the next steps in this research?</h4> <blockquote><p><span style="font-weight: 400;">We&#8217;ll try to do another study, this time on the phenomenon of people who voted for Lula and are now going to vote for Bolsonaro. The idea is to see how Lulism lost some popular classes, who migrated to a more conservative vote, and to try to understand why Bolsonaro penetrates in some places that could be Workers&#8217; Party strongholds.

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PowerAug 28, 2018

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BY Diogo Rodriguez

Rodriguez is a social scientist and journalist based in São Paulo.