Sign of the times, we are experiencing a flood of debates and publications about the crisis of democracy. But, beyond the idiomatic editorial, the lessons of classic scholars of the institutional breakdown and the advent of authoritarianism of the 1970s and 1980s, prior to the so-called third democratic wave, persist. Among the most outstanding figures is the Spanish professor Juan Linz, a former professor at Yale University, for whom the failure of liberal, pluralist and representative regimes was always better explained by the silence of the democrats than by the noise of the authoritarians.
This learning seems to explain phenomena such as the mobilizations of last August 11 in Brazil around the so-called “Charter in Defense of the Democratic Rule of Law Forever!”, which was sponsored and promoted by a constellation—as broad as unthinkable—of social actors, personalities and celebrities covering the whole ideological arc. From former presidents, such as Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula, to agents that are as opposed as trade unions and business confederations. Individuals and groups from the academic, artistic and sports worlds, social movements and various professional associations also joined in. In common, their adhesion to a low-profile initiative launched by authorities and law students of the octogenarian University of São Paulo, turning it into a mass phenomenon.
In a few days, a document designed to congregate internal positions in the university environment, projected for no more than 300 people, became the catalyst of a consensus in favor of institutionality. Close to one million Brazilians signed it, making it clear that the unacceptability of the authoritarian dalliances enunciated by the Executive around denouncing it as fraud and rejecting eventual adverse results for the ruling party in the upcoming presidential elections of October of this year.
This ability to generate a call with a moderate but clear tone, focused on valuing representative and pluralist institutions and the republican foundations of public order, bringing together left, center and right, shows how democracy is defended in the most populous society of the region. And it does so by prioritizing an approach that centripetally unites wills. Around consensuses as pondered as they are essential, instead of seeking support for a potentially conflictive and disintegrating position of possible agreements.
Perhaps this is one of the best kept secrets of the nearly successful Brazilian democracy. Despite the suspicious impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff, the questionable imprisonment of former President Lula, the regulatory excesses and corrupt practices of the PT in government, and the election of a mediocre ex-military and advocate of torture and dictatorship, Jair Bolsonaro, as the nation’s president, Brazil has remained ahead of the vast majority of Latin American countries in terms of institutional quality and democratic progress.
According to The Economist’s democracy ranking, the country started the 21st century in fourth place (out of 20 countries) with an index of 6.48 in 2000. In 2022, Brazil improved its score, reaching an index of 7.18, lagging only behind Uruguay, Costa Rica, Chile and Panama in the quality of its democracy and despite the presidential threats against the judiciary and electoral results, the assassinations of social and environmental activists, the pro-violence rhetoric whipped up from the head of the Executive, the growing militarization of the State and the repressive expressions by the public machinery.
With ordinary citizens in the streets but also with their elites who publicly play against autocratic and sectarian deviations and counteract a discourse of demonization of the other, the passive silence of the democrats that so many times paved the way to abuse of power and authoritarian enthronement is replaced by the consensual, effective and dissuasive articulation of the supporters of the rule of law. With this, the costs of populist and autocratic adventurism increase, revealing how to successfully neutralize the typical tyrannical temptations of the leaders of our region.
Translated from Spanish by Ricardo Aceves