One region, all voices




Read in

Presidential threats and resistance from bureaucratic elites

Coauthors Dan Nielson and Celeste Beesley

Support for democracy has been decreasing everywhere, causing widespread concern. That makes observers devote hours of attention and study to the political mood of citizens, but can one ignore how elites think and react to democratic principles and rules of the game? Democratic regimes frequently slip when executives exceed their powers or undermine institutional processes. Since state bureaucracies are the ones that carry out the orders of the Executive, they often end up being the operators of measures that violate constitutional norms and become key agents for the erosion of democracy. Thus, beyond the oscillations of citizens’ moods, understanding how bureaucratic elites stand out is fundamental to predicting the fate of our systems.

Leaders like Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro, made history by undermining the importance and value of democratic principles, seeking to mobilize state agents in the same direction. If democratic formalities and procedures have prevailed, it is appropriate to ask: to what extent did this occur as a result of resistance against (or neutralization of) these autocratic temptations by the elites of the public bureaucracy? How did this numerical minority but essential groups react to the validity of democratic normality?

A study conducted with approximately 500 high-ranking career civil servants in Brazil between 2020 and 2021, by Brigham Young University, U.S., indicated that Bolsonaro’s authoritarian rhetoric did not have a great effect when it attacked democracy in generic terms. But among those sympathetic to his leadership, it was effective when focused on more specific targets such as party pluralism.

Nor was this rhetoric effective in undermining the democratic adherence of the bureaucratic elites when it targeted republican institutions such as the Legislative Branch and its independence from the Executive. Nor did it mold a reductive view of democracy to electoral rituals, as officials continued to strongly support the right of the population to protest against the government and to participate in democratic life beyond voting.   

Authoritarian leaders apparently succeed in tempting some followers to impose certain restrictions on democracy but of very limited scope. And those autocratic speeches proved almost innocuous in seducing those who did not previously sympathize with their anti-democratic ideas or inclinations. It is true that they also failed to generate the opposite effect, that is, to instigate bureaucratic elites opposed to Bolsonaro’s autocratic thinking to embrace more strongly the rules and principles of democracy, but, in part, because their support for those rules was already very high.

Remember that Bolsonaro not only sought to undermine the multi-party system’s prestige, the independence of powers, or participatory democracy. One of his main enemies was the independent electoral authorities, as well as the voting system successfully in place in Brazil.

Through fake news and disinformation, Bolsonaro effectively sowed distrust in the mechanisms and institutions that regulate and oversee the vote among his supporters. And upon losing the 2022 presidential elections (the first ruling party candidate to lose reelection in the country’s almost 40 years of recent democratic history), he did not hesitate to promote weeks of violent protests and even stimulate attacks on the three branches of the Brazilian government a few days after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as the country’s new president in January 2023.

All this would suggest that his questioning during his presidency of the different dimensions of the electoral game (Bolsonaro warned about the insecurities of the count, associated the electronic ballot box with a farce, and that he would not accept any other result but victory) would be echoed among bureaucratic elites and could generate some kind of dangerous rejection to the republican continuity.

However, the study revealed the weakness of his arguments, even among his supporters. Those who could eventually execute restrictive measures or violate the democratic order simply found no reason or motivation to do so. It is true that for this bolsonarist segment of the bureaucratic elites, democracy is reduced to a series of impoverished mechanisms of expression and political pluralism, but, in any case, they were far from enthusiastically embracing a personalist, authoritarian and messianic model of government.

It is often said that rather than a sudden death based on military coups, democracies today die slowly from gradual corrosion by enthroning a populist leader whose discourse supposedly advocates “more” democracy or a “different” type of “democracy” that dispenses with controls, independent powers and political and expressive diversity of the citizenry. We forget that without the active and militant complicity of the elites in charge of the state levers of power, all that rhetoric achieves little in practice.

*This text is written within the framework of the X WAPOR Latam Congress:

Dan Nielson is a Professor of Government at the University of Texas, Austin. He is the co-founder and Research Director of Evaluasi, a consulting firm.

Celeste Beesley is an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University and co-principal investigator of WomanStats.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Profesor de Ciencia Política y Director del Global Politics Lab en la Brigham Young University (EE. UU.). Doctor en Ciencia Política por la Universidad de Wisconsin-Madison.


Related Posts

Do you want to collaborate with L21?

We believe in the free flow of information

Republish our articles freely, in print or digitally, under the Creative Commons license.

Tagged in:


More related articles