The State of the Union: Brazil and the USA

Last week we witnessed Obama’s final State of the Union address. Since Brazil has no similar tradition, I was wondering if there was something we might learn from the American ritual. Specifically, the last of 4 questions that Obama raised seems pertinent to Brazil. Obama asked: “How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?”

Americans and Brazilians both express malaise and cynicism about politics and the “system”. The image of the US Congress is worse than practically any other institution. For example, Gallup’s Honesty and Ethic Poll finds that only 8% of the US population think that political representatives have high ethical standards. This is also the case in Brazil where Dilma has an only single digit approval rating yet even so tends to rank higher than politicians in general. Rejection of politicians illustrates a problem of legitimacy. This problem is not necessarily new or unique but rather seems to reflect dissatisfaction, anomie and alienation present in modern mass society.

Essentially, the political legitimacy needs building and rebuilding. Obama proposed a democratic solution where people participate and have voice in the process. Instead we find reduced civic participation and polls reflecting cynicism and disbelief which in turn lead to the rejection of politics or at least “rational” politics and opens up the possibility of the negative messianic or populist solution. Donald Trump is the latest version of this alternative in the US. Many on the left fear Brazil’s uniformed and fascist tendencies of the evangelical right while others still call for military intervention to stop “communism”.

Obama stated: “democracy requires basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are motivated by malice, it doesn’t work if we think that are political opponents are unpatriotic or trying to weaken America.” But this is exactly the situation that exists in the US Congress and in Brazil as well. In Brazil, the problem is even worse as the suspicion of dishonesty and corruption on a massive scale has proven to be true and seems to have touched all levels of government, public service and any private enterprise in its interaction with the government. This disenchantment and polarization result in unwillingness to compromise and further pushing apart of opposing sides.

Brazilians and Americans are discussing (separately) the need for political and economic reform. Obama pointed out that the US Congress chooses its electorate through the gerrymandering of safe districts. Brazilians are attempting a political reform, which may involve drawing districts and they already implemented a “clean slate” anti-corruption measure. Much of the reform in Brazil requires better basic education so voters can be perhaps more discerning and less subject to being “enchanted’ by short term populist promises and pay outs. In the US, the reform involves not only redistricting but also reducing the influence of well-financed special interests. In both places, the desire is for greater transparency and a sense that the system can function for the people and not only elite and entrenched interests.

In Brazil, the Constitution of 1988 provided excellent separation of powers and decent guarantees for democratic functioning. However, the Constitution in its 800 plus pages also incorporated protective clauses and amendments for virtually every interest group with a strong enough lobby. Thus Brazil today, in the midst of an economic depression, finds itself in a fiscal straight jacket. To reduce spending requires in almost every important area a constitutional amendment. Similarly, the electoral and representative structures are likewise enshrined and changes do not favor the sitting politicians so there is an impasse.

Obama’s term is over in terms of new initiatives. Dilma still has three more years but she lacks political savvy, creativeness, the ability to maneuver (jogo de cintura), political backing and is almost universally viewed with disdain by the establishment.

Some say there is a crisis on a world scale and that capitalism is failing to provide growth with opportunity. There is also a corresponding political crisis where people do not believe that their government can function as a democracy with equal treatment and equal opportunity.  While there is evidence for each of these assertions, the old socialist option is likewise discredited and we are still working on an alternative path.

The US has stronger and more viable institutions but these too are called into question. (Witness Bernie Sanders running as a democratic “socialist”.) Brazil’s institutions are much less tested and mature. In addition, they are suffering under the weight of demands that seemingly cannot be solved in the bounds of the system. Brazil needs to clearly define a path apart from state tutelage and a direction for civil society, which while sometimes vibrant, is mostly accommodated.

Is there despair? Yes, but the solution is not a coup d’état or a revolution. Rather, it should be the recognition that voting periodically within the rules, respect for the law and normal political participation and succession are important. Moreover, in the Brazilian case, it also requires accepting that the country is a capitalist one that can only make progress by gradually reducing the presence of the state to the basics. Brazilian state capitalism, as the Petrolao and other scandals show, is no longer viable given the size and complexity of the country’s productive structure. Does the private sector need regulation? Yes. Does the country need to continue to reduce inequality? Yes.

Obama affirmed: “This is America” manifesting faith and hope in institutions, leadership and process. Dilma has failed to provide a vision and failed to garner any substantive achievements. As a consequence, Brazil now faces a longer haul than might have been considered necessary but “That is Brazil.”

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