There is one curious paradox that recurs with almost comical regularity in neoliberalised public debate. On the one hand we are told to think of voters as rational, utility-maximising actors. On the other, every time a politician or party offers the majority of the population more than their rivals do, pundits will invariably start groping around for “irrational” causes to explain popularity.
Thus, one might hear that the left-leaning Latin American governments of the last decade were successful because of some elusive property like “populism” or a magical cause like “the need for father figures” (a thinly veiled racist cliche if ever there were one). The least-ventilated hypothesis is always precisely the one that follows directly from the theory: that, in voting for those governments, the majority of the population were simply making what was the most rational choice for them.
According to the latest polls, 68 per cent of Brazilians now support the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff , while her approval rates are at 10 per cent. What’s more, the polls indicate that the rejection of her government is more or less evenly distributed across the social spectrum. If one considers that Brazil is presently going through its worst political crisis in over a decade — and also that the more ideological elements of the upper class were rabidly against Rousseff’s Workers’ party (PT), even while it presided over the country’s greatest economic bonanza since the 1970s — one conclusion suggests itself: throughout the PT years, the poor were the most rational portion of the Brazilian electorate. Yet this does not mean that they are now out on the streets demanding change.
Two symmetrical mistakes are often made: either deducing from the rather homogeneous social composition of the anti-government protests that dissatisfaction with the government is restricted to the upper classes; or deducing from the polls that those protests represent the majority of Brazilians. The truth is somewhere in the middle: while there are many reasons to be against Rousseff, the views articulated most visibly on the street and in the media are not necessarily the most widely shared.
If one compares the numbers of those who have attended pro-impeachment demonstrations with the much larger contingent that declares itself dissatisfied, what becomes evident is a new silent majority in Brazilian politics: neither with the government nor actively against it.
The lion’s share of this silent majority certainly benefited the most from the PT’s first three terms in power. They are those whose purchasing power grew exponentially over the past decade, but who also ran up against the limits of still poor public services; those who experienced increased opportunities for themselves and for their children, but who are now rightfully concerned that a historic window might be closing, and that the new expectations that had opened up for them will be frustrated.
This closing down is in fact already happening: the poor have been the most immediate victims of rising inflation, growing unemployment, shrinking social spending, austerity measures and the rollback of rights under way since the start of Rousseff’s second term, or currently under discussion.
But this is also why the pro-impeachment protests do not appeal to them. Even though they share the short-term rejection of the government, they probably sense that they do not have much in common with those who organise or attend these demonstrations in the longer run. On the contrary, they suspect — probably with reason — that, even if these protesters do not speak with a single voice now, they could easily support a number of post-PT scenarios that for the poor are even worse than the present state of things.
It is probably for the same reason that the silent majority is less compelled by anti-corruption discourse. Their scepticism towards the political class runs much deeper. Having always watched politics from the sidelines, they see it as an exclusive sport for a self-serving elite. Therefore, while disappointed that the PT has become proficient at the games it used to denounce, they see ousting the party as not only failing to end corruption, but also providing a convenient scapegoat behind which the political class can reconstitute itself, and business can carry on as usual. The silent majority would be more interested in campaigning for more substantial issues, like better transport and public health.
It could be objected that this compromises the rationality of their political behaviour. After all, if there are no long-term alternatives that could offer them the same as the PT does, should they not side with the government now, regardless of its failure to deliver? Yet the problem is precisely that, for some years, it has become less and less clear to what extent the PT is a safe bet in the long run. There lies the most crucial issue in Brazil today, which the overblown spectacle of the political crisis disguises. While Brazilian society has changed a lot in the past decade, the political system did not follow; in fact, if we consider the deterioration of the PT, it may have actually gone backwards. There is a growing temporal rift between the politics of society and the politics of politicians — perfectly encapsulated by the existence of a silent majority that is not indifferent to politics per se, but only to politics as it is being played out. There is, in short, a crisis of representation.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Rodrigo Nunes is a lecturer in modern and contemporary philosophy at the Catholic University of Rio (PUC-Rio). He is the author of Organisation of the Organisationless. Collective Action after Networks and has edited a dossier for Les Temps Modernes on the 2013 protests in Brazil