With her piece “Real Friends of Brazil,” Heloisa Pait seems to suggest a Schmittian reading of contemporary Brazilian politics. In a nutshell, she divides the world in two antagonistic groups. On one side, there are the “real friends of Brazil,” people like her who support the calls for impeachment of democratically-elected president Dilma Rousseff. Following the author’s logic, on the other side there are the “real enemies of Brazil,” people like us, who suggest that the attempt to remove the president from power through these means would be nothing short of a coup d’état.

While the Schmittian approach to politics might be appealing, particularly given its parsimonious model for explaining a rather messy sphere of social life, it is certainly a dangerous one, especially if taken as a normative stand. Schmitt’s emphasis on the fact that the political can be identified by its intensity, with the element of (self-)sacrifice in fighting the enemy being its extreme case, leads to a rather messianic notion of politics that might be incompatible with our complex contemporary society. However, not even Schmitt goes as far as Pait does. In fact, Schmitt makes a clear distinction between good and bad politics, by claiming that the demonization of one’s enemy inevitably leads to the latter. And this is what we are witnessing in Brazil right now: the representation of an individual as the ultimate evil in order to annihilate the political project she currently performs.

In what follows, we make a counter-argument to Pait’s suggestion that “real friends of Brazil” support not only the calls for impeachment but also the claim that these calls do not represent a threat to democracy. It is our contention that democracy is not an accomplished project, but always a “democracy to come.” Therefore, moving forward with an impeachment process that bluntly fails to fulfill constitutional requirements would equate not only to the elimination of the enemy, à la Schmitt, but also to a dangerous curtailment of democratic institutions.

A bird’s eye view of Brazilian democratic history

It is misleading to claim that democracy is a thoroughly accomplished goal in Brazil. As Marcelo Neves explains, taking democratic procedures for granted just because they have been inscribed in a written constitution ignores how important historical antecedents are for understanding a constitutional order. Particularly in Latin America, examples abound of how unwilling conservative social elites are to accept democratic procedures as the only valid mechanism for acquiring political power. This is true of the remote as well as the recent political history of the continent, as one can learn from the cases of Paraguay (2012), Honduras (2009) and Venezuela (2002). Brazil also has in common with many of its neighbors the fact that it is and remains, since colonial times, among the most unequal countries in the world. Its constitutional history can be described as a process whereby affluent social elites have tolerated institutionalized mechanisms of political decision-making as long as these did not contradict their interests.

Indeed, the military coup that took place in 1964, removing from office a president with almost 70% of popular support, was neither the first nor the last disruption of the constitutional order in the country. Before that, there were at least four moments of complete or partial breakdown of constitutional political institutions (in 1930, 1937, 1954, and 1961). And even after the 1964 coup, the military dictatorship imposed rules of exception in four other instances (in 1965, 1967, 1969 and 1977). There is a telling regularity in almost all of these moments: sectors of the economic elite were often unwilling to accept the outcome of democratic elections, which leads to the conclusion that Brazilian democracy is far from being an irreversible achievement. Actually, it was only thirteen years ago that, for the first time in half a century, an elected president handed power to another elected president of a different party.

Telling Brazilian political history as if it had begun with the 1988 constitution is deceptive. Constitutions are not only contingent political decisions made by a sovereign — be it the people or those who claim to be authorized to speak in their name. Political orders are also the outcome of highly improbable and always precarious social processes of stabilization of normative expectations, by which entire populations accept sticking to some legally binding procedures, even when these processes lead to decisions they might not welcome. Looking back at Brazilian history should warn us of the risks of not accepting electoral results. Moreover it should provoke our consciousness of how recent events relate to a long historical path of political decision-making based on the casuistic methods of interested groups.

Crisis in the New Republic; fear of democracy?

Dilma Roussef was elected with more than 52% of the popular vote no more than ten months ago. By the second electoral round, Brazilian voters were well aware of the many corruption scandals involving her party. During the campaign, the Mensalão, in which the Worker’s Party was involved in 2005, was again brought to view, as well as rumors concerning the state oil company Petrobrás, now known as Petrolão, which became the subject of broad attention and debate. And while most popular media in Brazil have been keen on informing the public about the possible connections between the president and the facts related to the oil company, no evidence has been presented thus far against her in particular, though a lot has been already proved against her party comrades.

Corruption must certainly be condemned. Nonetheless, as a social phenomenon, it is a constant feature of Brazilian political history: no government in our entire republican history has been exempt from a major corruption scandal. And getting rid of corruption has been a frequent pretext deployed by those who have attempted to break with constitutional democracy in the past. Along these lines, while this is the framing adopted in the current situation, corruption in fact can hardly be the reason why “the real friends of Brazil” now call for President Roussef’s impeachment. The current political crisis has other reasons.

Since 2013, the Brazilian economy has left its previous virtuous cycle of prosperity and fallen into a recession that visibly deepened after Roussef’s reelection. Last week the country lost its investment grade with one of the most important credit rating agencies, Standard and Poor’s, and economists from the banking sector now expect the Brazilian economy to shrink up to 2.55% in 2015. The unemployment rate, which has remained low for the last five years, seems to be rising, and the Brazilian currency has lost more than 30% of its value in the last 4 months. To make things even worse, some of the social programs which garnered support for the government among the lower classes, will soon be downsized. As a result, after less than nine months in office for her second term, Roussef’s approval rating has collapsed to only 8%.

This brings us to the present state of affairs. Certainly, Ms. Roussef is herself partially responsible for the current economic and political crisis. Or at least she has not taken the measures that could have prevented its worst effects. But the central question becomes whether her plummeting popularity can be a legitimate reason for interrupting a presidential mandate.

The juridical requirements for the impeachment: Institutional mechanisms securing an agonistic politics

Turning back to the Schmittian understanding of politics, even those who embrace it do so in a rather critical way. A case in point is Chantal Mouffe’s model of agonistic politics, which might be useful to understand and deal with a deeply conflictual context such as the one characterizing contemporary Brazil. While Mouffe relies on Carl Schmitt to postulate the inherently antagonistic character of the political, she departs from him in developing her democratic model because he “requires the existence of a homogeneous demos, and this precludes any possibility of pluralism.”

Against both deliberative and liberal democracy, Mouffe proposes “adversarial democracy,” a model able to transform antagonism into agonism, or, in other terms, relationships of enmity into relationships of adversary. This is done through the invention of legitimate political channels that allow dissenting voices to express themselves. Such channels are founded on a minimal consensus around two elements that enable democracy: the democratic institution of liberty and equality for all. This radical and pluralist democracy is always “a democracy ‘to come,’ as conflict and antagonism are at the same time its condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of its full realization.” As an unrealized and open project, it allows for its constant rethinking by those who are implicated in it.

In the Brazilian case, not only are we living under a democracy “to come” but there is also a historical record of failure to abide by its procedures. The 1988 Constitution, which founded the so called “New Republic,” was the product of a very careful arrangement aiming exactly at the goal of stabilizing political tensions through a legally regulated democratic process. As described earlier, contestation within democratic mechanisms abounds in our history, but it also proliferates dissatisfaction with these same mechanisms on the part of those who lose in the democratic game, particularly conservative elites. And this is the case of the opponents who now call for impeachment.

According to the Constitution, it is certainly not forbidden to talk about impeachment; however, meeting its requirements is an entirely different issue. While the impeachment is a political process, this does not mean that it lacks the requisite of a juridical argument. That is to say, for that political process to move forward, it is necessary not only to make but also prove a strong legal case against the president. It is indispensable to produce evidence that the president has committed what is called a “crime of responsibility or improbity,” and, because it is a crime, it is also necessary to demonstrate, through evidence, a clear and specific intention to have committed it. Along these lines, it is not sufficient to simply claim that Ms. Roussef was silent in the face of some illegal activity; there has to be proof of her involvement in these actions and the definitive intention to carry them out. None of this has been demonstrated thus far. Quite to the contrary, the current government has had a notoriously, and historically exceptionally, positive attitude towards investigations carried out by the Federal Police and the Judiciary, demonstrating no attempt to interrupt or stop them.

It is not our aim, however, to support the current government in a substantive way; as stated before, it is heavily responsible for the current situation in which the country is drowning. But now that the “New Republic” faces a novel crisis, it is time for the institutions to show that they can endure processes of political turmoil and adversity without collapsing. In fact, democracy can only exist if its procedures are stable enough to endure political tensions and social conflicts, even if these tensions encompass falling popularity and economic instability. Democracy excludes the possibility of any party claiming to acquire power for being “the nation’s real friends.”

There is a normative structure in place, which establishes clear requirements for the politically costly process of impeachment to take place. Pait envisions impeachment as a mere mechanism of recall of a rather unpopular president. But unpopularity, as bad as it might sound, does not constitute legitimate reason to impeach an elected representative according to the Brazilian Constitution (see Articles 85 and 86). Such a move would not only suggest that Brazilian democratic procedures are incapable of processing dissensus but, even more importantly, would demonstrate that not all players are capable of abiding by the rules of the democratic game. Moreover, this would certainly establish a dangerous precedent according to which any president facing poor rates of popular support could be subject to an impeachment procedure.

At the end of the day, Pait suggests bending democratic norms in order to remedy the political failure of the opposition — that is, their loss of the 2014 presidential elections, all this by portraying opponents as the ultimate enemy who threaten one’s existence and therefore need to be eliminated. If this is what it means to be a friend of Brazil, let’s then be clear that a friend of Brazil can only be a foe of democracy.

5 thoughts on “Friends of Brazil, Foes of Democracy

    1. I mean the Assis- Holmes piece is excellent, because the way it may appear on this blog is that I think the Pait reply is. I emphatically do not. It is very confused, to say the least, whereas the other piece was clear and convincing. It is a fine piece of political journalism, not intended to be “scholarship”. No retraction or amendment is needed, or even a reply to the reply. The misuse of impeachment is a very serious matter, as we learned during the Monica scandal here.

      1. I can see you are confused because you think that knowledge about basic facts of Brazilian history can be replaced by a comment on what amounts to a minor episode of American popular culture. Ignorance, even if willful, is not a valid argument.

        Of course you are free to like one piece or another, but your reply reinforces my point. Whether one is in favor of the removal of the president or against it should most emphatically NOT have a bearing on the analysis whether a piece is “fine,” as you imply.

        An argument has to stand on its own merits, and not have to rely on whether the reader agrees with the conclusions for validation. Yours is a type of reasoning that a tenured professor can risk without much consequence, but is not something we should be teaching our students.

  1. There are a number of logical fallacies in the argument of the essay.

    1 – The article states that lack of popularity cannot constitute an argument in favor of legal and constitutional impeachment. Elsewhere it claims supposed public approval of the government in 1964 as the determining condemnation of the coup. The 70% approval quoted seems rather dubious for anyone with any memory of the period, but leaving that aside, the popularity argument cannot logically be brought up to support opposing arguments.

    2 – The mash up of cases of attempts to remove elected government (“…cases of Paraguay (2012), Honduras (2009) and Venezuela (2002)…”) is cherry picking. Surely if they are going to summon both legal and questionable attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, the authors would need to draw a complete list of recent events, not just pick the ones that happen to illustrate the dangers to the political side of their preference. For example, the ample denial of democratic rand civil rights currently happening in Venezuela would show the dangers of excessive concentration of power in the presidency, as would Fujimori’s autogolpe in Peru.

    3 – Because the original article does not seem to make use of Schmitt’s concepts or theories, I am led to believe that the prominent use of the adjective “Schmittian” is intended as an attempt at condemnation by insinuation of attributed indirect association. This manner of ad hominem argument is not acceptable in an academic debate.

    4 – The statement “…In the Brazilian case, not only we are living under a democracy “to come” but there is also a historical record of failure to abide by its procedures” is unsupported, and contradicted at other points of the article, for example, by the reference to the power transition between opposing parties, and also by the unmentioned previous impeachment of a sitting president according to the current Constitution. I for one firmly believe that we live in a democracy, whatever the sides of the impeachment debate may say. But in any case, repeated breakage of legal norms during dictatorial regimes themselves does not serve the argument against a legal procedure during a democratic regime.

    5 – Let me also point out some errors of fact besides the fallacies of argument mentioned above. There were a number of other breakdowns during the 1930-1945 dictatorship, however the cause of the 1954 crisis was the act of one man, and the 1961 crisis was solved politically. As for unpopularity, the Brazilian Constitution only has an impeachment clause, but recall clauses for impopular governments are not per se incompatible with democracy, as the examples of many US states and all countries with parliamentary systems reveal. Lastly, there is the irony of dating an article with the claim “… the current government has had a notoriously, and historically exceptionally, positive attitude towards investigations carried out by the Federal Police and the Judiciary, demonstrating no attempt to interrupt or stop them” to the day after compliant and government-friendly members of the nation’s Supreme Court did exactly that.

    Just for the record, I do not think that at present the impeachment of the president has full legal justification, and unless or until further investigation reveal more facts, it is not in the interest of the stability of the country. While I do not much disagree with the main thesis of the article above, I object to the unscholarly manner in which it is argued.

    I respectfully suggest the piece be retracted or amended in order to fix the errors of fact and reasoning.

  2. I wrote that “real friends of Brazil today are supporting transparency and anti-corruption laws at the national and global levels,” i.e., they are supporting an agenda that, no matter what the particular political situation is, will help to overcome challenges that all democratic countries face in a global economy (therefore facing global crime and global corruption).
    That is what friends do. Others use the country to support one or another preconcieved vision of the world in general or of Latin America in particular.
    Now, these are only words. When concrete issues arise, Petrobrás will face American courts and Brazilian officials will face American courts. Newspaper editorials might continue to celebrate the governments involved in this terrible scandal, for entertainment perhaps. But the American investor is behaving much like the Brazilian citizen: with dismay.

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