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Idolizing politics

Political violence damages democracy

Supporters of Brazil's former President Jair Bolsonaro clash with the police in Brasilia, Brazil, on Jan. 8. Associated Press/Photo by Eraldo Peres

Idolizing politics
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The shocking political violence we have just seen in Brazil is unjustified and inexcusable.

The images of Brazilians breaking into government buildings, destroying public property, and assaulting law enforcement follow a previous episode of unrest two months ago when right-of-center President Jair Bolsonaro narrowly lost the presidency to left-of-center Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. In the days following that election, some of President Bolsonaro’s supporters set up over 200 roadblocks around the country, snarling traffic and causing tremendous uncertainty.

Throughout 2022, both Bolsonaro and Lula wore bulletproof vests at rallies. When campaigning in 2018, Bolsonaro nearly died after being stabbed by a mentally-ill man at a rally. Supporters of both men threatened and, at times, attacked their opponents during the 2022 campaign.

Brazil has long been known for corruption and violence, particularly in its urban shantytowns. But political violence is a different thing. The past decade has been one of increased insecurity in Brazil since the so-called “Tropical Spring” of 2013. That year, a wave of protests shook the country, with over a million people protesting in major cities in June. People were ostensibly protesting a rise in the cost of public transportation. Still, multiple protests converged as police walked out due to low pay, and citizens marched against corruption and the political class.

In 2013 the amount of “people power” pressure in Brazil’s system ultimately led to the uncovering of a massive bribery scandal that took down Brazil’s president (Dilma Rousseff) and her predecessor and former boss, Lula. The investigation showed that Lula’s political party had directly utilized the state oil corporation, Petrobras, to skim money and pay favors. As a result, both Rousseff and Lula went to prison.

Since then, Brazil’s election seasons (2018) and (2022) have experienced times of turbulence. This often has less to do with specific Brazilian candidates or issues but rather is symptomatic of dissatisfaction resulting in violence that we are seeing around the world. Unfortunately, Brazilian citizens seem to be the latest to be swept up in this trend.

Sociologist José  Casanova has used the term “anti-systemic movement” to describe how groups on either the political left or right mobilize when they feel that elites have created political structures that exclude average citizens. Movements on the left, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, argue that there are historical patterns of exclusion that wealthy elites, large corporations, and politicians have systematized.

When it comes to political activism and violence, the vast majority of these anti-systemic movements have been from the secular left.

On the right, citizens in the United States and Europe argue that government, media, and academic elites have turned their back on working-class citizens and Western civilization’s historical and cultural identity. The focus instead was on providing financial benefits to non-citizens while attempting to destroy trust in the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage with revisionist histories like the notorious 1619 Project and attacks on faith-based institutions.

Unfortunately, an element at the root of all of this is that we have increasingly made politics an idol. The ultimate form of authority these days is government power. If you have government power, you can force your ideology on others, and you can use the financial benefits of government to reward your supporters.

Thus, when it comes to political activism and violence, the vast majority of these anti-systemic movements have been from the secular left, whether in Europe, where they took power in the parliaments of Italy, Greece, and Spain, or Latin America. Today, a dozen Latin American capitals are controlled by Socialists, many of whom repeat the anti-systemic rants of Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Likewise, with the ugly exception of Jan. 6, 2021, the majority of such political violence in the United States has been inspired by the left, from the attack on Wisconsin’s state house in 2011 to the horrific attacks on churches and federal buildings during the summer of 2020.

Brazil finds itself in a world where there seems to be a downward spiral of what political scientists call “outbidding.” Each side seems to take one more step closer to dramatic, sometimes violent, action to attack “the unfair system.” However, each step on that path creates a counter-reaction where some on the other side decide to outbid or outdo their opponents.

What now for Brazil? Political leaders of all sides must condemn the violence, prosecute criminals, and tell their supporters to go home. Former president Bolsonaro seemed to do so on Sunday night when he tweeted that the destruction of public buildings and private property were not legitimate political protests. Political leaders must re-educate their own followers that destructive activity is immoral and unlawful, undermining democracy and the rule of law.

Brazilians—and the rest of us—need to reject the win-at-all-costs mindset that results from the sin of idolizing politics.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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