Inequality is not good for democracy and it is, as is widely known, on the rise everywhere. While wealth has always been instrumental in shaping political outcomes in electoral democracies, the concentrated wealth that has arisen with economic globalization has produced ever-more brazen forms of authoritarian behaviours on the part of political elites as they respond to the interests of their powerful economic allies. While details differ from country to country, there is an important common denominator: the role of economic power in giving greater leverage to political claims. In the worst cases, the economically powerful buy politicians, the media, and troublesome individuals. In all cases, the alliance between political leaders and economic elites has coincided with a notable distancing between political leaders and their publics.
When charges against former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff resulted in her removal from office, protests throughout the country led many within the mainstream media to speculate that widespread public intolerance of corrupt behaviour would usher in a new public morality. Surely, such a demonstration of public anger against corruption would alert the country’s politicians to the fact that appropriation of the public treasury for personal gain would no longer be tolerated. Unhappily, this was naïve thinking as recent events so clearly demonstrate.
It is now apparent that neither democracy nor the neoliberal prescription of dismantling the state has been successful in mitigating widespread corruption in Latin America. In Brazil, Eduardo Cunha, the powerful politician and former leader of the lower house, who orchestrated the ouster of former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, has recently been arrested on corruption charges. Many more high-level Brazilian politicians and businessmen are currently under investigation, including the current president of Brazil, Michel Temer. Former President Lula has also been charged with corruption. Investigations of corruption in Argentina have reached top-level politicians and the businessmen closely allied with the Kirchner administrations. The Argentine federal prosecutor has indicted former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner, who amassed a fortune during her tenure in office, on corruption charges. These charges have included, among other transgressions, intervention in a currency trade involving Argentina’s Central Bank that may have cost the country billions of dollars. Distressing for many observers, is the fact that these governments had come to power through the electoral process and were part of the “pink tide,” left leaning regimes that promised social justice in the wake of the persistence of poverty and high levels of inequality. The mainstream media (optimistically) characterized the widespread protests in Brazil against the Rousseff administration as indicating growing public anger against the mismanagement and greed of politicians who had promised improved distributive outcomes. Hence, there is the expectation that the next stage will involve important changes in policy and institutional arrangements that will finally put an end to, or at least mitigate, corrupt practices. This thinking will be convincing only to those with short memories.
As a variety of commentators have noted, the U.S., faced with rising inequality and a growing perception that only the wealthy have benefitted from economic growth, has begun to witness the demagoguery and populist appeals believed characteristic of nations south of the border. This blog entry considers another similarity: the obstacles faced by women politicians advocating “within system” change aimed to benefit the disadvantaged; it considers the difficult political obstacles presented by powerful economic and political interests that manipulate misogynistic sentiments to block change.
After twenty hours of debate, the Brazilian Senate voted this week to initiate impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff stepped down from the presidency on Thursday and was replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer. Given the strong sentiment in favor of initiating the impeachment process (55 votes in favour out of 81) Rousseff is not likely to return to power.
There are at least three important questions arising from these events.
In this entry, Teichman discusses the Brazilian crisis, drawing on some of the ideas developed in The Politics of Inclusive Development. Policy, State Capacity and Coalition Building, 2016. (Link to publisher).
Brazil appears generously endowed with attributes that should contribute to the achievement of equitable and inclusive development: its ample agricultural land and mineral wealth affords a wide array of commodity exports while the country’s a large domestic market can support the development of industry and manufacturing. Nevertheless, Brazil’s historical development trajectory has been far from inclusionary, involving high levels of inequality, persisting poverty (reduced substantially only fairly recently), and exclusion. In the early 2000s, the World Bank identified the social exclusion of blacks, children, youth and indigenous people as one of the country’s most pressing development challenges (1). Brazil has had historically high levels of socioeconomic inequality, a feature sometimes linked to a dependence on commodity exports—one of the implications of the so-called resource curse. However, inequality and exclusion also arise from a history of highly unequal political power relations and the operation of exclusionary institutions.