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Political science

With one eye on the fish and another on the cat

Brazilian mistrust of democratic institutions

IntituicoesNegreirosNever mistrust a text that begins with a cliché, because in the relationship between Brazilians and democracy the best definition is an overused quotation from Churchill: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. It is increasingly rare to find anyone who misses a “strong military government”, but it is equally difficult to find anyone who trusts politicians, judges, the police and other representatives of government. “Brazilian democracy is relatively well consolidated, but it’s facing a paradox: despite majority support for the democratic regime almost two thirds of Brazilians have no faith in parliamentarians, parties, governments, courts of justice, the Police and health and education services”, says political scientist, José Álvaro Moisés (USP), who along with Rachel Meneguello (Unicamp), is one of the coordinators of the project “The mistrust of citizens in democratic institutions”  supported by FAPESP.

“Historical data suggest that Brazilians accept Churchill’s model of democracy: a growing preference for a democratic regime is accompanied by a mistrust of representative institutions, which leads to a general lack of interest and a reduced commitment to conventional politics”, notes Rachel. Between 1989, the first direct election, and 2006, the latest, valuing democracy grew by 21 percentage points (from 43.6% to 64.8%) in the population, at the same time that the number of citizens incapable of defining what democracy is fell by more than 13 percentage points (from 38.6% to 25.5%). At the same time the negative perception of institutions grew, covering all income, education and age segments, and this is having an increasing influence on the willingness of citizens to take part in the process for choosing governments. “People adhere to democracy but in practice do not trust that their institutions can or want to change their lives. We may even have been converted into an electoral democracy, since studies show that democratic adhesion is well-grounded, above all in the idea of political choice, voting and elections. But we are far from being an actual democracy, in which themes like law, civil rights and political equilibrium predominate”, notes Moisés.

“In fact, the erosion of trust in the representative system is a phenomenon that has affected various societies for at least two decades. Although democracy maintains statute as the best form of an existing regime, the loss of credibility in parliament, in parties and in politicians is a growing tendency”, observes the researcher. According to Moisés, a certain dose of mistrust is acceptable and may be a healthy sign of citizens distancing themselves from a dimension of social life over which they have little control. “These are the critical citizens, in other words, those who despite their severe assessment of the performance of the institutions of representation have not turned their backs on the democratic regime or its principles. Centuries of perfection have created a reserve of legitimacy that in periods of institutional crisis have unleashed a deepening of democracy and not its death.” The situation is different in recently democratized countries in Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. “Democratic institutions, created to take the place of the authoritarian ones, suddenly appeared and were associated with the expectation of a new phase in the life of societies. But in several cases the traditional political culture changed more slowly or even continued. Therefore, faced with these shortages, waves of ambiguous attitudes, a lack of belief and mistrust sprang up.” In countries like Brazil, this mistrust, instead of generating a wave of greater participation and pressure for reforms, produced alienation, cynicism, a lack of interest, reduced political participation and even a preference for models of democracy without parties or Congress.

‘Too much mistrust, especially when associated with dissatisfaction with the performance of the regime, may mean that citizens, bearing in mind their expectations and experiences, perceive institutions as something different from that for which it is supposed they have been created.” At the utmost,  indifference or institutional inefficiency when faced with social demands continues, corruption, fraud or disrespect for the rights of citizenship, generate suspicion, a lack of credibility and despair, thus compromising the acquiescence, obedience and submission of citizens to the laws and structures that regulate social life. “Generalized and constant mistrust may cause difficulties for the functioning of the democratic regime, compromising the coordination and social cooperation capacity of governments and the State. There is a risk of creating a lack of appreciation for fundamental institutions like parliament and political parties.” Moisés warns that our knowledge of the consequences these phenomena may generate is still limited. “Will they lead to a desire for improving the system or, on the contrary, will they serve to form a social base that, in risk situations, has the potential to be mobilized by antidemocratic forces? We are unable to reply as yet with any degree of certainty.”

According to Moises, one line of research that has proved productive when it comes to understanding the mistrust of institutions is interpersonal trust, in other words, the trust of individuals with regard to other citizens in the community. “When the interpersonal trust indices are low, as in Brazil and almost all countries in Latin America, it is difficult to find the fundamentals needed for the existence of bonds between citizens, authorities and the institutions themselves. Research also shows that when institutions function well this can stimulate interpersonal trust. In other words, these are two interactive and mutually influential phenomena”, is his analysis. Trust in institutions is based on the fact that citizens share a common perspective about belonging to a political community, a circumstance implicit in the normative justification of institutions. After all, modern democracy itself, he notes, was born out of liberal mistrust that those in power are not trustworthy and that it is necessary to watch them to avoid abuse. That is why rules area adopted, since democracy implies supervision of the exercise of power.

“Mistrust needs to be ‘institutionalized’ by the rules, however for this to happen, it is necessary that everyone accepts that the rules guarantee their right to control the circumstances that generate mistrust. In other words, in order to function the institutionalization of mistrust presupposes the existence of a culture of trust.” In the specific case of Brazil, its recent history has not helped in the creation of this “basic trust”. “Democratization resulted from the liberalization initiatives by the heads of the former military regime, followed by negotiations with the democratic leaders, but the first civil president was chosen by the National Congress, following the rules of military governments”, explains the researcher. The Constitution of 1988 brought yet another complication: the presidentialism of coalition, in other words, governability depends on the delegation of the power the president receives from his parliamentary majority that comes from the governing coalitions. “We only have to remember recent events, involving spurious exchanges of favor, to see how this can affect citizen perception of the democratic system, thereby deepening the lack of belief in parties and Congress on the part of public opinion, thus reinforcing the Brazilian tradition of the personalization of political relations in which individual leaders superimpose themselves on the institutions of representation.”

This was a gradual process. “After two decades of military regime it was evident that the New Republic was incapable of redimensioning the relationship of citizens with representative politics. An awareness was created that the meaning of democracy was linked to the idea of electoral choice and solutions for social demands”, notes Rachel. “The rhetoric of transition favored direct elections for president as a central tool for redeeming Brazilian democracy, at the same time as it sidelined representative structures, which started being regarded as secondary mechanisms.”  Parallel with this, democratization had to face serious economic issues, which became the reference point for what successful government is, in other words, a government that is capable of taking care of both the economic and social problems. “For the man in the street, daily life, government action, the democratic system and institutions were not linked to one another.” After all, researchers note, having elections is indispensable for the system, but in themselves they do not guarantee democracy  functioning at its full potential. ‘Electoral democracies do not necessarily meet all the criteria, according to which an authoritarian political system is transformed into a democratic one. It’s a question of the quality of the democracy”, observes Moisés, who draws attention to various current cases of “electoral fallacy”, i.e. the tendency to favor elections over other dimensions of democracy. “Data indicates that the Brazilian democratic process seems to be limited by the way it advances: elections concentrate their support capital and it’s the performance of the elected leaders and institutional bases that bring satisfaction with the system”, Rachel notes.

Therefore, rather than  just a narrow identification with the democratic system and its structures ,this embracing of democracy appears as something related to the universal value of free choice, which generates an electoral dynamic only every other year. “Institutional references to the representative system do not emerge in direct association with a preference for the democratic regime or with an assessment of its performance. Satisfaction is revealed in the perception of how efficient the current government is’, explains the author, according to whom assessment of the performance of democracy is less associated with the institutional dimension and management of the system. “The assessment gives priority to the perception and evaluation of the federal government chosen. The significant identification with the Lula government is a good example of this. For citizens there is a clear distinction between the dimension of democratic adherence and that of satisfaction with democracy in the way it functions.” Studies reveal a national peculiarity. “For citizens the reference points that form the ‘bridge’ with the assessment of the system are more associated with their day-to-day life and their relationship experiences with the State, with public services.” But the researchers warn that there are subtle aspects in the process.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the move from mistrust to trust was exclusively seen as a function of the good economic performance of government, as if only instrumental effectiveness counted. “But this helped little when it came to explaining why even countries that have good economic development also experience a lack of trust in their institutions. Because of research we now know that economic performance is important, but universalism, impersonality, a sense of justice and the proper way in which institutions treat their citizens are decisive factors”, says Moisés. Therefore, certain recent political events have been factors for democratically mobilizing the public, like the Real Plan and the social policies of the present government. “These are factors that encourage adherence to democracy. It’s very probable that events of this nature result in factors that are favorable when it comes to reducing mistrust over the medium and long term.” These normative (social and cultural) dimensions may give people motives for trusting institutions, or not, and convince them that they can function to their benefit. If this does not happen the numbers may bring unpleasant surprises. According to the study, some 30% of the electorate believes that democracy can function perfectly well without Congress or political parties which, according to Moisés, is a strong message to the parties and to the Legislature. In the case of the parties the indices of rejection reached 80.6% in 2006; Congress had a criticism rate of 71.9%. and Congressmen and senators received 59.7% from those interviewed, who consider their performance poor or dreadful.

Fire fighters
According to the project research the average Brazilian citizen actively mistrusts four of the most important political institutions of any democratic regime (parties, Congress, government and the president) and does not trust the laws. At the same time they are skeptical with regard to the other three: the police (only 8.7% trust them much), the Judiciary (just 10.9%) and the Army (21.1%). The only ones  more trusted  are fire fighters (53.2%), a fact explained by their efficient past and by the disassociation, in the popular imagination, of this service from democratic institutions. TV generates uneven expectations: 7.9% trust nothing that is broadcast, while 11.9% trust the “little screen” a lot. Total satisfaction with democracy only manages to muster a miserable 2.7% of those surveyed. So in Brazil no political institution has the full and unequivocal trust of more than one third of the citizens (with the exception of fire fighters, the army and private institutions like the Church and television). “Brazilians express relative trust in the president, but this trust is probably confused with personal support for recent presidents, like Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula, the best evaluated president since the end of the dictatorship”, says Moisés. “So, despite Brazilian democracy being more than 20 years old democratic institutions have not yet achieved a satisfactory response to the aspirations of its citizens”, he continues. Even modernization and recent advances have not affected this: people still trust strangers, for example, more than they do parties and a little less than the trust they have in the National Congress.

A curious fact: unlike what is seen in neighboring countries, sex and religion have no influence on political trust. “Contrary to the forecasts saying that Brazil belonged to a cultural category based on Iberian religious hierarchy and authoritarian traditions, Brazilians have shown that they tend to define their attitudes of trust based on their experiences and on the political judgment that comes from them”, observes the researcher. The results confirm that individuals mix rational judgments about the performance of institutions with the political values with which they judge their experiences of the present democratic regime. When institutions prove they are worthy of their trust Brazilians no longer accept that it is possible to function without a Congress. Political mistrust, in turn, negatively affects their feelings of nationality, the reliability of the elections, satisfaction with the democratic regime and both the tendency to take part in political disputes as well as the feeling that democracy can function without political parties. Another important point in the study is that the level of education may be relevant when it comes to political participation, but it is no guarantee of greater support for representative institutions. “Those who have a better level of education are more participative, but a lot more critical; they devalue the parties because they negatively evaluate the role they’re actually performing. But in this case this critical view, rather than undermining the legitimacy of the democratic system, represents a demand for improving it”, the author believes. In the same category of ‘critical citizens’ are the individuals who place themselves on the left. They also mistrust democratic institutions.

At the same time, observes Moisés, it is interesting to note that in Brazil the probability of support for a democracy without political parties and without a National Congress is greater than in Latin America as a whole. “In other words, in the case of Brazilians the results of dissatisfaction with democracy and mistrust of the way institutions function affect their perceptions and convictions about the democratic regime”, in the researcher’s assessment. The model resulting from the research showed that only Colombians, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Paraguayans and Venezuelans are more likely to opt for a model of “democracy without Congress”, while the choice of a “democracy without parties” is greater among  the Bolivians, Colombians, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Panamanians and Paraguayans. “Brazil’s case indicates that there is a greater probability of Brazilians defining themselves as ambivalent, in other words, there is a greater risk that its citizens will choose alternative regimes that exclude parliament and political parties.” This is yet more evidence, notes the researcher, that neither the performance of governments, nor the institutions seem capable of guaranteeing that the expectations of the citizens as to the regime are achievable. The political elite seem to have difficulties when it comes to perceiving the seriousness of the situation or they do not feel encouraged to resolve the problems so that the democracy being offered satisfies the demand of the citizens.

“Unlike a certain consensus that has been established in political science, in the case of Brazil the question refers to the current political reform situation.” According to the political scientist, in Latin America there is a wave of neo-populism, in other words governments that have the support of the masses and that at the same time tend to give little importance to the institutions of representative democracy, which is the case with countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. In these cases personality-driven governments extend their legitimacy not only with popular public policies but with direct attacks on parties, parliament and the supreme courts. “This represents a clear danger for democracy because instead of ’empowering’ citizens, they make them dependent on charismatic and plebiscitary leaders; this exacerbates the power of the latter and prevents the distribution of power to the people.”

However they are looked at the data confirm that the experiences of citizens have an influence on the question of political trust, suggesting that it is associated with living the rules, norms and procedures that come from the principle of all people being equal in the eyes of the law. “But the data also suggest that this attitude depends on the impact of the concrete functioning of both institutions and governments”, Moisés recalls. This is not gratuitous or irrational behavior, but based on how citizens feel they are treated by the institutions, which can lead them to valuing the latter or despising them. No Brazilian likes to disrespect the Law and the rules if they feel that their interests are being taken into consideration in the political process. “The atmosphere of mistrust, a lack of confidence, is what compromises the acquiescence of individuals to the laws.”

Two fundamental points, however, were extracted from this research into Brazilian mistrust. “The mistrust syndrome is associated with indifference when faced with the alternatives to the political regime and, to a lesser degree, with a preference for authoritarianism. In other words mistrust and dissatisfaction generate a distancing, cynicism and alienation with regard to the regime”, Moisés points out. “But those distrusting citizens, who are at the same time dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy, are the ones who, when faced with the anti-institutional alternatives, prefer a democratic regime to which parties and parliament are of little importance.” For the political scientist it is as if those surveyed had confirmed the continuation of notorious aspects of the Latin American political tradition, like populism. “Measuring typically democratic institutions is little valued. The new Latin American democracies mix democratic ingredients with traces of authoritarian survival”, he notes. “It has a ‘delegative’ nature associated with over-valuation of the Executive branch and of personality-driven and charismatic leaders, from whom the electorate hopes for almost everything, undermining their expectation of the role of the institutions, whose function is to let them be represented and speak for themselves in public life. Recent happenings in various countries on the continent seem to confirm these conclusions”, recalls the political scientist. The good thing, as far as the researchers are concerned, is that Brazil does not entirely fit into this scenario. “In our case corruption is the clearest example of the deficient functioning of the mechanisms of accountability. My diagnosis is that this affects the quality of Brazilian democracy and the precarious performance of parliament.”

For Moisés, although the national horizon does not indicate that any authoritarian winds are about to blow, caution and political reform are necessary. According to Moises party loyalty and the functioning of campaigns are measures that would help reduce the risks of these indices of mistrust. “The experience of corrupt practices involving governments, political parties and members of the National Congress, without the institutional means of control being considered effective, helps explain the choice that so many make of models of democracy ‘without parties and without parliament’.” For the researcher, it remains to be seen whether this process of the progressive “legitimization” of the basic institutions of representative democracy can be used in the medium or long term to feed anti-democratic alternatives. The phrase of Bernard Shaw has to be understood, “Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve” in its due and just proportion.