By David Jiang
In a flash, over two months of my bridge-year odyssey has passed. This period will forever be remembered as a significant milestone, a time when I succeeded in the enormous task of settling myself into this new life abroad. Being an American living in Brazil, an individual invested in two distinct societies, this month has been especially tumultuous regarding two events that have dominated the news networks as well as community conversation. With political polarization, media sensationalism, and cynicism aside, these two particular events have affected me extremely deeply, compelling me to write this article to emphasize a specific component that these two events share, a component that endangers our respective democracies. I further reiterate the crucial role we all have as citizens to protect and defend the integrity of the institutions that govern our livelihood.
For the past month, American politics and people were intensely split over the Senate confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, to replace Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy. Initially, President Trump’s selection to the highest court in the land seemed guaranteed: Kavanaugh had an impeccable education at Yale Law School, a prestigious career at the D.C. Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and was rated “well qualified” by the American Bar Association, their highest rating for Supreme Court aptitude. Yet, what seemed like a certain confirmation took a sharp turn when three women came forward and accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault during their high school and college years. The first woman, Christine Blasey Ford, was called to testify before the U.S. Senate.
The nation watched as Ford gave her calm yet powerful recount of what Kavanaugh did to her on that night in 1982. The nation watched as Kavanaugh gave his fiery and passionate defense, primarily accusing the Democratic Party of conspiring to ruin his reputation. Ultimately, the nation watched the Senate confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in the second narrowest margin in U.S. history (50-48, split predominantly along party lines). His accession to the highest court in the land has created one of, if not the, most conservative Supreme Court in American history, defining precedent for years to come.
Meanwhile, political tensions in Brazil have been amounting in the past four years, exacerbated by (but not limited to): the largest economic recession (with thirteen million people out of work), the largest corruption scandal (Operation Car Wash, with over R$3.6 billion [~$1 billion USD] in misappropriated funds), and the most violent year (with 2017 a record year, with over 63,000 homicides nationwide), in their entire history. The nation is desperate for an alternative to the notoriously corrupt left-leaning political establishment, one that has ruled the nation for decades. And many citizens believe they have found their answer for the 2018 general election: Jair Bolsonaro, a former paratrooper and congressman who has promised to lead Brazil under his nationalistic Christian right-wing ideology.
Bolsonaro has promised to purify the corruption in Brasilia through a crackdown of left-wing economic policies as well as to combat the escalating crime through strict police reform. Yet, he is notorious and controversial throughout the country for his views on same-sex unions/marriages, the equality of women, and civil rights. He has mentioned he would rather his son “die in a car accident than be gay”, stated that his daughter was produced “out of a moment of weakness”, as well as stoked hatred of refugees by calling them “the scum of the earth.” Most of all, Bolsonaro is a proponent of returning Brazil to a military dictatorship, which ruled the nation two decades prior and was infamous for its egregious use of torture. Despite an entire nationwide movement uniting against his presidential campaign, #EleNao (hashtag “not him”), Bolsonaro has led the polls for most of the race.
Bolsonaro carried 46% of the vote during the election on October 7. Although it was significantly higher than his competitors, it was not enough to break majority and win the presidency outright, prompting a second-round runoff election. On the October 28th election, Bolsonaro defeated his opponent Fernando Haddad, the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) candidate. He carried 55% of the vote nationwide. In my home state, Santa Catarina, alone, Bolsonaro carried just over 75% of the vote. His inauguration will take place January of next year.
My aim in writing this article is not to impress my political leanings to those who read it. Whatever “side” you think I am should not be important to you and should not affect how you see the issue I am addressing in this piece, one which requires a multiparty solution.
A diversity of views is the crucial basis of a functioning democracy. Politics, at its root, is the discourse of varying beliefs relating to how the government should be run to best benefit its constituents. Simply put, it is where numerous ideologies/beliefs/opinions clash in deciding what would be best in making people’s lives better. Political discourse is an essential part of maintaining the integrity of the democratic system that both America and Brazil share. This is not what I am contending with.
Yet, the reality is that politics is never so pure-intentioned, clear-cut, and idealistic. Politics is complicated, dirty, and corrupt everywhere; it only varies to relative degrees between differing nations and bureaucratic levels. In spite of this, as civilians in a democracy, we have the power of the vote. It is this power of the vote that places a check on politicians and government that can so easily become misconstrued. It is this vote that we must use wisely, as it is all that most of us will ever have.
The issue I am trying to address in this piece is to reaffirm our commitment in working together in deciding the direction that is best for the nation to go. We all have a superordinate goal to form a “more perfect Union” through civil dialogue and critical thinking, to make our countries better for ourselves and the generations that follow. In that obligation, we all, whether you are left, right, or center, have a crucial role in protecting our democracies from those who use hatred and fear as a platform for power
A platform of hatred and fear promotes tribalism, where we ignore those that challenge our beliefs, only associating with those that affirm our beliefs in antagonizing those on the other side. Tribalism makes an easy situation for demagogues to rise to power, as it permits scapegoating of the opposition as a guise for the leader’s true motives. A diversity of beliefs in a democracy only works when the opposing parties listen and construct, rather than turn away and accuse.
This is the fact that many of us have neglected when we allowed Kavanaugh and Bolsonaro, and many others, to rise to power. Americans have neglected to realize this when our politicians permitted Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, the highest seat in the land in a position that is rooted in impartial constitutional analysis, despite his accusatory scapegoat rhetoric towards the opposition party. Even more, Brazilians have neglected this when they placed their hopes in Bolsonaro for the presidency, a man who loathes and seeks to undermine anything that is not himself: asylum seekers, minorities, the poor, the LGBT community, non-Christians, women.
In our obligations as active and engaged citizens, we must, at the very least, be skeptical of those who use hatred and fear as a promotional platform. Regardless of the side one is on, when discussing the policies that govern our lives, it is crucial that we assess them in an pragmatic sustainable manner, rather than getting swept up in fleeting emotion. We must first ask ourselves this simple question: why are they making us fear and despise?
In the best interests of our country and its future, we must be extremely careful of what kind of alternatives we select for power, especially those that proliferate on a basis of tribalism. We have to remind ourselves, even in the most desperate times, to truly think rationally about the choices we make, as the most popular alternative may not be the right alternative. Most of all, we must reconcile and settle our grievances, paving a new of path of collaboration towards a goal higher than our differences. We must reject the means that numerous politicians have used to divide us and create chaos. They do it to advance their ends, not ours.
A house divided cannot stand. Especially during times like these. Especially in the system we have.
Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Kavanaugh Is Sworn In After Close Confirmation Vote in Senate.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Oct. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/10/06/us/politics/brett-kavanaugh-supreme-court.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur.
Watts, Jonathan. “Operation Car Wash: The Biggest Corruption Scandal Ever?” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 June 2017, www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/01/brazil-operation-car-wash-is-this-the-biggest-corruption-scandal-in-history.
Phillips, Tom. “Brazil’s Election Explained: the Top Candidates, Key Issues and Stakes.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Oct. 2018, www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/04/brazil-election-explained-key-issues-candidates-bolsonaro-haddad-presidential-latest.