In Brazil, the existence of conservative groups is not a new phenomenon. However, these groups are on the rise. Notably, they combine various strands of conservatism and use various collective action tactics. Their platforms include an anticorruption campaign against left-wing governments and a focus on traditionalism and moral values, along with varying doses of economic liberalism and nationalism. Worryingly, some sectors of conservative civil society are either ambivalent about core democratic values or illiberal, and these sectors have become more vocal and influential through the creation of broad coalitions. Their empowerment has contributed to Brazil’s political polarization and risks drowning out moderate conservative voices that are committed to democracy.
In Latin America, three factors help explain the current growth of conservative civil society. First, it is part of a backlash against the so-called pink tide of leftist governments that has dominated a large part of the region in the past two decades. The downfall of the left has provided conservative actors with a new opportunity. In this context, conservative civil society groups took to the streets and to social media, and went from being actors that mostly worked in the shadows to taking center stage in the political arena.
In addition, the spread of these movements has been galvanized by the economic crisis that has shaken the region after a period of relative stability and growth. In Brazil, the largest economy in the region, economic growth stagnated and then contracted in 2015 and 2016.1 This crisis has fueled dissatisfaction with governments as well as with the political system in general.
Finally, conservative civil society has grown through the new digital environment, more specifically on social media platforms that have become accessible to many more people and that are well suited to a style of political communication based on adversarial debate. For many conservative groups that lack organizational resources, social media platforms have become the key means of finding sympathizers and diffusing ideas.
In Brazil, more specifically, the empowerment of conservative groups has been a part of a political crisis of great proportions, which led to the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff in August 2016. This political crisis is still ongoing in 2018, amid great uncertainty about Brazil’s political future.
New Actors and Tactics
Conservative civil society groups have been key actors throughout Brazilian history. On the eve of the 1964 coup d’état, these groups held the large-scale “Family March for God and Freedom,” characterized by strong anticommunist and nationalist rhetoric that helped pave the final way to military dictatorship. During the authoritarian period (1964–1985) and the subsequent transition to democracy, conservative groups were largely unseen in the streets of Brazil but remained highly influential. Then, during the years of rule by the Workers’ Party (the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rousseff presidencies, 2003–2016), these actors had considerable power to veto policy proposals and shape the public agenda.2 In fact, the presence of conservative forces grew in the National Congress during this period.
Public opinion surveys show that, up until the mid-1990s, conservative sympathizers tended to be older than those who sympathized with other political factions, and tended to come from smaller and poorer counties.3 Recently, however, the face of conservatism has changed. Since the beginning of the 2010s, support for conservatism has risen among young people and residents of large cities. This change is evidenced by the creation of new conservative organizations of university students, which began to win important elections for student federations in 2011.4 In parallel, conservative organizers have made an effort to influence policymaking by creating a network of think tanks dedicated to discussing policy, as well as movements to organize political protests.5
Although conservative civil society groups used direct action in the past, it was not their typical modus operandi. The new groups increasingly use the kinds of collective action typically associated with the left, adapting them to their own goals. During the cycle of protests that rocked the country in June 2013, myriad conservative actors mobilized around what Ângela Alonso and Ann Mische have called the “patriotic repertoire,” using the national colors, symbols such as the national flag and anthem, nationalist slogans, and the occupation of canonical spaces.6 These actors did not have a clear agenda, but some of their recurrent slogans referred to political corruption—“Either the robbery stops or we stop Brazil”—and calls for lower taxes and reduced state spending—“Enough takes without return” and “More Brazil, less tax.”7
Conservative movements’ participation in the 2013 protest cycle was, however, fragmented and diffuse. Two years later, when the campaign for the impeachment of Rousseff began, conservative actors were better organized and were more unified around this common target. Organizations such as the Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement), Vem pra Rua (Come to the Streets), and the Movimento Contra a Corrupção (Movement Against Corruption) were well positioned to coordinate calls for mobilization, displaying a creative and effective combination of online and offline action.
The ability to mobilize demonstrated by conservative groups during the massive protests in favor of the Rousseff impeachment stemmed in part from their highly effective use of social media. According to various rankings, these organizations are usually among the top and most reachable Facebook pages and posts.8 They are also among the most followed fan pages within the field of Brazilian social movement organizations.9 Their leaders have made a conscientious effort to develop a more popular and appealing online communication style than the traditional conservative sectors.10 This communication style, which fits well with what scholars have dubbed “populism 2.0,”11 is characterized by three main dimensions: simplification, emotionalization, and negativity.12 Simplification is the mechanism of reducing the complexity of political life to a struggle between the people and its enemy. During the 2015–2016 campaign for impeachment, conservative groups combined the patriotic repertoire with anticorruption rhetoric that pitted “we, the people” against “the Workers’ Party,” “Dilma,” “Lula,” or “corrupt politicians” in general.13 This fit well with the simplified language of tweets and Facebook posts that these organizations used intensively. They also adapted their communication style to use humor and irony to diffuse their ideas to a broader audience of potential supporters.14 Finally, the communication style was negative in terms of the diagnostics presented by conservative groups, which emphasized the existence of crisis and urgent threats that required citizens’ immediate attention.15
The Consensus of Brasília?
Since Rousseff’s impeachment, various branches of conservative civil society have sought new common ground. Mimicking the bridging movement of “fusionism” that brought together traditionalist and libertarian strands of conservatism in the United States in the 1960s,16 the new conservative actors of the 2010s have been trying to build bridges with more traditional conservative sectors in Brazilian politics.
The ideational basis for building this “Consensus of Brasília” brings together three goals: the fight against corruption (and the demand for tougher laws against crime in general), the defense of moral values, and the promotion of pro-business economic policies. This Brazilian-style fusionism unites some of the new tech-savvy conservative groups with more traditional actors: landowners, sectors of the industry, and conservative strands of Christian churches, both Catholic and evangelical. In building this alliance, the conservative groups that called for Rousseff’s impeachment adapted their repertoire, shifting from large-scale anticorruption protests to targeted campaigns around moral issues and policy initiatives while maintaining a strong anticorruption and anti-leftist rhetoric. Throughout 2017, they supported policy initiatives such as labor law reform and pension fund reform, siding with business interests. In this context, law and order has become an increasingly salient issue because of rising levels of violence. This traditionally has been a sensitive policy area for leftist governments, which, in general, have struggled with security issues.17
However, most of the energy spent by these actors has been geared toward “moral panic” campaigns, which work well in cementing collaborative ties with religious conservatives. Sociologists coined the concept of moral panic in the 1970s to analyze social anxieties and insecurities that are disproportionate and volatile—hence the “panic.”18 These are short-term campaigns dedicated to denouncing attacks on moral values, with specific targets and demands. A good example is the campaign against the organizers of the “Queermuseu” (Queer Museum) art exhibition in the southern city of Porto Alegre. Between August and October 2017, a network of conservative Brazilian civil society organizations, political leaders, religious actors, and bloggers called for the cancellation of this exhibition, which displayed 263 works of art by well-known Brazilian painters. The campaign accused the artists and organizers of promoting blasphemy, pedophilia, and bestiality, and of attacking Christian values. Furthermore, because funding for this exhibition came from tax exemptions, they accused its promoters of using public money to promulgate these morally detrimental ideas. The campaign used a broad repertoire of tactics: protests at the doors of the cultural center, boycotts of its sponsors, and a carefully orchestrated online campaign in which millions of social media users shared videos, memes, and posts. Less than a month after its inauguration, the exhibition was cancelled.
Another campaign that has been instrumental in bringing together various strands of conservatism is the “School Without Parties.” Created in 2004 by a state prosecutor, it has gained prominence in educational policy debates in recent years. The campaign argues that Brazilian schools are “contaminated” by leftist teachers who indoctrinate students and use their authority in the classrooms to punish those who think differently.19 Based on these arguments, anti-leftist sectors and religious actors have joined forces to support new legislative initiatives that address this issue at both municipal and national levels.20 These same groups have been fighting against the inclusion of content in schoolbooks that address lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) issues and gender issues (dubbed “gender ideology”), and against the distribution in public schools of materials from a federal educational campaign against homophobia.21
The Queer Museum and the School Without Parties campaigns have in common activists’ mobilization around supposedly moral attacks on a righteous society, bringing together the agendas and interests of a broad coalition of conservative civil society organizations and religious groups. They are also evidence of how conservative groups have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by the crisis of the left, creating a divisive agenda that leaves little space for compromise, with a fiercely antagonistic and principled rhetoric that drowns out more moderate voices.
As the examples above illustrate, the Brazilian version of fusionism has helped unify various strands of conservative civil society groups. However, certain issues continue to be divisive. The role of the state remains a matter of intense dispute among actors. There is no common economic conservative policy. More and less liberal-oriented actors participate in various conservative groups. Although many defend protectionist policies and subsidies, others advocate a reduced state role in the economy and the adoption of free trade policies.
Moral issues are also divisive. The moral panic campaigns mentioned above allow for building alliances with conservative religious sectors but, at the same time, they push away groups that recognize the need to incorporate LGBT rights or that are willing to discuss issues such as same-sex marriage and the advancement of women’s rights.
A third cleavage among these actors relates to the commitment to democratic values. Many standard conservatives are committed to democracy, but some newer movements explicitly favor authoritarian responses to corruption and so-called “moral degradation.” They now openly defend the country’s authoritarian past and advocate for the return of the military to power. A wider pool of conservative activists has an ambivalent relationship with democratic values.
These differences have perpetuated the divisions among conservative groups ahead of the October presidential election. For the first time since Brazil’s transition to democracy, the country has a presidential candidate that outspokenly defends the 1964 military coup and unabashedly favors tougher laws against crimes to the detriment of civil and human rights.22 Public opinion polls show that 60 percent of Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters are young people between the ages of sixteen and thirty-four.23 However, Bolsonaro does not unite all conservative sectors; many are hostile to his authoritarian profile.24 Some of these critics argue that his positions cannot properly be defined as conservative.25
In spite of the specific characteristics of the Brazilian case, the processes of empowerment and radicalization of conservative civil society groups are not unique to the country and should not be understood as isolated phenomena. Brazilians have been influenced by actors in other countries and are also a source of inspiration overseas. Other groups in South America have used similar repertoires, strategies, and language in campaigns to stop and reverse the advances of women’s and LGBT rights in the past few years.26
Brazilian conservative civil society has become increasingly powerful, profiting from the window of opportunity opened by the crisis of the left and helping to deepen that crisis. Through an alliance with religious sectors and politicians, it has increased its influence in policymaking. Through its use of the “populist 2.0” style of communication, it has been able to reach a broad online audience and to organize large-scale protests, from the campaign to impeach Rousseff to more recent moral panic campaigns. This empowerment of conservative civil society has gone hand-in-hand with a creeping ambivalence toward core democratic values.
1 See the World Bank’s economic data on Brazil at http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/brazil/overview.
2 Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Introduction: The Right in Contemporary Latin America: A Framework for Analysis,” in The Resilience of the Latin American Right, eds. Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), 2.
3 Scott Mainwaring, Rachel Meneghello, and Timothy Power, “Conservative Parties, Democracy, and Economic Reform in Contemporary Brazil,” in Conservative Parties, the Right, and Democracy in Latin America, ed. Kevin Middlebrook (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
4 Danniel Gobbi, “Identidade em ambiente virtual: uma análise da rede Estudantes pela Liberdade” [Identity in a virtual environment: An analysis of the Students for Freedom network] (Unpublished masters’ thesis, Political Science Institute, University of Brasilia, Brazil, 2016).
6 Ângela Alonso and Ann Mische, “Changing Repertoires and Partisan Ambivalence in the New Brazilian Protests,” Bulletin of Latin American Research 36, no. 2 (2017): 144–59, https://doi.org/10.1111/blar.12470.
8 See, for example, the results of the weekly ranking put together by the website Burgos Media Watch: http://media.pburgos.com/.
9 In April 2018, the Facebook fan page of the Free Brazil Movement had over 2.6 million followers, and the Movement Against Corruption had over 3.6 million followers. The Brazilian Landless Movement fan page, in contrast, had less than 337,000 followers.
10 Gobbi, “Identidade em ambiente virtual.”
11 See, for example, Paolo Gerbaudo, “Populism 2.0: Social Media Activism, the Generic Internet User and Interactive Direct Democracy,” in Social Media, Politics, and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, eds. Christian Fuchs and Daniel Trottier (New York: Routledge, 2015), 67–87.
12 Sven Engesser, Nicole Ernst, Frank Esser, and Florin Büchel, “Populism and Social Media: How Politicians Spread a Fragmented Ideology,” Information, Communication & Society 20, no. 8 (2016): 1109–26, https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697.
13 Tayrine Dias, “‘É uma batalha de narrativas’: os enquadramentos de ação coletiva em torno do impeachment de Dilma Rousseff no Facebook” [“It’s a battle of narratives”: The frameworks of collective action around Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment on Facebook] (unpublished masters’ thesis, Political Science Institute, University of Brasilia, Brazil, 2017).
16 Lee Edwards, “The Conservative Consensus: Frank Meyer, Barry Goldwater, and the Politics of Fusionism,” First Principle Series no. 8, Heritage Foundation, 2007, https://www.heritage.org/political-process/report/the-conservative-consensus-frank-meyer-barry-goldwater-and-the-politics.
17 Juan Pablo Luna and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Conclusion: Right and Left Politics in Contemporary Latin America,” in The Resilience of the Latin American Right, 358.
18 For example, Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (London: Routledge, 2002).
19 See the presentation on the organization’s website: http://www.escolasempartido.org/quem-somos (accessed April 12, 2018).
20 See the content of the proposed law presented at the Chamber of Deputies: http://www.camara.gov.br/proposicoesWeb/fichadetramitacao?idProposicao=1050668 (accessed April 12, 2018).
21 Marcos Carvalho and Horacio Sívori, “Ensino religioso, gênero e sexualidade na política educacional brasileira” [Religious education, gender and sexuality in Brazilian educational policy], in Cadernos Pagu no. 50, 2017.
22 See the speeches and project proposals of presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in his official website: http://www.camara.leg.br/internet/deputado/dep_Detalhe.asp?id=5830721 (accessed April 12, 2018).
23 Leandro Machado, “Por que 60% dos eleitores de Bolsonaro são jovens?” [Why are 60 percent of Bolsonaro voters young?], BBC, November 17, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-41936761.
24 When Jair Bolsonaro affiliated with the Partido Social Liberal (Liberal Social Party), this led to a rupture and the deaffiliation of a liberal strand of the party. See “Bolsonaro desiste do Patriota e acerta filiação ao PSL; partido racha e Livres abandona sigla” [Bolsonaro gives up the Patriot and agrees to join the PSL; Party split and Free Movement abandons acronym], Congresso em Foco, January 6, 2018, http://congressoemfoco.uol.com.br/noticias/bolsonaro-desiste-do-patriota-e-acerta-filiacao-ao-psl-partido-racha-e-livres-abandona-sigla/.
25 Some of the new conservative organizations, such as the Movimento Brasil Livre (Free Brazil Movement), are against Bolsonaro’s candidacy and have suggested alternative names.
26 Flávia Biroli, Gênero e Desigualdades: limites da democracia no Brasil [Gender and inequality: The limits of democracy in Brazil] (São Paulo: Boitempo, 2018): 193.