For anyone curious about the future of democracy, two developments from Brazil and Germany pose a certain mystery.
Jair Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil looks too much like the wave of anti-establishment right-wing populism sweeping Europe and the United States to be considered a coincidence. Mr Bolsonaro, known for praising his country’s former military dictatorship and insulting minorities and women, defended anger against the Brazilian establishment by promising a tough regime.
Stressing the sense of global change, hours after Mr Bolsonaro’s victory, Angela Merkel, Germany’s longtime Chancellor and pillar of European stability, announced that she would not stand for re-election.
Yet there is no obvious link between the rise of Mr. Bolsonaro and that of Western populists. Figures like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and German populist parties have risen up against the European Union and immigration, neither of which is a problem in Brazil. Mr. Bolsonaro has reacted against epidemics of corruption and crime that are distinctly Latin American.
Perhaps the election of Brazil, along with the rest of the populist trend, represents something more disruptive than a single wave with a single point of origin. Research suggests that it illustrates the weaknesses and tensions inherent in liberal democracy itself – and which, in times of stress, can shatter it.
When this happens, voters tend to reject this system in everything but name and follow their most basic human instincts towards the old styles of government: majority rule, strong, us versus them.
It’s a pattern that may sound shocking or new to the West, but is all too familiar in Latin America, which has seen several populist surges like the one that raised Mr. Bolsonaro.
“Most attempts at democracy end with a return to authoritarian rule”, Jay Ulfelder, political scientist, written in 2012 as elected populists in Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua rolled back rights in ways that seem familiar today.
At the time, most experts blamed issues specific to this region and at this time. But Mr Ulfelder replied: “I think we go much further if we see these regimes as the end state into which most attempts at democracy will slide. “
When democracy doesn’t work as we imagine it
There is a disconnect between how liberal democracy, which protects individual rights and the rule of law, is sold and how it works.
It is often described as a rule by the people. But, in practice, elections and public sentiment are only meant to be part of a system governed by institutions and norms that protect the common good.
This gap is often where the problems start.
When institutions fail, as they did in Brazil, voters can become skeptical of the very idea of increasing the power of failed bureaucrats and elites in ways that highlight the gap.
So voters are replacing institutions with a style of government that looks more like democracy than they imagined: direct government by the people.
This often means electing leaders like Mr. Bolsonaro, who promise to dismantle the establishment and rule by personal authority.
In practice, these leaders tend to consolidate power for themselves, as Silvio Berlusconi did after coming to power in Italy amid a wave of outrage at corruption. He took control of state bureaucracies, curbing their once promising progress, and replaced the old system of patronage with a new one loyal to him.
Defy the popular will
Sometimes an anti-establishment backlash comes when there really is a deep rot in the system, like in Brazil or Italy. But it can also happen when governments do things that are simply unpopular.
This is at the root of much of the instability in Europe, where leaders view euro area and immigration reforms as essential to Europe’s long-term survival.
But these measures are unpopular with voters, bringing a spark of awareness that the system is designed to, at times, ignore what they want.
No one wants to believe that their leaders are defying their wishes because a functioning democracy requires controls on public demand. It is easier to see these leaders as serving another invisible constituency.
It creates an opening for a savvy outsider to come to power by scapegoating foreign or wealthy interests – liberal philanthropist George Soros is a popular target – and by promising to restore the will of the people.
The European Union, which has never managed an identity that was not associated with bankers and technocrats, has been easily presented as the enemy of the popular will. The establishment parties, closely linked to this project, have collapsed.
In Latin America, institutional failures were more serious, with corruption rotting political parties. Voters were aware of this corruption because the justice systems had become strong enough to eradicate it.
A technocrat would say this shows the need for even stronger and more independent institutions. But to voters, it felt like an indictment of the whole system – a reason to tear it down and raise someone who could enforce order.
It’s not that different from what happened in the United States, where party officials have become seen as insensitive and beholden to financial interests. President Trump rose in part by claiming that his wealth had granted him independence – although in practice he held industry insiders accountable – and by promising policies that party leaders considered like too extreme.
Most cravings rule
Populist reactions, even if they focus on distant elites, tend to emerge as a desire for majority rule, which appears democratic to members of the majority – and, in some circumstances, as a matter of life and death.
Human beings are tribal by nature. Our instinct is to put our group first and see ourselves as competing with other groups. Liberal democracy, which promises that everyone wins when rights are protected for all, asks us to suppress these impulses.
But it is not an easy question. And tribal instincts tend to manifest in times of scarcity or insecurity, when our capacity for lofty ideals and long-range planning is weakest.
When people believe they are at risk of targeted violence, their sense of belonging to the community shrinks, according to search for Daphna Canetti-Nisim, political psychologist at the University of Maryland. They are increasingly in favor of minority control policies and less in favor of pluralism or democracy.
These impulses can be exploited.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s grisly campaign of state-sanctioned self-defense violence places his country’s problems on an unwanted social class – he says, a vast army of traffickers and drug users – and promises to control them through strength.
Mr Bolsonaro has pledged his own extrajudicial war on drugs.
Such tactics work best when rallying a majority group. Liberal democracy, despite all its protections for minorities, always delegates power through elections that favor whoever has the numbers.
In Europe and the United States, this has meant fostering a subtle but unmistakable feeling that white Christians are under siege. White voters have become more defensive of their whiteness and fear of minorities, prompting them to see democracy as a zero-sum fight.
A three country study led by Marta Marchlewska of the Polish Academy of Sciences, found that problems often start when members of a particular social group think their group is losing its status in relation to others.
This makes members of that group care much more about their group identity – and see people outside of it as threats.
This can lead to an us versus them policy, in which the ideals of liberal democracy resemble reckless surrender.
Liberal democracy is designed to flatten social hierarchies, making this kind of majority reaction almost inevitable.
It helped the Catholics in Poland, a once dominant group, to support a political party that had promised to overthrow the courts.
It may also have led white Europeans and Americans who feared losing what they saw as their special place in society to support populist leaders who vowed to control immigrants and minorities, and led Brazilians to the middle class to seek harsh policing of poor communities.
Liberal democracy comes with features such as independent courts and constitutional protections designed to control tribalist impulses and enforce equality.
But to people whose impulses are controlled, these characteristics can seem tyrannical. A populist’s promise to bring them down sounds like freedom, although that is rarely what it brings.
Researchers are still struggling to understand what will happen to democracy, whose growth stagnated more than a decade ago and may now decline.
Brazil hints at a possibility. The Latin American experience – with voters pulling their countries between periods of fuller democracy and strongman populist rule – may be the natural flaw. The West’s half-century of democratic stability may have been the exception, a by-product of Cold War power rivalries.
We have long thought that democracies in regions like Latin America or Southeast Asia would catch up with those in the West. And maybe they will. Or maybe we had it upside down all along.