By: Rachael Andrews

The popularity of far-right candidates in democratic elections is growing worldwide. Mollie Cohen, assistant professor of international affairs, is shedding light on the phenomena through an exploration of the most recent presidential election in Brazil.   

In a recently published article in Research & Politics, Dr. Cohen and her co-authors studied the rise of the far-right in the 2018 presidential election in Brazil, specifically right-wing candidate and now president, Jair Bolsonaro.

“Leading up to this election in 2018, we were really interested in what would happen with Bolsonaro,” Cohen explains. “After the election, we wanted to unpack who had voted for him, and why he had won.” 

Prior to the 2018 election, Jair Bolsonaro embodied several traits of a stereotypical right-wing authoritarian: he encouraged violence on his political opponents, used misogynistic and racist rhetoric on the campaign trail, and praised the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985. 

Presumably, his chances of winning were low, yet he rose to the top, ultimately winning 55% of the vote against Fernando Haddad from the Workers’ Party, which had long dominated the political landscape of Brazil.

Cohen and her co-authors found some evidence that the results of the 2018 election were a rejection of the Workers’ Party, which had overseen years of corruption, but mostly, they saw the emergence of a phenomenon called “demographic polarization”.

“We find that there are a lot of other features that drove their vote choice,” Cohen explains. “A lot of this has to do with what we call ‘demographic polarization’ which, previously, we did not find evidence for prior to 2018 in Brazil.”

Demographic polarization is also referred to as ‘culture war politics,’ or when individuals’ preferences are organized and divided by their demographic identity (i.e., their religion, gender, racial identity). “In the US, we’ve had demographic polarization for many years,” Cohen says. “Starting around the 1960s, it’s been a driving force in American politics, but in Brazil, prior to 2018, there is very little evidence for demographic polarization – voting behavior reflected things like class issues or the economy.”

The researchers ran an original five-wave online panel survey, where they contacted survey participants in July of 2018, before there were any official candidates, and then repeatedly contacted the same respondents every couple of months until January 2019, after Bolsonaro was elected. They followed the same voters’ attitudes throughout the election process and how they might have been impacted by campaign rhetoric.

Based on the data from this project, Cohen and her co-authors were able to draw some applicable lessons for other parts of the world. It has previously been argued that, in the cases of the US and Europe, people who have previously been polarized based on aspects of their identity – socioeconomic class, religion, gender, racial identity – are already poised to vote for certain candidates.

“What we find in Brazil is that troublingly, just the presence of the authoritarian rhetoric can lead to that demographic polarization over a very short period of time,” Cohen explains. “It can create these new fissures in politics.” 

However, Cohen notes, there is still much research to be done on the circumstances under which this polarization can hold. 

Cohen asks, “Is it the case that Brazilian politics specifically was ripe for this, or is it that in any country given the right socioeconomic and political circumstances, authoritarian/far right candidates can emerge and can win by dividing the population along demographic cleavages?” 

This project offers the opportunity to look at other long-term issues, specifically, the impact of candidates like Bolsonaro on voters’ attitudes toward authoritarian candidates, and how that in turn may impact democracy in the long term.

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