Thomas Friedman has a piece in the New York Times today that tries to explain why people have taken to the streets in a number of countries (including the US, visible in Tea Party rallies; why he disregards the recent Occupy movement is unclear). In the editorial, he looks at a number of countries to try to find some broad explanations, with his focus falling mostly on Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and…Brazil. The only problem is, most of what Friedman says about these movements macropolitically does not apply to Brazil, making his inclusion of it at best feel forced, and at worst, revealing a superficial and incomplete understanding of the actual events in Brazil.
The inapplicability of Brazil to his model is evident right off the bat. In the opening paragraph, he implies that Brazil and Turkey are comparable due to the fact people are in the streets in both. Yes, that much is true; both Brazil and Turkey have seen popular demonstrations lately. But, Friedman extends this comparison, implying that there are similarities in democracy in Turkey in Brazil. The only problem is that Turkey is effectively being governed via majoritarian democracy – in which Erdogan’s government has basically taken the position of, “you voted for us, you have to deal with us for the next 4 years without a peep.” Suffice to say, this has certainly not been the case in Brazil, where, in the wake of demonstrations, President Rousseff has met with leaders of marches, congress has passed laws increasing education spending while (at least temporarily) rejecting impunity, and mayors and governors have announced public transportation fare reductions. All of these actions are in response to some of the demands of the people in these demonstrations and demonstrate that democracy in Brazil has been anything but majoritarian.
This majoritarian model of democracy is one of the three factors that Friedman sees a “convergence” of in the countries that have witnessed popular demonstrations recently. Alongside the arrogance of majoritarian democracy, the two other factors are the middle class being “squeezed” and the proliferation of smart phones. The only problem is, most of Friedman’s examples and analyses, including and extending beyond his consideration of majoritarian democracy, don’t apply to Brazil.
Yes, people are tired of a sense of corruption among politicians who seem disconnected from their electorate, voting on issues that are irrelevant (or even offensive) to a majority of Brazilians while failing to address some of the issues that confront millions of Brazilians, including grossly unequal wage gaps, economic policy, or education. Again, Friedman points to majoritarianism to explain this, but it’s not an accident that he fails to really mention Brazil, where parliamentary presidentialism has not led either to “ignoring the opposition” or to the government “choking the news media” (even though the media has been vociferously and oftentimes unfairly critical of the government, especially under the PT administrations of Lula and Dilma).
Likewise, the criticism that the middle class is “squeezed” isn’t really applicable to Brazil. Indeed, Brazil has been enjoying near-record low unemployment rates, and with programs like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero, as well as social policies like affirmative action for university education, the social safety net has actually expanded in the last ten years or so. In Brazil, it’s not that the middle class are being “squeezed,” but that, if anything, the middle class has grown and believed the rhetoric, both from politicians and from domestic and foreign economic analysts alike, that Brazil was finally “making it” internationally. With the recent vulgar opulence of the World Cup on display, the resentment over how much more the middle class could have has erupted. In short, the recent boom in the middle class in Brazil has led to people to take to the streets to demand more from a system that pays hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to legal officials and spent billions on soccer stadiums instead of health care or education. This isn’t have-nots demanding from the haves, but rather, the increasingly-haves from those who have had even more for a longer time. In that regard, Brazil isn’t akin to Turkey or Russia or Egypt now, but to societies (including the US) who witness an increasingly mobilized middle class whose size has grown, and whose material expectations thus have also grown.
Even on his third “converging” factor, Friedman manages to be wrong while being right. Yes, the “proliferation” of smartphones has helped, but not in ways he implies. There have been smartphones in Brazil among middle class for at least 3 years, and that proliferation has filtered into the working classes as well. That proliferation does not explain why the demonstrations are only happening now. Additionally, most of the protests have not been “flash” protests in Brazil, but have been announced at least a day or two in advance (and even when not, spreading the message out through texting, which is not limited to smartphones, has been a means to mobilize the masses). The reason smartphones matter is that they allow people to repeatedly document multiple instances of police brutality, and as those images spread across the internet, more people angry at such vulgar displays of power take to the streets to speak out against the violence. Thus, smart phones are probably as useful, if not moreso, for actually making clear the brutal response to protests as they are to actually coordinating protests.
Additionally, these cases of police violence point to an issue that actually has been common throughout these countries, and one that Friedman actually overlooks: the overwhelming and disproportionate use of police force and security apparatuses against unarmed civilians. Indeed, if Friedman wanted to find a factor that could actually come close to bringing together the rapid growth in demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and elsewhere, the presence of a powerful and often repressive police force seems to be an obvious shared quality. Yet he opts instead for other factors that don’t relate to Brazil nearly as strongly.
I am not an expert in Turkey, Egypt, or Russia (though I imagine Friedman isn’t either), but it may be that his “three phenomena” hold for those particular cases. But again, including Brazil here doesn’t really work. Beyond the issue of public discontent over corruption (a discontent that knows no partisan lines), the case of demonstrations in Brazil recently are unique. Friedman’s efforts to pigeonhole Brazil via flawed comparisons with Turkey,Egypt, and elsewhere only reinforces the fact that, when it comes to contexts for mobilization, Brazil differs significantly from what has taken place in the Mediterranean.