Who Is Protesting in Brazil?

In the wake of protests against Dilma Rousseff in Brazil this past Sunday, Carta Capital has published its initial findings on who the protesters were in São Paulo (where the biggest gathering – around 135,000 in a city of 22 million – gathered). Among the conclusions:

  • 57.3% were men
  • 73.6% were white
  • 59.2% were between the ages of 30 and 6o
  • 65.4% had a “high level of schooling” (completed university education)
  • 70.9% had a monthly income greater than 3,940 Reais (US$1,133)

The findings reveal the elitist nature of the protests. The income of the average protester was remarkably high – nearly triple what the state’s average income is – 1,432 Reais (US$411). And it’s worth remembering that São Paulo is one of the wealthiest states in the country, with an average monthly income far above the average income in poorer states like Maranhão (R$461/month; US$133) or Alagoas (R$604/month; US$175). Additionally, the educational levels (65%) are remarkably high in a state where in the 2010 census only 12% (4 million out of 34 million people) had a college degree. And again, it is worth noting here that, as with income, the number of people with access to higher education in São Paulo is much higher than elsewhere in the country. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the educational level is not a reflector of intelligence, but of class; to have access to higher education, one must either attend a private high school and pay for preparatory classes in order to make it into the free public educational system, or have the income to be able to afford private higher education. (And this is to say nothing of the need to complete high school, instead of leaving to work to help support your family). Finally, as I noted yesterday, men dominate the political institutions in Brazil, and the same applies to the protests in São Paulo (though not nearly at the disproportionate levels of Congress). All of this helps to explain the conservative (and periodically reactionary and authoritarian) nature of the protests in São Paulo, further shedding light on how the protests were by and large not about corruption, but about partisanship. The PT has helped social groups from the poorer and parts of the middle classes, and regions like the traditionally poor northeast, neither of which were represented in wealthy, white, educated people in São Paulo.

Meanwhile, for a point of comparison, the Universidade Vila Velha of Espírito Santo published a study of who took to the streets in the state capital of Espírito Santo (bordering Rio de Janeiro state). The results were strikingly similar:

  • Well over 50% of the protesters were men
  • 31% were over 50 years old, and another 37% were between the ages of 30 and 50
  • 61% of the monthly family incomes (total income of all wage-earning family members) were over R$4000/month (and 35% were over R$8000/month)
  • 29% had completed university, and another 28% held graduate degrees (in a state where only 8.3% – 250,00 out of 3,000,000 people – have a college degree)
  • 62.6% took to the streets over “Insatisfaction with the government/corruption,” while another 24% openly admitted their cause was “Against the Workers Party/in favor of impeachment,” while only 0.27% said it was for “rejection of the political system”
  • Curiously, while 73% said that “Democracy is always the best form of government,” 58% were also either “Unsatisfied” or “Very unsatisfied” with democracy in Brazil
  • 43% classified the PT as “Extreme Left
  • 14% were “Totally favorable” to “the possible return of the military to power,” while another 23.5% were “Favorable under certain circumstances” and 5% were “Indifferent” (9.5% were “Opposed under certain circumstances,” and 47% were “Totally against” military rule)
  • 58% disagreed partially or totally with racial quotas for higher education; 48% were against the legalization of abortion; 64% were in favor of lowering the legal age of adulthood from 18 to 16; and 62% were opposed to the legalization of drugs
  • Over 71% are in favor of impeachment, 20% for resignation, and only 5% favored Dilma completing her term [more specifically, the breakdown is as follows: 55.5% believe the best solution is the impeachment of Dilma and the conducting of new elections;  9.5% believe the best solution is for Dilma to be impeached, and for Aécio Neves (who lost the 2014 election to Dilma) to be made president; 6.5% favored Dilma’s impeachment and the assumption of Vice President Michel Temer to office; and 20% favored Dilma’s resignation]
  • 63% voted for Neves in the first round of the 2014 elections, and 82% voted for him in the second round; only 2% voted for Dilma in the first round, and 2.7% voted for her in the second round

What these results show are that the political and social conservatism in São Paulo were not necessarily exceptional. Indeed, the results from Espírito Santo back up the elitist nature of the protests, even while demonstrating how conservative the protesters by and large were (suffice to say, the PT, while left-leaning in some social policies, is certainly not the “extreme left” by any reasonable metric of the political spectrum). Ultimately, then, while the partisanship of the protests this past Sunday (and earlier in 2015) is not a major secret, these studies have helped shed light on the particularities of conservative mobilization and partisan protest in Brazil this year.

For those interested, educational data for Brazil by state can be found here (in Portuguese).

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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2 Responses to Who Is Protesting in Brazil?

  1. tropicalsmog says:

    I have trouble understanding the reasoning behind the argument that the protestors represent the elite. Is it to imply that it’s only the elite who feel dissatisfaction with Dilma and the PT? Because Dilma’s <10 percent approval rating suggests otherwise. I do believe that the problems Brazil is facing is not solely because of the PT and Dilma, but nonetheless, everyone, independent of economic status or color, are negatively affected by corruption.

  2. You are right about corruption affecting everyone, and the discontent with the current situation in Brazil transcends class. I think the distinction here, though, is that while most Brazilians are dissatisfied, those taking to the streets to demand Dilma’s resignation are elite (and partisan). Put another way, disapproving of the current situation is one thing; taking to the streets to demand only the resignation of the President (who, it cannot be said enough times, has not been directly tied to corruption) is another. And the two do not have to overlap. So while most Brazilians are upset, those in the streets demanding the removal of one figure tend to represent primarily elite backgrounds socioeconomically and culturally.

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