- Paradoxes of Democracy and Citizenship in Brazil
Democracy in Brazil has now endured for more than a quarter century. It is solid and mature, with several presidential successions and no extraconstitutional threats to the regime; suffrage is universal; and political institutions function as well as they ever have. Yet nettlesome questions about the quality of Brazil’s democracy remain. Brazil has long been known as a “democracy with adjectives,” in no small part because of its elitist qualities, most notably, the inequality of economic advantage, life’s chances, and access to law and justice.1 Even today, as Brazil leads South America’s democracies on the world stage in international politics and trade negotiations, and as economic stability and growth have brought greater social progress in the past fifteen years than at any time in Brazil’s history, its democracy engenders deep ambivalence among scholars and citizens, principally because of the apparent inability to escape the weighty legacy of unequal citizenship. [End Page 216]
Brazil is not unique in its inability to guarantee T. H. Marshall’s famous trilogy of civil, political, and social rights.2 Demands for social rights have almost everywhere far outstripped the responses of governments to deliver them. Less commonly, in Brazil, not only has the long road to securing the rights of citizenship traveled by every modern democracy been blocked and even plagued by reversals, with repeated lapses into authoritarianism and restricted democracies violating the elemental political rights of citizenship, but also it has been marked by a high degree of unevenness. Income inequality, which long defined voting rights and workplace protection, still differentiates legal rights, property rights, and even personal security. Citizenship has expanded, but not for everyone—at least not the same citizenship. Even in a continent with a legacy of grotesque inequality, perhaps in no country have rights been so unequally distributed, conceded in such an out-of-sequence patchwork, and so contested in the daily struggles of ordinary people and in large-scale and sustained mobilization as in Brazil.
The debate about the performance of Brazil’s democracy, and even whether citizenship is deepening or remains deeply flawed, has heretofore stalled, as Peter R. Kingstone and Timothy J. Power rightly point out, because answers have all too often depended on who presents them and what the presenters are looking at: rising growth rates and institutional performance or limited progressive reform and degenerating public security. More subtly, improving outputs for citizens buoy some scholars, whereas others decry the continuing poverty of citizenship, which makes any gains for the poor only tenuous at best. The debate also hinges on where one looks—at the halls of Congress and the Supreme Court or at the neighborhood councils, police precincts, and land courts that constitute spaces of civic and political engagement, where everyday battles to extend and deepen rights and citizenship are fought, as Alberto Carlos Almeida pithily puts it, “on the 364 days a year when citizens are not voters” (Kingstone and Power, 233).
An impressive collection of recent books opens a remarkable window onto Brazil’s march along multiple avenues toward a genuinely democratic society and polity in the late twentieth and early twenty...