On Protests and Unity


Do people understand what politics is or how it works? When I see talk about how divisive politics has become or how bad we’ve gotten at listening to and respecting the other side, it makes me wonder.

The New York Times has an odd article called, “Are Liberals Helping Trump?” that features a handful of Trump supporters, who are put off by “Protests and righteous indignation on social media and in Hollywood” against Trump. The article ponders the lost opportunity.

One of the Trump supporters is described as “a small-business owner in South Carolina, [who] voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican.” The man “should be a natural ally for liberals” if only he weren’t “feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority”. Another compares being a Trump supporter in today’s political climate to being gay in the 50s.

But should we really be shocked that a self-declared conservative is treated by liberal friends and acquaintances as though he “took sides”? Would a softer touch really turn another Trump voter who thinks protests are “destroying the country” and activists are worse than “Islamic terrorists”?  Maybe what’s shocking is that somebody would consider them natural allies of liberalism in the first place.

There’s a revealing passage in the middle of the article: “if political action is meant to persuade people that Mr. Trump is bad for the country, then people on the fence would seem a logical place to start. Yet many seemingly persuadable conservatives say that liberals are burning bridges rather than building them.”  Underlying this peculiar notion of who is “on the fence” is the erroneous assumption that the central work of politics is persuading the other side, that political victories are predominantly the fruit of dispassionate debates and expressions of unity.

This would make sense if every action a politician or bureaucrat took was a direct response to the will of their constituents, but even assuming the Platonic ideal of a responsive politician, who exactly are their constituents and how would they know their will? Moreover, how do these constituents even find each other to come together and guarantee their will is heard? A debate can’t fix a logistics problem. A vote doesn’t oblige a legislator to act.

Moral exhortations and protests aren’t supposed to change the hearts and minds of the other side — protestors didn’t flock to airports to sell wavering Trump supporters on rejecting the Muslim travel ban. Instead they’re supposed to pressure people in power to stop posturing and do something and to identify and embolden political allies.

The protests are also a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the President that Trump’s supporters chose, an attempt to wrest political power from them, to weaken and demoralize their political ideals. There is no pleasant way to do this. As the article goes on to say,“…for many Trump voters, even peaceful protests are unsettling.” But how else could it be? Should the opposition give Trump voters a hug and treat them to ice cream as they try to defeat everything they stand for?

Now obviously protests and political criticism aren’t enough to win elections. Nobody is arguing they are. A positive vision for the future also has to be developed that can attract some of the people who voted for Trump or who didn’t vote at all, a vision that concretely shows how they too will benefit. But not all political power is derived from elections. And elections are won with more than just personalized sales pitches and measured debates. They’re won in part because of existing political alliances and the logistical infrastructure they produced, alliances and infrastructure that formed and solidified through other political actions, such as… well, you get the idea.

There’s an appealing narrative out there that because Trump is so extreme, liberals and so called reasonable conservatives will have to set aside their differences and work together to defeat him. It’s cute, but one has to wonder what that would actually look like. Coalition building requires more than just recognition that the present is bad. What issue do the defenders of national unity imagine could bring together, for example, a white Evangelical small-business owner from the Midwest, a white Silicon Valley tech engineer, a white Wall Street banker and a minority fast food worker from Atlanta? Fake news? Sexism? Racism? Ties to Putin? Civic norms? Realistically somebody is going to have to be left out if common ground is to be reached.

Politics is definitionally divisive. It’s the contest of irreconcilable moral visions for how society should be organized and whom it should benefit. This is bound to be uncomfortable.

Yet the article would blame these divisions on something called “moral Bolshevism” or “the belief that the liberal vision for the country was the only right one”. It’s hard to know what to make of the notion that belief in a political vision makes one a Bolshevik. What kind of confused take on the world assumes that liberals (who are apparently communists?) are the only people who think themselves right?

I guess we’re supposed to conclude that having a political view and taking it seriously is bad, that is unless it’s really the views themselves we’re supposed to have a problem with and not how they’re being expressed.

A Quick Guide to the Brazilian Protests of 3/13 using Images Shared on Facebook

You are what you share.

A lot of people went to protests against corruption in Brazil this past Sunday
Av. Paulista, São Paulo’s main artery
A big question is who went and why

Supporters of the protests argued they were a legitimate expression of the Brazilian people’s frustration with government corruption. Opponents criticized the protests, claiming they were were overrepresented by a white economic elite more interested in advancing their own political interests than seriously combating corruption.

Some protestors were in fact from the elite
Vice-President of Finances for popular Rio de Janeiro soccer club Flamengo, Claudio Pracownik, accompanies his wife in protests, while a uniformed nanny pushes their children.
Iate Fora Dilma
Caption reads: Protestors go to the streets to protest against Dilma government. Banner reads: Dilma out!
Though this wasn’t necessarily representative of all present

Man carrying cart with children

Some protestors were less concerned with corruption than with what Brazil could become
Menos Venezuela, Mais Argentina
Sign reads: Less Venezuela, More Argentina!! (Brazil’s neighbor to the South recently voted the right-wing Macri into power)
Or with how much of their money was going to the government
Sonegar e legitima defesa
Sign reads: Tax evasion is self-defense!
Or with whom this was benefiting
A Dilma nao foi eleita por pessoas que leem jornais

Shirt reads: Dilma wasn’t elected by the people who read newspapers, but by the people who clean themselves with them. Dilma Out
Or with food?
+ Coxinha - Acaraje.jpg
Coxinha is a fried food typical of São Paulo; acarajé is a fried food typical of the Northeast of the country. This could refer to a Federal investigation of former President Lula for corruption and/or be a swipe against the economically poorer Northeasterners who traditionally make up the PT’s base.
Or with, well… ???
Inconfidente Brasil
Really not sure about the reference. Historical hero Tiradentes? It should be mentioned the homeless are sometimes found murdered in Brazil.
Some were just feeling nostalgic
Porque nao mataram todos
Sign reads: Why didn’t they kill everyone in 1964? (A reference to the coup d’etat that brought a right-wing military dictatorship to power. Many members of the ruling PT had active roles in opposing the dictatorship.)
Main targets of the protests were current President Dilma, former President Lula and the leftist Worker’s Party (PT).
Fora Eu.png
A man dressed as Dilma. Sign reads: Me out
De Grades Abertas
Sign reads: [the city of] Curitiba welcomes Lula with open bars
Aceitamos cartoes.jpg
Inflatable dolls of Dilma and Lula. Banner reads: We accept cards
Main sign reads: PT: Father of Aedes aegyPTi (the main mosquito vector for the Zika virus)
The opposition party didn’t come out unscathed

Governor of Sao Paulo Geraldo Alckmin and Senator of Minas Gerais Aécio Neves, both former presidential candidates from the right of center Social-Democratic Party of Brazil (PSDB), were booed when attempting to participate in the protests, protests which they themselves had supported. Both have been accused of corruption.

Alckmin e Aecio Hostilizados.png
Heading reads: Harassed by protestors, Aécio and Alckmin stay just half an hour on the Paulista
They’re a protest movement in search of a hero. But who do you turn to when everybody is corrupt?
Queremos os Corruptos na Cadeia do PT, PSDP, PQP

Sign one reads: We want all corrupt politicians in jail, from the PT, PSDP, PP or PQP (Wherever the hell they’re from)! Sign two reads: Cunha (the opposition President of the Chamber of Deputies from the PMDB also accused of corruption), we haven’t forgot about you!
A judge?
Super Moro
The first inflatable doll is of Sérgio Moro, the Federal judge leading the current round of corruption investigations.
The police?
Thank you, Federal Police
Shirt reads: Thank you, Federal Police (responsible for investigating corruption)!
The far right?
Jaraleco, bolsanaro, Olavo.jpg
The hashtags on the sign in front say: Olavo (a fringe political writer) is right and Bolsonaro 2018 [for president] (an extremist Deputy for the PP, recently interviewed by Ellen Paige)
The military?
Military Intervention
The sign reads: Military intervention now!! Brazil demands: Order and Progress!!
Donald Trump?

Trump help us

A fast food chain and an Austrian school of economics?
Habib's & Austrians.jpg
Habib’s, a Middle Eastern-style fast food chain, launched a campaign encouraging people to protest.
The Power Rangers?
Power Rangers.png
Sign reads: Heroes against Corruption

Final Thoughts:

More than anything, Sunday’s protests highlighted an underlying trend of increased polarization and mistrust in Brazilian politics. A deteriorating economy and a weakened central government can’t be helping. Those who attended the protests, mostly people from the right, view supporters of the government as good-for-nothing mooching hypocrites who will support the PT’s crimes as long as they get welfare benefits, without any concern for the way the party is apparently driving the country to economic ruin. Meanwhile those who objected to the protests view the opposition as elitist/racist/sexist/paternalistic/etc. hypocrites, uncomfortable with the social changes that the PT has brought about in recent year and unaware or uninterested in the harsh reality of Brazil for the most vulnerable sectors of the country’s population. Both sides are haunted by ghosts: the left by memories of a military dictatorship that only ended 31 years ago and the right by fears of a Castro-style Communist takeover.

The protests also brought out two less-talked-about protagonists: a far right mistrustful of both the mainstream center-right political elite and the center-right mainstream media and an ideologically-unfixed middle mistrustful of politics in general, who only want to see lawbreakers punished and have somewhere to direct their anger. The direction this middle swings the next few years could determine the shape of Brazil’s political landscape.

A few questions remain: How serious of a problem actually is corruption in Brazil relative to other issues like poverty, education and violence? Can it be fought against in a bipartisan fashion? If not, should it be combatted in a partisan fashion regardless?

They are especially important in a political climate where plausibly denying the implications of one’s beliefs takes precedence over responsible coalition building.


Were there any images that I missed? Feel free to share with me in the comments.

Also for an article I did on a different kind of Brazilian protest from 2013, see here.