Shifting Political Orders: “Post-Truth Politics” in the U.K., U.S., and Brazil

By Tito Carvalho

As the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and the United States elected President Donald Trump, Brazil partook in its own major political event with the impeachment of President Dilma Rouseff after fourteen years of rule by her Workers Party. But while the U.K. and U.S. cases have been seen as victories of right wing populists over liberal technocratic elites, the Brazilian case has been seen as the demise of a left populist government before its center-right opposition. Despite these ostensive differences, the term “post-truth politics” has been deployed in all three circumstances. I propose that a comparison of these cases shows that this term, as any other, has no fixed meaning that is independent from the context in which it is used. Instead of attempting to define “post-truth politics” once and for all, I argue that we are better off contending with it as a useful marker of shifting political orders.

On November 16, 2016, The Oxford Dictionary named “post-truth” its word of the year. It defined the term as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” However, in the largest country of the Lusophone world, wherein “post-truth politics” has been literally translated as “política da pós-verdade”, this definition does not quite apply. Deployed by Brazilian pundits (see below) and politicians, (e.g., Congressman Jean Wyllys, of the Party of Socialism and Freedom), the notion of “política da pós-verdade” has meant something other than appeals to emotion and personal belief to counter objective facts. Rather, it has been used to question what those on the left see as a strategic assemblage of various facts by the center-right to engender the narrative that the Workers Party is simultaneously incompetent, corrupt, and idealistic, and to galvanize the urban middle class against the government. For example, as Bob Fernandes, a Brazilian political commentator, has said, post-truth is when opposition leaders are interviewed about corruption accusations made against members of the Workers Party without being questioned about similar accusations made against themselves. Or, as Thais Herédia, an economic analyst, has written, post-truth is when the opposition makes different Gross Domestic Product projections before and after the impeachment. In other words, the phrase “post-truth politics” operates not on an objective-facts-versus-personal-beliefs axis, but rather is invoked to question what facts matter, how they are produced, selected, and curated, and by whom and for whom.

With Rouseff’s fall and the rise of Michel Temer, of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, Brazil’s government has returned to a technocratic, center-right coalition after a decade and a half of left populist administration. As democracy resumed in the mid 1980s, the early 1990s witnessed the ascent of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, a political and economic sociologist self-described as “an accidental President”. He had held elected office as Senator from 1983 to 1992, but his election for President in 1994, representing the centrist Brazilian Social Democracy Party, was mainly based on the success of his economic policies—implemented while he was Minister of Finance from 1993 to 1994—that stabilized the Brazilian economy. Cardoso thus enjoyed the status of a “technocrat” who had the knowhow to maintain economic stability. But despite generally positive views of his two terms, Cardoso failed to elect his successor, José Serra, as the Workers Party candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, won in a landslide in 2002.

An internal migrant who had fled the draught-stricken backlands of the Brazilian Northeast to the industries of São Paulo, Lula was a labor leader who highlighted Brazil’s abysmal socioeconomic inequality even as Cardoso stabilized the economy. Wealth redistribution and land reform were two of Lula’s main campaign promises. In turn, the prospect of Lula’s election alarmed the financial markets. Brazil’s currency fell sharply. And the risk premium on government bonds soared. However, the crisis was short-lived. Even as Lula implemented redistributive programs, including cash-handouts to families that met certain income and other criteria, he gave continuity to many of Cardoso’s policies. Lula easily won re-election in 2006, and where Cardoso had failed, he also elected his former Chief of Staff, Rouseff, as his successor in 2010, and again in 2014. The Workers Party also picked up many municipalities, governorships, state legislatures, and seats in Congress during the time. Towards the end of his administration, Lula’s popularity exceeded eighty-percent.

Fast-forward to Rouseff’s impeachment in August of 2016 and one might ask what happened. The answer, of course, will depend on who one asks. A lawyer might say that, technically, her impeachment case was based on budget mismanagement, and that no corruption charges were ever made against her. Ask any given pedestrian and chances are that she or he will nevertheless relate Rouseff’s collapse to the many and major corruption scandals unfolding in Brazil. Ask yet Rouseff’s successor, Temer, and he might candidly reply that she was impeached because the economy is in crisis and she did not support a package of austerity measures making the rounds in the Congress. (These measures have since been approved.)

In the months leading to Rouseff’s impeachment, Brazilians were flooded with news stories that ranged this gamut of topics: from minute technical details about the budget, to the latest developments in various corruption investigations against the government, to analyses of the economic downturn and the proposed austerity measures. On the defense, the Brazilian left accused the media and the center-right parties of having strategically mustered certain facts, and not others, to craft an anti-Workers Party narrative aimed primarily at the middle class. While this is hardly a novel counter-narrative, the left found a useful rhetorical device in the term “post-truth politics” that they imported from the Anglophone context. But as they adopted this phrase, they also changed its meaning, from “appeals to emotion and personal belief to counter objective facts,” to stressing how reality comes to be known from value-laden positions. This raises a provocative question: As we speak of a “post-truth” moment, what was there before? And if we understand this, what else can we understand?

Tito Carvalho is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology and science studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a visiting research fellow at the Program on Science, Technology & Society at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. His research is a history of the field of population genetics in post-World War Two Brazil.