This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.

In 2016, Brazil made international headlines with protests that brought millions to the streets and contributed to ejecting then president Dilma Rousseff from power. But now, Brazil seems strangely quiet. There is a conspicuous absence of mass protest. This is certainly not because the country’s problems have been solved since the change of government—indeed, Brazil has continued to suffer a wave of corruption scandals.

A series of memes recently went viral on social media that reflected the eerie calm. One showed a calming drug being dropped in Brazilians’ coffee mugs, and another played on the Brazilian flag’s traditional phrase “Order and Progress” by changing it to “You are sleepy. Veeeeeery sleepy.” There is a widespread feeling that something about this quiet is not right.

Marisa von Bülow
Marisa von Bülow is a professor at the Political Science Institute of the University of Brasília, Brazil.

Of course, the absence of large-scale mobilization is not in itself problematic. Protests come and go in cycles. Civic activism is far from dead in Brazil, but it has taken a different form since the mass protests of 2016. This change in activism is troubling in the context of increasing dissatisfaction with the state of the country’s democracy.

Protest Stalls, Corruption Scandals Continue

The organizers of the anticorruption protests in 2015 and 2016 promised that they would first push out Rousseff and then go on to punish corrupt politicians. Yet, as soon as the new president, Michel Temer, took over in August 2016, the protests’ momentum evaporated. At the same time, the campaign to oust Temer was unable to unify the deeply divided Brazilian civil society. Likewise, the call for immediate general elections seemed to gain support but then sank into oblivion by mid-2017.

Meanwhile, the change of government has not generated political stability or curtailed the wave of corruption scandals. A number of political leaders linked to Temer have been imprisoned in relation to Operação Lava Jato—or Operation Car Wash—a corruption scandal that began with a money-laundering investigation and has revealed a wide-ranging corruption scheme involving numerous politicians and companies. Furthermore, last September, the then prosecutor general went as far as calling Temer the head of a criminal organization. And in addition to these charges, the president has been accused of obstructing justice.

Yet, the parliament has blocked a judicial procedure against the president. On October 25, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies voted against allowing the courts to investigate Temer and a group of key cabinet members for corruption. In Brazil, a sitting president can only be investigated if it’s authorized by two-thirds of the Chamber of Deputies authorizes. Temer has survived two such votes. Against expectations, he continues with his term, which is due to end in December 2018.

The context around the votes contrasted dramatically with key moments in the campaign against Rousseff in 2016. During that period, corruption was a driver of mass mobilization, and protestors traditionally gathered at the Brazilian National Congress. But on the days of the Temer votes, the lawn in front of the congress remained empty. Data on the protests organized between 2013 and 2016 show that almost 40 percent of the demonstrations focused on corruption scandals and on related calls for changes to the electoral law.1 Now, the empty space in front of the congress seems to indicate public apathy in the face of corruption scandals that implicate the highest echelons of political power.

Declining Support for Democracy

For at least some of its participants, the campaign to impeach Dilma Rousseff left a bitter aftertaste. Current public opinion polls show that only 3 percent approve of the Temer government, and 59 percent think that Rousseff’s government was better than the current one.

On the other side of the conflict, those who mobilized against Rousseff’s impeachment also emerged from the process with profound misgivings about Brazil’s democratic institutions. For them, Rousseff’s removal was not a positive example of the people’s power, so much as a coup carried out by part of Brazil’s elite—albeit one using parliamentary rather than military means.

Brazilians are becoming disillusioned, not just with particular politicians but also with the whole democratic system. Even before the impeachment, support for democracy among Brazilians had plummeted, falling a total of 22 percentage points between 2015 and 2016. In 2015, 54 percent of those interviewed agreed with the phrase “Democracy is preferable to any other form of government,” while only 32 percent answered the same way in 2016. Although declining support for democracy has been a general trend throughout Latin America, Brazil is the country where support has declined the most. This data should be analyzed with care because it reflects the general mood of the country at a specific moment: right before the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff. The impeachment was a polarizing process that divided Brazil and generated great uncertainty, culminating with her removal in August 2016.

Nevertheless, the figures raise serious concerns about the future of the country’s democracy. As parliament has prevented action against the deeply unpopular Michel Temer, people’s faith in Brazil’s democratic institutions has seemed to wane even further. This stonewalling has helped empower authoritarian voices. Recent polls for the 2018 presidential elections put a former military officer—Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who has defended the role of the military during the 1964–1985 dictatorship—in second place, behind former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. And last September, an army general openly advocated for a military intervention to counteract what he saw as the moral deterioration of Brazil’s democratic institutions.

A Shift in Activism

Declining faith in democratic institutions and the absence of mass protests does not imply complete apathy. Civic activism has not died in Brazil, but it has changed. For different reasons, the civil society organizations that called for demonstrations against and in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment in 2016 no longer focus on taking to the streets. Rather, they are organizing two types of lower-level, targeted campaigns.

The first of these are so-called moral panic campaigns. For some of the more conservative actors that assembled in favor of Rousseff’s impeachment, the goals of activism have changed. With the enemy Workers’ Party (led by Lula and then Rousseff) no longer in power, these conservatives have shifted from large-scale anticorruption protests to targeted campaigns around moral issues. These moral panic campaigns demonstrate the strong mobilization capacity of a network that brings together right-wing youth groups with conservative religious actors.

The concept of moral panic was coined by sociologists in the 1970s to analyze social anxieties and insecurities that are disproportionate and volatile—hence “panic.”2 LGBT and feminist activists also use the term to denounce conservative actors’ strategic use of moral issues to whip up hysteria, fear, and intolerance.

Between August and October 2017, a network of conservative Brazilian civil society organizations, political leaders, religious actors, and bloggers called for the cancellation of the Queermuseu (Queer Museum) art exhibition at a private cultural center in the southern city of Porto Alegre. This exhibition displayed 263 works of art by well-known Brazilian painters, such as Cândido Portinari.

The campaign accused the artists and organizers of the exhibition of promoting blasphemy, pedophilia, and bestiality, and of representing an attack on Christian values. Furthermore, because funding for this exhibition was tax deductible, the conservative actors accused its promoters of using public money to do so. The campaign used a broad repertoire of tactics, including protests at the doors of the cultural center as well as a carefully orchestrated online campaign in which videos, memes, and posts were shared by millions of social media users.

Less than a month after its inauguration, the exhibition was canceled. Since then, other moral panic campaigns have been waged, all of which have seen activists mobilize around supposed moral attacks on society. This type of activism is clearly on the rise in Brazil.

The second campaign type can be termed defensive activism. This has taken root among sections of the left that opposed Rousseff’s impeachment. They have focused on internal processes of reorganization, while at the same time waging defensive campaigns around specific issues. These efforts bring together a wide array of actors that go beyond the boundaries of the left.

A good example of defensive activism is the campaign against a presidential decree that reduced the scope of what could be considered slavery and weakened the ability of inspectors to crack down on forced labor. The decree was a long-standing demand by the landowners that hold a large number of seats in congress, and was issued in the context of debates concerning Temer’s alleged criminal actions.

A heterogeneous group of actors launched a campaign to overturn the decree. This mobilized human rights activists, rural social movements, artists, labor inspectors, and even some members of the Temer administration. As in the case of the moral panic campaigns, a broad array of tactics was deployed: online videos and posts, and offline actions such as a strike by labor inspectors. Temer’s government relented—but only when the Brazilian Supreme Federal Court suspended the presidential decree.

Other examples of defensive campaigns include a revolt against the government’s proposal to change rules for mining in the Amazon region—a decree that has also been suspended—and a pension fund reform proposal that has yet to be voted on by congress.

Despite the absence of mass protests aiming to hold the Temer administration to account, activists are still ready to mobilize to defend specific rights.

An Uncertain Future

These campaigns show that activism may be less visible but is not dormant. However, such activism is not necessarily conducive to democratic deliberation. As the example of Queer Museum shows, it can lead to more polarization and less tolerance.

What is more, Congress’s decision not to allow an investigation into Temer’s alleged corruption is dangerous. It further undermines citizens’ trust in politics and political institutions.

The challenge is to convince people who mobilized in the past but are now deeply frustrated with the Brazilian political system that a solution for the unending political crisis can and must be found through democratic means.

Marisa von Bülow is a professor at the Political Science Institute of the University of Brasília, Brazil. She is a member of the Carnegie Endowment’s Civic Research Network.


1 Andreia Galvão and Luciana Tatagiba, “Análise do confronto político no Brasil (2011-2016)” (paper presented at the 9th Meeting of the Latin American Political Science Association [ALACIP], Montevideo, July 26–28, 2017).

2 For example, Stanley Cohen, Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers (London/NY: Routledge, 2002).