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Why populists do not concede

Sep 29,2022 - Last updated at Sep 29,2022

PRINCETON  —  In the run-up to Brazil’s presidential election next month, President Jair Bolsonaro is crafting his own version of former US President Donald Trump’s “Big Lie”: the claim that a loss at the ballot box is fraudulent. Incumbents who adopt this tactic might simply refuse to concede, while still leaving quietly. Or, more dangerously, they can foment outrage and even incite violence by their supporters.

It is no surprise that Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics”, would emulate Trump in this respect. Trump has demonstrated how an electoral loser can remain a powerful, even domineering, force in a country’s politics. But accepting the results of elections is one of the most basic elements of democracy. If election denial is becoming a new global trend, we must ask why so many citizens would accept leaders who fraudulently cry “fraud”.

Bolsonaro is facing Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (better known as Lula), a left-wing former president who remains very popular, as demonstrated by his large and consistent lead in opinion polls. While the gap could still narrow, the far-right Bolsonaro is expected to lose. But he has spent years priming his supporters not to accept that outcome.

Most ominously, Bolsonaro has sown doubt about Brazil’s electronic voting system, which has been used since 2000 and is widely considered reliable and efficient. After the January 6, 2021, insurrection in Washington, DC, he warned, “If we don’t have the ballot printed in 2022, a way to audit the votes, we’re going to have bigger problems than the US.” His politician son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, has approvingly observed that if only the US Capitol insurrectionists had been better organised and armed, they would have succeeded.

In fact, populist losers are more likely than not to cry fraud, because the entire basis of their appeal lies in the claim that they, and only they, represent “the real people” (or “the silent majority”). It follows that all other contenders for power are corrupt, and that citizens who do not support the populist leader do not truly belong to the people at all and hence are not casting legitimate votes. Populism is not just about criticising elites (which is often justified). Rather, it is a fundamentally anti-pluralist stance: populists purport to be the uniquely authoritative voice of a completely homogeneous people that they themselves have conjured up.

According to this logic, if populists are the only authentic representatives of the people, an election loss must mean that someone (“liberal elites”) did something (“rigged the vote”) to thwart the will of the supposed majority. For example, after his party unexpectedly lost the 2002 general election, Hungary’s current prime minister, Viktor Orbán, claimed that “the homeland cannot be in opposition”. And after his failed bid for the Mexican presidency in 2006, Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announced that “the victory of the right is morally impossible”. After rallying “the real people” (that is, his own supporters) in the streets of Mexico City, he then declared himself the “legitimate president of Mexico”.

It is important to recognise how populist rhetoric erodes a country’s democratic political culture even when elections do not lead to January 6-style insurrections. Populist politicians are indoctrinating their supporters never to trust the system, and always to assume that elites are manipulating outcomes behind the scenes.

This is not to suggest that electoral laws and processes are above reproach. In the United States, especially, one can criticise everything from campaign-finance regulations to the practical difficulties citizens face when trying to vote, many of which are the result of laws intended to make voting more difficult. But there is a difference between criticising undemocratic features of the system and declaring the entire enterprise undemocratic simply because you lost. The former could well strengthen democracy, whereas the latter is intended only to undermine it.

Election denial becomes more likely when an electorate is polarised, because this creates opportunities for political entrepreneurs like Trump and Bolsonaro, neither of whom has ever been tethered to a political party. Bolsonaro has kept changing parties, and, for two years of his presidency, had no party at all; and while Trump now dominates the Republican Party, he has never shown any loyalty to it (he used to be a Democrat). Both men have built up cult-like followings through social media, thereby dispensing with the need for a proper party apparatus, which used to be essential for any serious political mobilisation.

Absent properly functioning parties, neither man faces anyone from the same political camp who can restrain him; and neither has an actual governing philosophy or policy program. Both essentially stand for endless, personality-led culture war; if they had a party programme they actually cared about, they might be willing to step aside for intraparty rivals more likely to win future elections and hence able to implement the programme.

Such figures can be expected to go for broke and deny what they know to be an actual loss. Far more consequential is how others act. Trump has succeeded in making endorsement of the Big Lie a litmus test for being a real Republican. Accordingly, a slew of Republican congressional, senatorial, and gubernatorial candidates refuse to say whether they will concede an election loss this November. In Brazil, Bolsonarismo remains a minority position; but its protagonist has been manoeuvreing to get the military on his side, and he enjoys significant support among the police.

What populists present as “the silent majority” is often a loud minority, as in the case of both Trumpists and Bolsonaristas. And while minorities have every right to make themselves heard, it is incumbent on the actual majority not to remain silent when a minority becomes anti-democratic and violent.


Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University, is the author, most recently, of Democracy Rules (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021; Allen Lane, 2021). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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