This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
Americans watching events unfold in Brazil last Sunday could be forgiven for experiencing an unsettling feeling of déjà vu. We’ve recently seen supporters of an electorally defeated president violently storm government buildings while demanding that legitimate election results be overturned. The events of January 8, 2023 in Brasília had so many parallels to the events of January 6, 2021 in Washington, D.C. that the comparison was practically cliché before the rioters had even been cleared out by law enforcement.
Both shocking events were deplorable; political violence has no place whatsoever in a healthy democracy. But — as far as we know at this point — the two events are different in ways that are crucial to acknowledge.
Brazil experienced a dangerous and lawless demonstration of political rage this week. It may even have been a quixotic attempt to provoke a military intervention and suspend democracy altogether. But unlike January 6, it was not a coordinated effort to block a constitutional transfer of power before it could take place. Conflating this week’s events in Brazil with January 6 deprives Americans of the chance to learn important lessons as we look ahead to the 2024 election in the U.S..
Ahead of Brazil’s recent election, plenty of analysts feared incumbent Jair Bolsonaro would try to subvert a transition. Events had seemingly followed the 2020 American script to a tee, from the deeply polarized electorate to an incumbent president who had routinely challenged democratic norms. Like Donald Trump, Bolsonaro had cast doubt on the legitimacy of basic aspects of election administration and a system of voting that experts widely insisted was secure, and had whipped his supporters into a misinformed belief that the only possible explanation for a loss at the polls would be fraud.
If his campaign promises and the Trump 2020 playbook were any guide, we would’ve expected to see Bolsonaro loudly crying foul-play after Election Day and challenging the election results with everything in his arsenal. But he didn’t, even as his supporters blocked highways around the country and forcefully protested the results. The transition went forward and the widely feared assault on the constitutional process never materialized.
Why didn’t this happen?
A number of vital factors contributed to Brazil’s ability to successfully avoid a true January 6, some of which already have parallels in the U.S. Like in the U.S., the courts ruled in favor of democracy at key junctures. The Brazilian Supreme Court has issued rulings framed as favorable to the democratic process — if sometimes controversial — including attempting to rein in misinformation during the campaign. The Supreme Court is now allowing prosecutors to investigate Bolsonaro himself for incitement in connection with the January 8 riots.
Moreover — despite some protesters’ calls for intervention — the military remained on the sidelines. Though Bolsonaro had extensively cultivated good relations with the military, its leaders signaled their belief in the electoral process and the military participated in pre-election tests confirming the reliability and security of Brazil’s voting system.
Such factors in Brazil should serve to remind Americans how important it is to protect and defend similar features of our own democracy, including preserving the independence of the courts and ensuring that no future effort to politicize the American military is ever successful
But there is another important reason that Brazil avoided its own actual January 6 — one from which Americans can learn. Unlike in the U.S., major political allies of Bolsonaro acknowledged his opponent’s win right out of the gate and spoke out quickly in support of democracy. This included both elected officials and Bolsonaro supporters such as Evangelical Christian leaders, whose followers made up an important part of his base. They did not wait for Bolsonaro to challenge the results, but acknowledged the loss quickly. This was helped by Brazil’s election system, which produces results rapidly, leaving far less time for anyone to prime the conspiracy-theory machine. Additionally, many of Bolsonaro’s allies won their own elections, and they seemed to demonstrate an awareness that his rejection of the results might have called their own wins into question. They have continued to keep their distance since the election.
The U.S. should pay attention. Brazil has shown that political leaders of conscience — or at least pragmatism — actually can avoid twisting themselves into pretzels to accommodate an unwilling-to-concede leader. But they have to speak out in favor of democracy early, before any politician has an opportunity to set a self-serving narrative. Decoupling their political fates from any one individual makes this much easier.
But in the American system, that can’t be done overnight. The 2022 midterms were an important step in the right direction, with relatively few baseless challenges to the results. The U.S. will soon turn its attention towards the 2024 election cycle. Aspiring candidates for non-presidential offices would be wise to take this lesson from their Brazilian counterparts now, and consider how they might begin to put a metaphorical down payment on having politically viable choices 23 months from now.
Any episode of political violence damages the health of democracy, regardless of whether it succeeds in achieving its stated goals or overturning an election. Brazil will undoubtedly have to reckon with the effects of this week’s violence, just as the U.S. continues to reckon with the effects of January 6.
But as the U.S. navigates its own path through the world’s current democratic recession, we should look for good news and actionable lessons wherever we can. Just a few months ago, Brazil avoided what looked almost sure to be a constitutional crisis. We should not forget that, or what made it possible.