The “Rationality of Fear” on the Edge of Brazilian Democracy: Another Shield Against Authoritarianism?

17 de agosto de 2020 Off Por Matheus Depieri

Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, University of Brasília and National Council for Scientific and Technological Development[1]

In a period of about two months, a series of protests in South America brought the region again into the spotlight. Except for the Bolivian case,[2] whose causes were mostly related to the presidential election process, the protests in ChileEcuador, and Colombia followed a pattern of dissatisfaction with austerity policies amid high levels of social inequality. In particular, the Chilean demonstrations called the international attention since it is deemed one of the most developed – though also unequal – countries in the region. The state reaction was also, even for regional standards, shocking: more than twenty people dead, over two thousand injured, many by gunshots. Military tanks were in the streets, a scene that reminded us of the Pinochet era and its remaining tentacles in modern Chile. Moreover, Argentina elected the left-leaning President Alberto Fernández, in a clear sign of dissatisfaction with former President Mauricio Macri’s economic policies. Brazil, on the other hand, has not recently experienced any significant protest, but, curiously enough, those events in the neighboring countries greatly impacted the Brazilian government. They raised the stakes of a relevant variable for political calculation: the “rationality of fear”. They also exposed an interesting phenomenon: a populist president who is afraid of the people.

In 1999, Rui J. P. de Figueiredo and Barry Weingast coined the expression “rationality of fear” in their outstanding paper The Rationality of Fear: Political Opportunism and Ethnic Conflict, in which they sought to explain why people choose bloody ethnic wars over peace.[3] In such extreme scenarios, where conventional wisdom might conclude that irrationality prevails, they argue instead that “fear causes citizens to act on ideas and claims they believe are more likely to be false than true.” [4] More interesting, they say “this is not irrational, but a rational response to the huge costs of being wrong.”[5] When people feel they will be likely harmed and become victims of such a violence, they will do whatever it takes, even extreme measures, to defend themselves.[6] They may also support a leader who will opportunistically take advantage of such a fear. This is what they call “gambling for resurrection”, i.e., leaders will “[attempt] to maintain power by inducing massive change in the environment that has only a small chance of succeeding.”[7]

Those protests in South America are not what we call “bloody ethnic wars,” but Figueiredo and Weingast’s lessons still help explore the potential implications of such events for a populist leader like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro. Since his government has been facing some institutional constraints and, except for some economic measures (the pension reform, for example), has endured serious coordination problems with Congress, it is not surprising that a sort of “gambling for resurrection” would appear in his discourse. As Figueiredo and Weingast argue, “for leaders who have failed in the normal course of politics, gambling for resurrection offers the hope of forestalling loss of power.”[8] This movement is just another dimension of populists’ successful strategy of appealing to the people’s most primitive feelings through a new technology of communication in many parts of the world.

However, two relevant variables are crucial for a “gambling for resurrection” to succeed. First, institutions need to prove effectively incapable of “short-circuiting the rationality of fear mechanism”[9] and be rather regarded as a promoter or catalyzer of such a scenario of crisis. There is, in this regard, a very difficult balance between governability and needed institutional constraints, which, especially in a situation of populist governments, also means that they may opportunistically use the difficulty in advancing their agenda as an argument to attack institutions. This is what is taking place in Brazil. Although Bolsonaro is critically advancing destructive policies in areas where he can act through unilateral executive power (for instance, environmental protection, culture promotion, and social policies), his relationship with Congress shows growing disarray and distrust. If not for the engagement of Speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia, possibly even Bolsonaro’s liberal economic policies, which are overwhelmingly supported by the market, would be doomed to failure. Bolsonaro’s staggering incapacity to foster coordination with Congress is luckily barring some of his most authoritarian proposals to the point that the Supreme Court, though acting in one or other relevant case, could not really be called a central player in this regard at least until now: many of his proposals die before reaching the Court. By the same token, the strongest media outlets, though mostly supporting his economic policies, are mostly critical of Bolsonaro’s conflictive behavior and authoritarian impulses. His reaction follows the populist’s traditional recipe: attacks on Congress, the political system, the Supreme Court, and the press.

The second variable is popular support. This is the Achilles heel of Brazil’s current scenario because, even though Bolsonaro’s approval rate has fallen sharply since taking office in January 2019, it is still around one third of the electorate. According to the last Datafolha poll, 30% of Brazilians deem his government excellent/good, 32% regular, and 36% bad/terrible. There is also a visible social cleavage: his strong supporters largely fall into one or more of categories such as men, well-educated, white, evangelicals, from the higher economic strata, residents of the rich south region, and businessmen (the strongest group, with 58% of support). On the other hand, his worst scores are found among women, the unemployed, young, black and indigenous people, and residents of the poorest northeast region. His approval rate is the lowest among the elected Presidents for a first term since democracy was reinstated in 1985, but it is not negligible, and, if this support holds constant and the economy gains traction, he will be a competitive candidate for reelection in 2022. It is not enough for “gambling for resurrection”, though: in a scenario of authoritarian radicalization, the polls suggest that most Brazilians would stand for democracy. According to another recent poll, 80% of Brazilians reject the return to an authoritarian regime, although 40% fear that there is some chance of this happening. It seems that there is a threshold above which some of Bolsonaro’s supporters may turn against him: they may be on his side now in an environment where democracy is still there, but, if this scenario changes, the “rationality of fear” may lead to a defensive behavior against more damaging authoritarian actions.

The irony is that, for his authoritarian project, Bolsonaro is a president without enough powers, and a populist without enough people. It is symptomatic that Bolsonaro’s son, Deputy Eduardo Bolsonaro, and his Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes, have both recalled the Institutional Act n. 5 (AI-5), the most repressive act enacted during the Brazilian dictatorship (1964-1985), in the wake of protests in South America, especially in Chile. Both reactions – and President Bolsonaro’s statements thereafter – are a sign of a government that is deeply afraid of the people. The public outcry was considerable, but it would be naïve to disregard that Bolsonaro, fearful of the people, could be opportunistically gambling for resurrection by calling such protests “terrorist acts”. If people thronged the Brazilian cities, he could take advantage of the critical moment to strengthen his grip on power by inciting the “rationality of fear” among Brazilians, a strategy already seen elsewhere.

However, in a context where both variables – institutions and popular support – are not exactly favoring this strategy, the stakes are way too high to move in such a direction. There are certainly reasons for concern. The fact that Bolsonaro is still a competitive candidate for reelection in 2022 after so many signs of erratic and authoritarian behavior is one of them. Yet there are also reasons to conclude that, at least for now, Bolsonaro seems more trapped than he – and many analysts – might first expect. He will keep playing his cards, and some may succeed. In the end, however, his project will need to appeal to more prosaic incentives, such as the economy. With such a social cleavage among Bolsonaro’s supporters, the protests throughout South America are a wake-up call. But it is striking to conclude that Figueiredo’s and Weingast’s “rationality of fear”, instead of leading to opportunistic behaviors, may also work against an authoritarian project. It is certainly just the tip of the iceberg of a more complex net of social behaviors, but it is also a concept that comparative constitutional law should be exploring further.

Suggested citation: Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The “Rationality of Fear” on the Edge of Brazilian Democracy: Another Shield Against Authoritarianism? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 31, 2019, at:

[1] See Juliano Zaiden Benvindo, The Party Fragmentation Paradox in Brazil: A Shield Against Authoritarianism? Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Oct. 24, 2019, at

[2] See Franz Xavier Barrios-Suvelza, The Coup d’État that Wasn’t. Does the Latest Revolt in Bolivia Reveal Limitations of a Concept or the Failure of Scholars Using it?  Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 8, 2019, at: (arguing the Bolivia’s case was not a coup) and  Mariana Velasco Rivera, Justifying a Coup d’État in the Name of Democracy?, VerfBlog, Nov. 15, 2019, at:, Gabriel Hetland, Many Wanted Morales Out. But What Happened in Bolivia was a Military Coup. The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2019, at:  (arguing the Bolivia’s case was a coup).

[3] R. De Figueiredo and B. Weingast, ‘The Rationality of Fear: Political Opportunism and Ethnic Conflict’ in B. F. Walter and J. Snyder (ed.), Civil Wars, Insecurity, and Intervention (Columbia University Press New York 1999) 261

[4]  ibid 294

[5]  ibid

[6]  ibid 263

[7]  ibid

[8]  ibid

[9] Barry Weingast, ’Designing Constitutional Stability’ in Roger Congleton and Birgitta Swedenborg (ed.), Democratic Constitutional Design and Public Policy Analysis and Evidence 2014) 344

Post originally published on I.CONnect.