David Samuels: Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) is Gaining Ground

The Power of Partisanship in Brazil: Evidence from Survey Experiments,” by David Samuels and Cesar Zucco Jr., appears in the January 2014 issue of the AJPS. David Samuels summarizes the main points of their article as follows: In the US, we know quite a bit about individual voters who declare themselves to be supporters of one of the two main parties. Democrats and Republicans hold strong political beliefs on social and economic issues, and are of course very likely to vote for candidates from “their” party – from president down to local offices. They are also far more likely to engage in other sorts of political activities relative to independents, such as writing to their member of Congress, showing up at a rally, or speaking at a local government hearing. Partisan voters also consume the news in different ways from “independents” – they are more likely to interpret the news through the lens of their pre-existing partisan beliefs. “Partisans” tend to feel like members of a team – they root for their side and deride their opponents. For their part, independents are largely uninterested in this sport. They’re unsure of their views, and are less likely to vote – and when they do show up to the polls, they are more likely to vote without regard to candidates’ party affiliation.

Outside the US, scholars tend to lament the decline of voter partisanship. Some even deny that partisanship has the same meaning outside the US or Western Europe, where countries have a long history of free and fair elections. Brazil just returned to democracy in 1985. Could parties have laid down deep roots in society in such a short time? Brazilian politics is also stereotypically “personalistic,” dominated by individual leaders who make promises that they can bring home the bacon, rather than by parties as political “teams.” Scholars tend to believe that parties have relatively weak roots in society, and expect few Brazilian voters to express partisan preferences. Can partisanship emerge and thrive in such a “party-averse” environment?

We conducted a survey that revealed this conventional wisdom to be wrong – in part – and which suggests that the concept of partisanship can indeed “travel” well beyond the confines of long-established democracies. Most Brazilians resemble US independents – they refuse to acknowledge any strong partisan feelings. However, about 25% of Brazilians now identify with the Workers’ Party (PT), the country’s current governing party. A generation ago, this number was 0%, suggesting that the party has succeeded in cultivating a broad base of partisans where others have failed. Conservatives in Brazil dislike the PT for its socialist past and for its redistributive programs. Liberals feel it isn’t doing enough to help the country’s poor. Our research shows that the party has cultivated a powerful resource that is likely to last over decades. Much like strong feelings for and against the two parties in the US has shaped politics for decades, our findings give observers confidence that the PT – unlike most of Brazil’s flash-in-the-pan personalistic parties – is likely to be a dominant player for decades to come.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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