US vs. Brazil: A Tale of Two Elections

This week the Western Hemisphere will see a tale of two elections: two elections that have a number of key features in common, and some key points of divergence. In common: the incumbent center-left faces a challenge from the right. The head of state, the incumbent leader of the center-left, will not be on the ballot, but the election is widely viewed as a referendum on his policies.

Election Day is “the poll that matters,” but the key divergence is that on Sunday, in Brazil, the center-left is forecast to coast to victory, while on Tuesday in the US, the right is widely forecast to make big gains, with better than even odds of taking the House.

What explains this divergence?

There are many factors, of course, but there is one key cause: in Brazil, Lula brought home the bacon, in economic indicators of the quality of life, for the Workers Party’s electoral base: working people. Measured unemployment in Brazil is now at a record low of 6.2 percent.

When the majority of voters in Brazil ask themselves, “are we better off now than we were before the Workers Party came to power,” this is the reality on which they reflect: the Brazilian economy has performed much better for working people during the Lula years than during the eight years of opposition candidate Jose Serra’s party. Per capita income grew by 23 percent from 2002-2010, as opposed to just 3.5 percent for 1994-2002. The minimum wage, in real terms, grew by 65 percent during Lula’s presidency. This is more than three time the increase during the prior eight years.

In Brazil, as in the US, a significant rise in the real value of the minimum wage lifts not just the workers who are at the very bottom of the wage distribution, but the much larger group of workers whose wages are near the bottom.

Lula’s government has also expanded the Bolsa Familia program, which provides small cash grants to poor families while requiring school attendance and health immunizations for participation. The program has significantly reduced illiteracy, and now reaches about 13 million families. More than 19 million people have been brought across the poverty line in Brazil since 2003. A new program of subsidies for home ownership has benefited hundreds of thousands of families.

One can certainly argue that in a sense Obama also delivered for his base: thanks to Obama’s economic stimulus, unemployment is much lower than it would be today as a result of the economic crash that occurred before Obama took office, and Obama’s health care reform will eventually give millions of Americans access to health care that they would not have had otherwise.

But, as we all know, in general, the mass of humanity tends not to think like this when they go to the polls (or don’t.) They tend to think in terms of: am I better off now than I was? And that’s the question that the majority of Brazilians can easily answer in the affirmative, and the majority of Americans cannot easily answer in the affirmative. The measured unemployment rate in the US is currently 9.6 percent. Unemployment was at 7.7 percent in January 2009 when Obama took office.

It’s important to understand that the difference isn’t that Obama compromised with centers of economic power and Lula did not. Lula made a lot of compromises with the economic elite in Brazil, generating a lot of anger on the left wing of the Workers Party. But at the end of the day, he made sure not to make compromises that prevented him from delivering for his base, in a way that they could taste in the present. That’s what Obama and his Wall Street economic advisers didn’t do when they caved to the Republicans and Wall Street on the stimulus, and backed an economic stimulus that was knowably too small to counteract the fall in employment resulting from the collapse of the housing bubble; and when they backed a health care reform bill whose benefits most people will only taste in the future.

Of course, most progressive and liberal activists in the US, in the next few days, will be focused on playing the hand that they’ve been dealt, as they should. The predictable negative consequences of a return to power of Republicans in Congress, across a number of fronts, from protecting Social Security benefits to ending the war in Afghanistan, are far too great to do otherwise.

But on Wednesday morning, if we wake from uneasy dreams to confront Speaker John Boehner, and the corporate media tell us that the reason why is that President Obama moved too far to the left and that, therefore, now Obama needs to move to the right, we need to be clear that this is a lie. In the US, as in Brazil, if the center-left wants to hold power sustainably, it has to deliver for the majority of working people on economic policy. The center-left will have to demand majority rule in the Senate, and demand government action to boost employment. Cutting Social Security benefits during an employment recession might win Obama praise from The Washington Post editorial board, but it isn’t going to bring people to the polls to vote for the center-left.