This kind of episode where a leader sends armed supporters to intimidate democratic institutions is not as rare as you might think. In July 2017, thugs carrying rocks and clubs breached Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly as police stood by doing nothing. They roughed up seven legislators, sending two to the hospital as they tried to cow the Assembly majority into submission. (It worked.) And in February 2021, El Salvador’s new populist president, Nayib Bukele, sent armed cops to stand menacingly inside the chambers of Congress, threatening to forcibly eject any opposition lawmaker who didn’t vote for his legislative proposals. (That worked, too.)
All around the world, the prestige of democratic institutions is on the wane, and the aura of untouchability that used to surround legislative bodies is eroding. With leaders finding it harder to deliver tangible results for their supporters, the temptation grows to give them a quick dopamine hit instead. The cheap, but often effective, trick is to turn the harassment of their political enemies into made-for-TV entertainment. While this approach did not begin in the U.S., its increasing appearance in Washington and other cities is one of the factors feeding the global trend.
Why? Because American soft power is no longer what it used to be. For much of the 20th century, the U.S.’ cultural dominance meant kids around the world aspired to be basketball stars, jazz virtuosos or rock ‘n’ roll idols. The pop stars that young people emulate these days are just as likely to be South Korean as American, the sports stars could come from anywhere.
But in one area, the United States has kept its lead: as an exporter of cultural and political anxieties. The world seems eager to engage in the kind of societal conflicts that nowadays divide the United States. From the #MeToo movement and greater sensitivity about the rights of LGBTQ people, to far-right conspiracy theories and the political parties that give them a home, we have repeatedly seen how rifts born in the U.S soon spill over its borders and become parts of the political debates in other societies.
When economic inequality — an old and stubborn reality in many countries — became an issue of heightened political attention in the U.S. after the 2008 financial crisis, politicians and opinion makers in other countries quickly adopted it as a leitmotif. Even in countries like Brazil — long one of the world’s most economically unequal — dealing with inequality acquired a new urgency once it entered America’s political discourse.
And it’s not just progressive trends that the U.S. exports, it’s the furious right-wing backlash against those trends, too. The Bolsonarista movement that vandalized Brazil’s national seats of power was animated by a whole raft of conservative bugbears made in the USA — from election denialism and a proudly retrograde rejection of political correctness to beliefs fished out of the fever swamps of QAnon. The Brazilian movement even shares, in Steve Bannon, one of the main protagonists of America’s turn to the extreme right.
Which is why the kinds of shameful scenes we’ve just seen in Brasilia, could turn into the kind of history that keeps repeating itself across the globe. Many governments struggle to deliver for their people. But in the U.S., culture wars provide a pre-made template for what can be given instead: the adrenaline rush of strife, the intoxicating highs of owning the libs, leading up to a violent attempt to overturn an election. If those of us who value democracy don’t put a stop to these kinds of outbursts by imposing serious punishments, they could well become commonplace — a recurring motif in the politics of a broken century.