For the past month, widespread protests have racked Brazil. I have long studied participation and protest in Brazil, and have been surprised at the tenor and breadth of the mobilizations. Though I am not in Brazil at the moment, I wanted to make a few observations that may be useful to better understand the current moment.


Many reports suggest that the majority of the protestors are middle class. I recognize that this may not be entirely true because media outlets don’t often cover small protests in scattered shantytowns. However, I am going to assume for a moment that many of the largest protests have been dominated by middle class participants. As far as I can tell, there are at least three distinguishable groups:

  1. Leftist, progressive social movements in favor of urban reform,
  2. A new, lower middle class interested in better services (many living in well-established, urban shantytowns),
  3. A more traditional, conservative middle class upset by corruption in the federal government led by a progressive party.

All three groups seek to have their voices heard in a political system that hasn’t created the mechanisms to respond to their interests and demands. The widespread mobilization thus comes as a surprise because Brazil is internationally recognized for creating new participatory institutions that incorporate citizens. What is the disconnect?


Brazil produced a series of innovative democratic institutions during the 1990s and 2000s. These innovations promote incremental policy change that, by and large, responds to the policy interests of the poor. Participatory budgeting, public policy management councils and national policy conferences provide incentives for the poor to participate because they either allocate greater resources to the poor or focus on policy issues that correspond to the needs of the poor.

The middle class is, by and large, NOT interested in being involved in these spaces. The anti-corruption part of the nascent protest movement is not interested in the oversight commissions created within these institutions; rather, the protesters appear to be focusing on the corruption associated with the Workers’ Party, which has been in power for 10 years. Brazil’s participatory, democratic institutions are slow, time-consuming, etc.—not the type of political activity favored by busy citizens.

The progressive, policy-oriented groups may not be participating in Brazil’s local policy-making institutions because they require the strong support of the executive. The “policy-oriented” middle class groups that sparked the protests are increasingly distant from the national-level Workers’ Party government, which has used a “grand coalition” governing style to secure majority support in the Congress. Middle class progressive groups were an original base of support for the Workers’ Party, but they now have a much smaller role within the party.

The role of the new middle class is the most perplexing. The lower middle class has dramatically increased in size over the past decade, but they don’t necessarily have political parties representing their interests, a clear set of venues to express their interests or civil society organizations advocating on their behalf. They don’t have the political or policy connections to work closely with the government. The economic boom created this large lower middle class, but the innovative mix of representative and participatory institutions have been unable to meet their needs.“Human beings are the agents, beneficiaries and adjudicators of progress, but they also happen to be directly or indirectly–the primary means of all production.” — Sen Economic growth and an expansion of educational opportunities has greatly increased their “capabilities” (as Amartya Sen frames such development) but the country’s principal political institutions have not provided the venues to incorporate their interests.


In a political system with clear lines of representation, middle-class groups might have their interests represented by political parties or among elected officials. However, there are a couple of problems with these forms of representation in Brazil. Most Brazilian political parties are not programmatic, which means that they represent specific groups and interests rather than the promotion of a broader policy agenda. In addition, the legislative branch is much, much weaker than (subservient to?) the executive. Whoever controls the executive, controls the state.  The Workers’ Party has controlled the state since 2003. There is a moderately strong opposition party, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB), but it doesn’t appear to have a strong group of activists willing to work to promote its goals.

Therefore, as a result of a non-programmatic party system, a weak legislature and a strong executive increasingly isolated from the base, there are limited options for people to have their voices heard in the political system. The mobilizations include multiple political and policy positions—allowing citizens, activists, media outlets, etc., to read into the mobilizations what they want to see. The current mobilizations send a new set of signals to governing elites, signals that were not being met through participatory institutions, political parties or representative democracy.

Contentious politics and ongoing direct mobilization results from the weakness of democratic institutions and forms of representation. President Dilma has staked her future on a political reform project. The proposals address corruption, and public goods (health care, education, transportation) but I haven’t seen anything regarding how the new, progressive and conservative middle classes will be incorporated.


I no longer turn to the newspaper on a daily basis to follow the events. Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, I read Brazilian newspapers on a daily basis while having my morning cup of coffee. I now turn to Facebook where friends and colleagues post a wide array of commentary as well as links to relevant articles/blogs. When I first began living in Brazil in the mid-1990s, internet access was limited and the principal newspapers catered their news to middle and upper classes. There has been a substantive de-monopolization of access to information and an increase in the number of actors who influence public opinion.

Brazilians invented a host of democratic innovations during the 1980s and 1990s to respond to their problems. I am very curious to see how (and if) politicians (national and local) and their civil society allies create another set of new institutions to respond to the new classes and groups that formed over the past twenty years and emerged on the Brazilian street in the last month.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Brian: Are all of these protests in relation to federal policies, or are there perhaps issues that the governments in the 26(??) states can solve, or, are they municipal in nature? At which level of government are the participatory structures most advanced? Are the participatory structures in place at the right level of government? Is it easy and worthwhile to fight (Rio) city hall? Really curious to know which levels of government have the authority to solve the problems at hand.