Sometimes looking out the window can feel like looking in the mirror. The window is on Brazil, where the impeachment trial of President Dilma Rousseff is underway.
Last month Brazil’s legislation took the momentous step of impeaching her for corruption, following days of riots and demonstrations for and against Rousseff, a former leftist activist turned thoroughly bribable politician.
Faced by deepening economic malaise, most Brazilians would be happy to say good-bye to the arrogant, abrasive Rousseff except that her equally abrasive presidential rival, Michel Temer, faces serious corruption charges himself. In fact, today six out of ten Brazilian legislators currently face some kind of criminal investigation, including the Speaker of the House—even as the country is on the brink of tearing itself apart.
Sound familiar? Maybe it’s time to wonder if America isn’t heading down the same path. Looking at Brazil should make us stop and think about this election means, and should mean, for our country and our future.
Since its founding in 1808 Brazil’s political leaders have believed the solution to all the country’s problems was big government-and the bigger the better.
When most people think about Brazil, they think about the ultimate party town, Rio at Carnival. They think about great beaches, beautiful supermodels and charismatic sports heroes, head-pounding dance music and wild raves, and a devil-may-care “enjoy today because who knows what comes tomorrow” view of life. Maybe they also think about the incredible wealth gap between the gleaming skyscrapers of downtown Rio and the capital Brasilia, and the incredible slums that breed crime, drugs, and violence on a vicious and gigantic scale.
That might seem like a fair description of America today. Hasn’t our culture become one long drawn out Carnival? If Dilma Rousseff deserves impeachment and conviction for corruption, what can we say about the presumptive Democratic nominee in this country? And are millions of Americans really convinced that the record of her Republican nominee rival is much better?
Brazil has enormous natural resources, including offshore oil and natural gas, geographic advantages like great harbors and rich inland waterways, and a diverse population including hard-working immigrants from Europe and Japan.
Just a decade ago Brazil was one of the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—countries economists believed were poised for phenomenal economic growth that would transform the world’s economy.
But Brazil has one fatal flaw. Since its founding in 1808 its political leaders have all believed the solution to all the country’s problems was big government-and the bigger the better. Brazilians came to believe that their leaders’ job was to take care of them, instead of people taking care of themselves. They were told that huge state-owned enterprises that were too big to fail, would forever drive the economy forward. The founder of the Brazil’s capital Brasilia, President Juscelino Kubitschek, even promised, “Fifty years of progress in five,” if people would just let government handle everything.
That’s not where America started, but it seems to be where we’re headed. The mantra of this presidential campaign has been about making Big Government work, rather than making Big Government Small Government again. We don’t hear much talk about the constitution and the rule of law, or unleashing the potential of entrepreneurs through the miracle of the free market. We hear about making America great again, but not much about the principles that made America great in the first place: freedom, liberty, equal opportunity, and belief in the power of the individual.
Brazil’s economy is shrinking. The government faces $1 trillion in debt with no way out, while its political elite has fallen into more or less permanent disgrace. That doesn’t so far off of where we are at present. Many of Brazil’s separate states, like ours, are facing permanent bankruptcy. Brazilians are expecting more violence and unrest as the country prepares to host the 2016 Olympic Games. Americans are expecting much of the same as they get ready for the Republican and Democratic conventions. Incidentally on Tuesday night Brazilian police raided the office of the consortium building those Olympic facilities, on suspicion that the companies involved are mired in massive corruption
One of Brazil’s few popular legislators is a former professional clown named Tririca, who ran on the slogan, “It can’t get any worse.” Brazilians are learning it can. Americans had better start learning the same, unless we start taking America’s founding principles seriously again.
Historian Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institutein Washington, D.C. He is author of seven books, including New York Times bestseller “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” (2001); the Pulitzer Prize Finalist “Gandhi and Churchill”(2008); “To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World” (nominated for the UK’s Mountbatten Prize); and the highly acclaimed “Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II,” which The Economist magazine picked as one of the Best Books of 2012. His most recent work is “The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization” (Random House 2013). Follow him on Twitter@ArthurLHerman.