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About the Author

Nathalia Bustamante is a Brazilian journalist and educator, currently pursuing her Masters in Education Policy at Harvard Graduate School of Education. After seven years of experience working with youth development in the third sector, she is currently investigating how international policies for higher education may inspire equity and quality-oriented reforms in the Brazilian context. 

How to Change the Mind of a Bolsonaro Supporter in Brazil? 

Stop Trying To

by | May 19, 2022

As a Brazilian journalist at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, I’ve been watching the upcoming elections intensely from afar. I’m not the only one. The eyes of Latin America will be focused on the upcoming 2022 elections in Brazil. Repeating the polarized 2018 contest, current president Jair Bolsonaro will run for reelection against his rival Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, popularly known as Lula. Lula is leading the polls, but both Lula and Bolsonaro have rejection rates of around 40%. All attempts to launch an alternative, “third-way” candidacy have not accumulated more than 10% of voter intention. 

Bolsonaro (right) and Lula (left). Photo by Jeso Carneiro

Navigating this election with my family will be the biggest challenge I will face after graduating from Harvard. Close relatives of mine have voted for Bolsonaro in the 2018 election and are still his supporters. Needless to say, I am a strong opponent. Every negotiating manual will tell you to rely on your self-confidence, on making logical arguments and backing them up with specialist claims. I have tried all of that. I have consistently failed.

I’d think that Bolsonaro would have single-digit levels of support by now. Apart from being the worst country leader during the pandemic (Brazil is grieving more than 600,000 deaths), he also devalued the Brazilian currency by almost helf, has seen inflation rise to the highest levels in 26 years and was involved in a series of crises One of them was the resignation of his Minister of Justice, the celebrity Judge Sergio Moro, allegedly for Bolsonaro’s attempt to interfere in investigations against his sons. Despite all that, he maintained support of around 30% of the population—in part due to an extremely effective social media strategy that foments distrust of the press, the courts and the congress and blames everyone else but himself for the country’s derailing. My family is one of those who has listened to this rhetoric and believed it.

While a small share of those supporters—around 11% of the population—are indeed radicals who agree with Bolsonaro’s conservative, homophobic and sexist statements and would even support a military intervention, the vast majority are well-intentioned citizens, who see in him something different from the traditional political establishment and have hopes of putting an end to the endemic corruption that has ravaged Brazil throughout its political history. I see the first group is hopeless and out of reach; the second is not. But dialoguing with them will require the anti-Bolsonaro group to overcome polarized narratives to engage in thoughtful, caring conversations. 

I see that in my own family—half of whom are knee-deep into the Bolsonaro narrative that he is a hero in a crusade against the rotten institutions of Brazil. When fighting such powerful narratives, logical arguments won’t do. My approach with news reports and data from international organizations was responded with skepticism towards the source, fake news and anecdotal evidence of their own experience (as members of a middle class family in a wealthy state). 

It’s not just a family argument. What is at stake at the national level can be seen in every major newspaper. During his term, President Bolsonaro consistently attacked the courts and the congress, and launched a campaign to discredit the electronic voting system that has been in place for 25 years. Political analysts claim he will most likely follow U.S. President Donald Trump’s example and question the results of the election.  

What is at stake in Brazilian households, workspaces and family circles—including my own— is not so visible. The polarized election will turn on the heat among families, friends and coworkers. Yes, democracy is at risk, as are many relationships.  

When fighting narratives, specialist claims won’t do. I was fortunate to attend Steven Levitsky’s class on the Politics of Latin America, and shared with relatives some of his thoughts about populism and attacks on democratic institutions. One of the responses I received was that “those Harvard professors of yours are all leftists, and you should let them know better.”

Most importantly, when fighting narratives, self-confidence won’t do. Reflecting on my own interactions with my family, I failed to recognize that the very fact that I am here adds different nuances to my interventions, whether I like it or not. Sharing quotes of professors only reinforced that “Harvard identity.” Thus, my attempts to convince, or enlighten them, also carried the weight of perceived judgment – some of my relatives may have thought that I was looking down on them, because “I know better.” They immediately rejected whatever I was trying to convey.

So when traditional negotiation techniques don’t work, what will?

For a completely different purpose, I also enrolled in MLD-201 at the Harvard Kennedy School. Unexpectedly, that Management, Leadership and Decision class shed light into how to proceed in my personal relationships. The class builds upon the framework for adaptive leadership developed by Ronald Heifetz (Leadership Without Easy Answers), and its concepts are applied to conflict resolution and public organizing. In intense sessions of about a hundred students, we discuss authority, power, roles, loyalties and biases, with the goal of understanding how leadership can help systems of people thrive in changing and challenging times. The professor barely speaks and the students—much like a big family—are left to decide what is to be discussed and how. 

From the experience of that class, there are three main lessons that I am trying to apply in my family interactions. The first one, as I already mentioned, was to acknowledge my role in the family system—and how the simple fact that I am the one speaking shapes the reception of the message. So how can I rebuild my messages to balance that perceived role with genuine curiosity and respect? How can I depart from a place of humility and, instead of explaining, seek to learn from why they believe what they do? Not trying to convince anyone is the first step towards creating an environment of trust, in which deeper questions can be discussed.

Secondly, I don’t have to do it alone—and I won’t succeed if I try to. Half of my family is knee-deep into Bolsonaro’s narrative, but the other half is not. However, they don’t speak out because the risks of straining relationships are too high. So how can I help create space for other dissonant voices that will contribute to the dialogue? How can I find allies to the battles that are more important to me? How can I lower the stakes of disagreeing, showing that healthy debate is not only possible, but also fruitful? 

Finally, we are facing such deeply rooted beliefs that one intervention won’t do. Changing hearts and minds is a slow process—and I have to come to terms with the fact that I may not reach it by the time of the election. So how can I build stamina and persistence in this endeavor? How can I approach conversations with the goal of understanding, not convincing, despite the fear and urgency that is in my heart? How can I remind myself that even if I don’t succeed in changing votes, there is enough success in being able to talk about it?

Humility, trust, curiosity, persistence. In a world in which we have gotten used to talking to our bubbles and rejecting what is different, this simple recipe may be the only way out. I am not sure whether it will work – but I have no option but to try. On a smaller or bigger scale, in different contexts and affections, those are the conversations all of us Brazilians should be seeking. 

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