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Citizen's distrust of democratic institutions

Grant number: 04/07952-8
Support Opportunities:Research Projects - Thematic Grants
Duration: March 01, 2005 - October 31, 2009
Field of knowledge:Humanities - Political Science - Political Behavior
Principal Investigator:José Álvaro Moisés
Grantee:José Álvaro Moisés
Host Institution: Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas (FFLCH). Universidade de São Paulo (USP). São Paulo , SP, Brazil
Pesquisadores principais:
Rachel Meneguello


Democracy is relatively consolidated in Brazil - most of the experts agree. However, the country faces a paradox: democratic institutions are subject to a continuous and widespread citizens' political distrust. Even if the democratic regime is supported by the majority of the Brazilian society, nearly 2/3 of Brazilian citizens do not trust politicians, parliaments, political parties, executive branches of the state and health, education, security and judicial services. National surveys conducted by the author between 1989 and 1993 reveal that the negative perception of the democratic institutions cross alI sectors of the public, independently of wealth, education and ecological distribution; the infIuence of this factor on citizens' disposition to take part of the democratic process - as to choose governments through elections - is part of the pattern of political behaviour (Moisés, 1995). This contrasts with recent political developments in Brazil. Almost completing two decades of its new democratic experience, the country now seems to be captured by a virtuous cycle. Brazil is now under a period of political stability as opposed to the pattern of previous decades when political conflicts used to be taken as irreconcilable antagonisms - what used to generate paralysis of the decision making process, tensions among the executive and legislative branches and military intervention in the political domain. At the present time, however, political institutions work harmoniously, the Armed Forces perform their legal role and the electoral cycles occur according to the constitutional rules. The moment is auspicious for the Brazilian society to search for the nature of this contradictory pattern of distrust on democratic institutions and support for the democratic regime. In a democracy, institutions are important because it is through their working that citizens are allowed to transform aspirations and preferences into public policies. Central to this is citizens' trust in norms, roles and institutional procedures which assure their basic equality before the law and their right to transform social demands into public policies. Trust is a relational phenomenon dependent of its context and implies risk taking related to expectations generated by the behaviour of those interacting with the citizens. Trust is also related - among other things -, to constitutional and legal arrangements through which democratic rights and duties are respected by governments, political parties and the state bureaucracy. Distrust - on the contrary - is a specific way by which citizens respond to a pattern or democratic institutional functioning. If some degree of distrust is necessary to guarantee the citizens's autonomy in the face of power structures, the democratic regime becomes fragile when the proportion of those feeling defrauded by antirepublican behaviour of politicians is too big; and also when citizens perceive the public services as not responding to their main objectives or also when they are convinced that some among them have more rights than others - contrary to what the national constitution and the laws assure. Conventional approaches have associated the phenomenon of political distrust to the question of legitimacy. The specialized literature has analytically distinguished between difuse and specific political support in order to explain, in the first case, the supportive relationship of citizens and the political system as whole, and in the second case, the political support to specific political leaders and governments. In the 70's and 80's, however, the phenomenon was almost exclusively taken as a function of the economic performance of governments, as if only its instrumental efficacy should be taken into account. But the tendency has not helped to explain why even countries that have gone through substantial economic development are also facing a widespread pattern of distrust on political institutions. Alternatives approaches depart from the performance of the political institutions themselves to explain the political distrust. The economic performance is certainly important, but universalism, fairness, impersonal procedures and trustworthiness through which the institutions treat (or do not) the citizens are essential factors here. The idea is that the approval of democratic institutions depend of its ethical and moral justification, and particularly of the way they perform the mission to which they have been created. This normative dimension - social and cultural in character -provides the motivation by which people trust (or do not) the political institutions; it is also through this that citizens are assured that the institutions work in their benefit. In order to understand the nature of the phenomenon of political distrust it is necessary to begin by that and this is precisely what the present research project wants to do. (AU)

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