Wednesday, October 20, 2010

When Values Clash With the Economy: Elections and Abortion in Brazil and the United States

-Karl Marx and Max Weber-
No doubt Marx and Weber would be quite entertained watching the second round of the Presidential elections in Brazil and the mid-term elections in the United States. In the South American country, after Dilma Rousseff and Jose Serra passed to the run-off, the attention has revolved around a fairly controversial issue: abortion. Similarly, this issue occupies an important place in the discourse of several candidates for Congress and governors in the United States. It also affects directly the preferences of large segments of the electorate. But, what do Marx and Weber have to do with this?

These two thinkers had different views about the relationship between cultural, political and economic variables. For Marx, the economic conditions of a society determine its political and cultural characteristics. For Weber, on the contrary, the culture of a society influences its economic and political life (although he does not exclude the reverse possibility). In terms of cultural variables, religion, its morality and the positions it promotes in issues such as abortion, are of vital importance.

In the case of Brazil, the campaign of José Serra, candidate of the Social Democratic Party, has aired his rival's position on abortion. Thus, Serra has called the attention of the electorate saying that Rouseff, if successful, would legalize abortion in the South American country. This has make many Brazilians doubt, so much, that according to recent surveys, the once wide lead favoring Rouseff has declined significantly in the late weeks. The attention to economic issues and the social agenda proposed by Rouseff have passed to the background, being displaced in the public opinion by the positions on abortion. It is noteworthy that this shift in priorities is given in a context of economic and social progress, in a country that has successfully managed the impact of the recent financial crisis.

-Carl Paladino (R) and Mario Cuomo (D);
candidates for New York Governor-
In the United States, with a more tolerant legislation on abortion than the one of Brazil, the initiatives toward the issue have been promoted by various campaigns of Democratic candidates. In warning the electorate, they have said that the Republican agenda is conservative both economically and socially, which means a major opposition to abortion by the Republican candidates that result elected. Given this, the Republicans have accused their opponents of changing the center of the agenda, which, in their opinion, should be almost exclusively economic in nature. The difference with the Brazilian case is that the agenda that emphasizes cultural aspects -the defense of free choice on abortion- is promoted in a period of economic crisis, with high levels of unemployment and dissatisfaction with the inefficiency of the increase in spending.

So, will it be the economic conditions or, instead, the cultural ones, those that determine the political outcomes in these countries? According to Ronald Inglehart, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, a key factor to consider in this discussion is the  relative perception of insecurity. More subjectively secure societies place greater emphasis on cultural variables and post-material values related to freedom of choice, while reducing their respect for religious authority. By contrast, subjectively insecure societies show a rejection of post-modern values, while focusing their objectives on the maximization of economic welfare.

Brazil achievements in recent years in terms of economic growth, and reduction of poverty and inequality, suggest that this is a relatively secure society, which begins to put less emphasis on traditional values and, therefore, responds less to those values promoted by the church. On the contrary, the financial crisis in the United States and its impact on unemployment and economic instability, indicate that right now this is a relatively insecure society. This also suggests that the attention to economic issues and the adherence to traditional values will continue playing an important role in the forthcoming elections. Evidence of this has been the growing presence of the ultra-conservative Tea Party in the late months.

All in all, we should expect a minor role of the traditional discourse on abortion in Brazil, giving the presidency to Dilma Rousseff. At the same time, we should expect an important role of the economic discourse in the United States, accompanied by less attention to the discourse on free choice about abortion and other similar issues. This, of course, would mean a major defeat for the Democratic Party. Paradoxical as it may sound, the Republicans seem to be following closely the ideas of Marx. 
-Dilma Rouseff and Jose Serra-

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