On Sunday, Dilma Rousseff won re-election to continue her service as president of the fifth largest country in the world. As Brazil’s first female president fought for re-election one thing was clear, the economy would be the focus of the race. As Americans head into November’s mid-term elections and prepare to begin a new presidential campaign cycle, it would be wise to look to Brazil to see the impact that economic divides and gender can have on elections.
Ronald Reagan famously coined the phrase, “Are you better off now then you were four years ago?” For millions of Brazilians the answer is a resounding yes. But from the coverage of the Brazilian presidential race in the U.S. and European media you could easily have had the impression that Brazil was teetering on the edge of economic collapse. How could an economy, which resulted in lifting 40 million people out of poverty and into the middle class, and with historically low unemployment figures,be considered a troubled economy? It all depends on whose economic interests define your perspective.
Last year, while filming the documentary “Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?” I interviewed Lilian, a single mother living in a Rio de Janeiro favela. Because of Brazil’s economic subsidy program for low-income mothers and families (Bolsa Familia), Lilian was able to have a steady income. For the first time her children reliably received healthcare and consistently went to school. Lilian and her friend opened a small business, and Lilian’s face glowed with pride as she told me about her daughter, who was going to college to become a psychologist. Lilian said all of these things were nearly impossible to even dream about just a decade earlier.
As other nations fell into recession and declared strict austerity measures, cutting social services, education, healthcare, and government jobs, Brazil invested in all of these. In addition to expanding Brazil’s economic subsidy program, Rousseff also led efforts to successfully pass legislation mandating that income from national oil and energy reserves be reinvested in expanding education and healthcare opportunities for the poor.
But investing in the people of Brazil meant that there were less profits for international investors. The one percent in Brazil and the one percent internationally were still making profits on their Brazilian holdings, because the Brazilian economy was still growing. But they were not making enough profits, as the rate of growth had slowed as Brazil invested in the welfare of its own people. And so the elites demanded that it was time for change.
It was striking to see that nearly all media coverage of this year’s Brazilian presidential election focused on how the “markets” and “investors” were strongly behind Rousseff’s fiscal conservative competitor Aecio Neves. And how investor confidence would fall drastically each time Rousseff rose in the polls. These same articles would cite in the sixth or seventh paragraph that while it was true that tens of millions of families were lifted out of poverty by Rousseff and her party’s economic policies, broad national growth and inflation had suffered under Rousseff. What the articles failed to mention was that it is only the extremely rich who were not benefiting from these policies.
And so how is it that Rousseff still managed to eek out a win, when both media coverage and investors strongly were against her? Because in Brazil, voting is mandatory. When the poor have equitable access to voting, they have the ability to vote to support their own economic interests. And in Brazil, like in most countries, women make up the majority of those voters.
U.S. and European media attempted to position Maria Silva (who was Dilma’s closest competitor going into the first round of the election) as a “change” candidate. But Silva fell in the polls once it became clear that as an evangelical she had pledged to roll back gay rights, family planning and birth control access which Dilma’s party had expanded. In Brazil these are not considered “social” issues. The people of Brazil recognize these as core economic issues. Increased access to affordable birth control has strengthened the economic security of communities. Increased access to reproductive healthcare has resulted in better maternal and infant health outcomes. Increased rights for members of the LGBTQ community have resulted in more physical and economic security for these families. The millions of people who have benefited from these policies were not looking to elect a “change” candidate to strip these rights away.
Gender received little mention in coverage of the Brazilian presidential election when the top two candidates were women. But with Silva out of the race gender politics reappeared. In fact much of the rhetoric around Aecio Neves positioned him as a patriarch who could control Brazil’s economy and redirect it from Rousseff’s maternal welfare state. During the last presidential debate, Neves went so far to refer to Rousseff as “flighty.” The backlash from female voters was felt immediately in the polls. Female voters quickly criticized Neves for using sexist language to attack a woman who once was a Marxist guerilla who had been arrested and tortured for her commitment to democracy and an economist who had served as a cabinet minister and as Brazil’s first female president. It seems Brazilian voters could abide most of the mud slinging that occurred at the debates, but chauvinism was where they drew the line.
As we approach 2016, and as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, and others consider running to become this country’s first female president, each of these women would be wise to take a page out of Rousseff’s playbook. Already Warren has been leading the charge against economic inequity. Her biting criticism of the banking industry and market conditions, which support the interests of the very rich at the expense of the nation’s most vulnerable, have been receiving standing ovations wherever she goes. If Hillary Clinton is eyeing another attempt at the presidency she needs to develop an economic agenda that incorporates these themes and responds to this call to arms with a detailed plan for action.
As outspoken as Warren has been as a champion for the middle class, Clinton has been a consistent champion for women’s economic and physical security. Her 1995 speech in Beijing, when she declared, “Women’s rights are human rights” became the guiding mantra of the U.S. State Department during her tenure. For the first time, the State Department created an office focused on women’s international rights. By now it is common knowledge that as Secretary of State, Clinton visited more countries and met with more heads of state then any previous Secretary of State. But what is less known, and which Clinton herself should amplify, is that in each of these countries she demanded to meet with women’s movement leaders and to make women’s economic and physical security an item for discussion in every diplomatic agenda.
Women – candidates, pundits, PACs, and voters – are poised to have a tremendous impact in the results of this year’s mid-term elections. If this country is on the verge of electing its first female president, the economic interests of women and their families should take center stage. Dilma Rousseff was not elected or re-elected because she was a woman. But to win she needed women to strongly support her. To earn their votes she championed economic policies that protected and advanced the economic security of women and children, not investors and markets. Women have been the majority of the U.S. voting base for some time. But now it is time for them to put their interests in the forefront for the sake of the nation.
Heather Arnet is the CEO of the Women & Girls Foundation, Board Chair of the Ms. Foundation for Women, and Writer/Director of the documentary, "Madame Presidenta: Why Not U.S.?"