2016 has been a tumultuous year in Brazil with myriad economic and political troubles making headlines while the nation prepares to host the Summer Olympic Games this month. Scott Mainwaring has joined the Kennedy School faculty this fall as the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor for Brazil Studies. We spoke with him to learn more about his academic work, his outside interests, and his views on the current state of affairs in Brazil.
Q: These are very interesting times for Brazil. How does your research tie into the current challenges facing that country?
Mainwaring: You cannot understand the Brazilian crisis without paying attention to the dynamics of presidentialism with an extremely fragmented party system and robust federalism. These are issues that I have studied since the 1980s. My research about Brazil has focused on the party system and institutional system. Brazil has the most fragmented party system of any country in the world and probably of any country in the democratic history of Latin America. In 2014, 28 different political parties elected members of the lower chamber of congress. No party won as much as 14% of the national vote. As a result, to achieve the congressional majorities that they need to govern effectively, presidents need to assemble broad multiparty coalitions. With an extremely fragmented party system, this is no easy task. Presidents assemble coalitions partially through programmatic means and partly by payoffs to coalition members. The temptation arises to illicitly use state resources to buy off support of some politicians. The Workers Party, which governed Brazil from 2003 through May 2016, pursued this practice on a grand scale, giving rise to the current massive corruption scandals.
One reason that the impeachment has been extremely contentious is that President Dilma Rousseff (2011-May 2016) was impeached not on the grounds of corruption, but rather formally because of covering up budget deficits. Previous presidents also engaged in this practice, although to a lesser degree. Perhaps more importantly, the impeachment is extremely contentious because many of the congressional leaders who pursued it are themselves facing corruption charges.
Brazil's economy was certain to face troubled times as the exceptional commodity boom of 2003-12 wound down, but the political crisis greatly exacerbated it.
If we look for good news in a mostly very bad situation, the Brazilian press, judiciary at the top level, civil society, and the Federal Police (which helped investigate the corruption scandals) are active, independent, and competent. Another salutary note is that, in my view and in the view of most observers, Brazilian democracy is not under threat of breaking down.
Q: What courses will you be teaching at HKS?
Mainwaring: My first course, which I will teach this fall, is called "Building Better Democracies." The course has two main premises. First, building democracies that function well in late democratizing countries (since 1978) is difficult. Many late democratizing countries have had some experience with democracy or semi-democracy, but few have built and sustained high quality democracies. Second, building better democracies is feasible, and we can try to learn some lessons about how to go about doing it even if we acknowledge that there are no easy prescriptions that fit all cases.
Q: Who are the biggest influencers on your academic career?
Mainwaring: An important influence was spending my senior year of high school in Argentina, as an exchange student in 1971-72.
Alfred Stepan has been the single greatest influence on my career. I had the good fortune to take his Latin American politics class as a first year student at Yale in the spring 1973 semester. I took a graduate course with him as a sophomore, served as his research assistant, and wrote a BA/MA thesis under his direction. Al combines a deep passion for tackling some of the most important issues in world politics, outstanding scholarly work, and generosity as a teacher and mentor. I worked for him for a year after my undergraduate years, and we have stayed in touch over the last 43 years. We discussed my work and his in Rio de Janeiro (where I did my PhD field research), in Budapest (where he served as the founding rector of Central European University), in New York (he was Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs and a professor at Columbia), at Notre Dame (where I taught for 33 years, and his alma mater), at Oxford (where he taught), in London (where I taught for an academic year), in South Korea (at a conference), and other places on four continents.
Juan Linz, who taught at Yale, was another outstanding influence in my career. At Stanford, I learned a great deal from my PhD advisor, Robert Packenham. At Notre Dame, Guillermo O'Donnell was a brilliant inspiration. I have learned much from many coauthors, including most prominently from my former student and frequent coauthor, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán.
Finally, my mother was a bright, modest, nurturing, kind, and generous person whose professional achievements were truncated by the discrimination characteristic of the era in which she was a young woman (she was born in 1924). She finished high school at the age of 15, and she was the only woman scientist in her class at what is now Carnegie Mellon University (then it was Carnegie Tech). She overcame a broken home and an abusive father. After World War II, when the men returned home from the war, she was not able to continue working as a professional. She and my father raised three sons to be interested in the world of learning, so she was a great influence on my career path.
Q: What are your favorite books and movies and why?
Mainwaring: I love to read novels though I do so rarely because of my professional responsibilities. Some fairly recent favorites include “Garden of the Evening Mists” by the Indonesian writer, Tan Twan Eng; “Small Island,” by the British author, Andrea Levy; and “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. All three books are beautifully written, and offer interesting and poignant insights into different times, cultures, and places. By pure happenstance, all three novels take place partly during World War II.
One of my favorite recent social science books is the work by Michael Albertus, “Autocracy and Redistribution: The Politics of Land Reform.” It focuses on an important issue in world politics, with an innovative argument, excellent original research, and strong methodological skills.
The German film, “The Lives of Others,” is one of my favorite movies. At Notre Dame, I used it for teaching purposes. I also used another favorite, the Argentine movie, “The Secret in Their Eyes,” as part of my teaching. I admire both movies for their artistic merits, and they are wonderful vehicles for conveying how dictatorships and subsequent transitions to democracy affect daily life. Recent movies that I have admired include the Japanese film, “Our Little Sister”; the French film “The Innocents”; and “Brooklyn.” I admired the artistic sensibility of all three movies. I also love good comedies. “Being There,” “My Cousin Vinny,” “The Blues Brothers,” and “Ferris Bueller's Day Off” are among my favorites. A great laugh is one of the pleasures of life.