Literary bestseller lists likely often reflect the opposite of mass sentiment

Just as yields on bonds rise as prices fall, it is likely that literary bestseller lists often reflect the opposite of mass sentiment. That’s hardly surprising since the disparaged elite, or “globalists” as Donald Trump branded opponents of his protectionist nationalism, tend to buy books but are hardly reflective of popular opinion.

Indeed, shortly after the shock — to the elite at least — of Trump’s presidential win in November 2016, a half-forgotten 1935 semisatirical novel by Sinclair Lewis made a surprising reappearance on US bestseller lists. It Can’t Happen Here, originally published at the time of the rise of fascism in Europe, traces the story of US politician Buzz Windrip. He is elected US president on a wave of fear-mongering and immediately implements a programme of authoritarian repression. Little subtlety required to work out the fears that Trump’s election suggested to a swathe of readers.

Quite what the current SA non-fiction bestseller tells us about elite thinking here is less clear. Pole position last week was occupied by a book that rejoices in the title The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, by popular blogger Mark Manson. I don’t have it in my library (yet) but perhaps it  indicates how the small book-buying public intends to arm itself against the very uncertain times we face. One book I have downloaded is How Democracies Die by Harvard professors of government Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

What is striking about bestselling books in Brazil is that the Portuguese translation of this tome surged to the top of the Amazon list there in October, between the two rounds of its just-concluded presidential election. Coauthor Levitsky noted that “unfortunately it’s selling pretty well in Brazil”.


The misfortune, from his perspective, was the improbable but emphatic election on Sunday of Rio de Janeiro strongman and former army officer Jair Bolsonaro as president of the most significant country in Latin America, and — despite its recession — one of the top 10 economies, by size, in the world.

When resident in neighbouring Argentina I would intone to my embassy staff and bore visitors with the mantra that “Brazil is the moon that pulls all the tides in this hemisphere”. And the metrics certainly back this up far beyond the land of the samba and the home of Pele. There are only three countries in the world that share three characteristics: populations larger than 200-million, land mass greater than 8.5-million square kilometre, and GDPs exceeding $2-trillion. They are, respectively, the US, China and Brazil.

So Brazil matters a lot in the world and is dominant, in every respect, in its own hemisphere. But when I returned to SA from South America I either misread the political trends in that hegemon or drank too deeply from the Kool-Aid of conventional wisdom. I noted in a column for this newspaper, in November 2012, reflecting on a visit to this country by invitation of union federation Cosatu of former Brazilian president Luis Inacia Lula da Silva, universally known as Lula, that the two-term president had “achieved a rare trifecta in the world”: high growth, political freedom and falling inequality.

I went on to suggest that Lula, almost alone on the world stage, had built on, not destroyed, the economic platform of his predecessor, Fenando Cardoso, and “with his populist charm extended the reach of government to the country’s poor. In the process he became in the words of an admiring critic “a purveyor of pragmatic politics that were at once pro-Wall Street and pro-Favella”.

I did, at least, in the same column quote Cardoso’s sneering observation of his successor that Lulanomics consisted of “government by cash dispenser”. But I completely missed the dark undertow of corruption that washed around his presidency and capsized his ambition of a presidential return. He sat out the recent election in a prison cell, not only front and centre of the world’s greatest corruption scandal, which drew in most of the established parties, but reigning over a fiscally ruinous and bloated state. Its reach, in terms of law enforcement, turned out to be utterly enfeebled.

Little wonder then, that on Sunday his handpicked successor, Fernando Haddad, had such a dismal night at the polls. His mass-based left-wing Workers Party ( PT) was bested by more than 10 points by an obscure and misleadingly misnamed Social Liberal Party. But its candidate was outsized in every way:  Bolsonaro trumpeted the achievements of the military dictatorship that held sway in Brazil until three decades ago. He championed torture, proposed extreme remedies against crime, and disparaged gays, women and blacks. But his crude, even extreme populism resonated with a country that has endured enervating lawlessness, economic regression and deep corruption that corroded the heart of the state.

Voters embraced a certifiable outsider, whose middle name translates as “Messiah” who, like Trump, with whom he exchanged admiring postelection messages, promises to “drain the swamp”.

Just how the next Brics knees-up will pan out should prove fascinating. Cyril Ramaphosa apparently dislikes Trump. But Trump is a civic-minded feminist liberal compared with Bolsonaro. And the utter incoherence of the entire Brics edifice is now apparent. Three authoritarians, one without the benefit of a popular mandate (China’s Xi Jinping), another elected through repressive manipulation (Russia’s Valdimir Putin) sit alongside two democrats (Ramaphosa and India’s Narendra Modi). And with Bolsonaro elected on a promise of privatisation and fiscal austerity, the economic divergence now mirrors the political disconnect between this improbable quintet.

Back to the bestseller lists. How Democracies Die reminds us that in contrast to the fascist and communist pasts, blatant dictatorships have largely disappeared. Instead “democratic backslidings” today “are not caused by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves…. Elected autocrats maintain a veneer of democracy (such as Putin does in Russia) while eviscerating its substance”. And it goes beyond simple electoral manipulation. “Democratic backsliding begins at the ballot box.” And it often occurs when an exhausted and cynical electorate chooses an extremist candidate because the system has been so corroded by corruption and self-enrichment by the elite.

If all of the above universal symptoms have some local resonance with our own state capture and the “gatvol” response it could engender among voters, pause for a moment to consider the most powerful paragraph in How Democracies Die: “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy, gradually, subtly, and even legally, to kill it.”

I’m not sure that the red-overalled bullyboys here are either subtle or gradual in their tactics. Nor are those in power who delegitimise their democratic opponents. But the prospect of fifth columnists toppling the city from within is worth considering, and guarding against.

Or else perhaps take a fresh look at It Can’t Happen Here. Perhaps it could.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.

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