Nostalgia and Herd Political Behaviour – A Psychopolitical Glance on the Latest Brazilian Electoral Polls
AN Original - UNPOP Series
By Gabrielle Lacerda, Lara Bonassoli, Maria Izabel Braga Weber

The intersection of politics, mythology, and mass behaviour has persistently influenced political scenarios worldwide. Recently, studies have explored the intricate relationship between these concepts and populism, highlighting how the construction of the political narrative influences electoral dynamics in a populist context. By analysing the last two Brazilian election processes (2018 and 2022), this article aims to revisit the concept of herd behaviour to understand how dangerous some populist discourses can be to democracy and how democracy can resist them.


Trying "to define populism" has raised a long and unfinished discussion until now, and consensus is far from reached. However, different approaches have recently gained some adherence regarding populism's essence and effect. Some scholars argue beyond the dichotomy of ideational and substantive aspects of the concept, bringing them closer by understanding it as a not-empty ideational strategy. According to them, populist politicians use a robust mythological apparatus to create narratives, allowing voters to understand their messages easily and subsidising them in challenging the mainstream parties' positional convergences that do not reflect their preferences (latent or motivated).

These approaches challenge the classical political science definitions of populist leaders as charismatic politicians, voters as a mere amorphous group of followers, and the pluralistic partisan liberal democratic process of representation as a preventive tool to an exclusionary form of populism. The essence of political mythology differs from the common narrative by creating significance for a shared political experience more than trying to convince by its contents. In this sense, the analysis of political mythology narratives should seek beyond the logic that sustains the hierarchical relation of saviour, messianic and chosen figures (although these examples can still be observed), which leads to an authoritarian political context since the political choice of exclusionary populist forces is being normalised everywhere, even in long-stabilised democracies.

This capacity to create significance from shared political experiences reshapes individuals and collective beliefs. It influences public opinion dynamics and political participation, which are dimensions of mass political behaviour that, from a political, psychological perspective, involve social psychological theories of attitudes, emotion, social cognition, and social identity applied to enhance our comprehension of political choice, action, and engagement.

One of these theories is based on an inherent human instinct of defence, as seen in a scaping herd. This analogy has been used to psychologically explain some aspects of mass behaviour in social, political, and economic contexts since the middle of the last century. According to this theory, individuals' thoughts or behaviours within a group are aligned by some trigger. Usually, this happens through local interactions among individuals rather than an authority or leader.

This behaviour and its effect occur due to various causes, mainly emotional contagion or imitation. Sometimes, it happens under conformity reactions to social norms to avoid embarrassment or reprimand of the group, even if it contradicts its own opinion. Nevertheless, what enhances its effect is the human mind's natural inclination to process and be swayed by narratives or tales, which are sequences of events with inherent logic and dynamics. Stories, particularly those shared within a group, influence how we collectively see, understand, emotionally respond to, and deal with shared events.

The concept of the collective soul aims to explain how collective consciousness within a group overrides individual consciousness. Using the last events in Brazil’s political scenario in January 2023 as an example of the mentioned imitation, some authors claim that crowd behaviour needs to be reinterpreted to overcome the classical perspective of an antagonistic relationship between crowds and individuals.

Observing Brazil's last two electoral processes, namely in 2018 and 2022, its version of the Capitol assault, provides a clue that despite the extreme political polarisation presented and opposed results from one election to another, Brazilian democracy seems less unstable than its results. There is a lack of consensus in the literature on the effectiveness of the Brazilian political system. There has been a clear pattern of bipolarization at the presidential level since the '90s. From 1994 until 2016, two main political parties – the Workers Party (PT) and the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) competed in presidential elections. However, after the 2014 election process, its context was exacerbated. In the 2018 election, this scenario changed – an old and regular politician from an unknown and minor political party unexpectedly defeated them. The established election system could not prevent a significant shift in the Brazilian party structure starting in 2018, with the traditional right-wing party (PSDB) being supplanted by an extreme-right movement known as Bolsonarism.

The strategic use of political mythology by this populist movement in the 2018 election intertwined the messianic and religious background fed by a narrative of unfounded nostalgia for the military Brazilian dictatorship past, "… the myth of a past that never or no longer exists…". This context was addressed by different authors who highlighted the significance of a collective memory shared by voters who either were not born in this past or were too young to preserve that memory. For the elderly, instead, bringing this past to a present was associated with an unrealistic threat to their beliefs that they did not link to mainstream political parties' positions, filling in a classic recipe for herd behaviour for a wide range of Brazilian voters seeking changes.

However, being a populist force in charge led this movement to face the challenges of political opinion. After the COVID-19 pandemic's dramatic results, most of the population wanted even more political and economic changes in government. As was pointed out by some specialists, every election, by definition, has only one government candidate and several opposition candidates' options. Dysfunctional distrust increases the polarisation of political behaviour and leads to opposite sides. When the majority wants to change, voters look at the possibilities they may know, which occurs in the Brazilian 2022 political poll.

In this last election, persistent polarisation, violence, disinformation narratives, conspiracy theories, hate speech, misinformation and fake news were identified at an unprecedented level, raising and spreading distrust feelings in society. At that time, news remarks the country’s tightest election since democratisation (1985). For the first time after its institution, a sitting president did not succeed in being re-elected. In addition, for the first time, a politician was elected for a third round for presidential charge. However, none of the presidential and governor's winners exceeded 50% of the votes, and the turnout was the highest in Brazilian electoral history. Despite advances, the effect was a spread of distrust in the electoral system and institutions that remain after the electoral process. This entanglement of elements influences the political information available to prevent and minimise the effects of herd behaviour.

The Brazilian case illustrates how electoral choices often transcend individual considerations, demonstrating the complexity of social and political dynamics during elective processes. In this context, it is possible to note the relevance of the effect of herd behaviour. In Brazil, we observe how this Phenomenon is being fuelled in society, often through polarising speeches and the dissemination of fake news, compromising critical analysis on the part of citizens. This herd behaviour can harm society and democracy, undermining the diversity of opinions and hindering constructive dialogue. Furthermore, perpetuating falsehoods and distortions compromises the integrity of the democratic process. Identifying the mechanisms that promote and confront the herd effect is necessary to avoid negative consequences, such as institutional destabilisation and the erosion of democratic values. Therefore, understanding and facing it is essential to preserve the health of democracy and to ensure a more informed and responsible political environment.