Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

Elite Framing of Inequality in the Press: Brazil and Uruguay Compared *

Academic journal article Brazilian Political Science Review

Elite Framing of Inequality in the Press: Brazil and Uruguay Compared *

Article excerpt

[...] The intellectual pressure that people make through newspaper articles [...] is valid because one starts redirecting state action. Quite often they [state bureaucrats] are [just] sitting there in their glory, and they think that they are trying to solve problems in the best way possible, but [...] they don't know the communities, they don't even know everybody inside the state. Therefore, the most articulated layers of society, the ones that are able to make diverse pressures in an efficient way, are the ones that will be first and foremost beneficiated. (Extract from an in-depth interview with a male corporate leader from Brazil1).

The most popular models of elite behavior state that elites feel threatened by the poor in contexts of high income inequality and that significant political change is likely to follow-up threat perceptions (ACEMOGLU and ROBINSON, 2005; BOIX 2003). With that in mind, several elite studies use survey data and in-depth interviews as metrics of elite attitudes toward the poor (e.g., CLARKE and SISON, 2003; HOFFMANN-LANGE, 2010; HOSSAIN and MOORE, 2005; LÓPEZ, 2013a, 2014; REIS, 2011; REIS and MOORE, 2005). This article proposes a different approach by examining insertions of elites in the editorial and op-ed pages of the press. It tests whether the basic premises of the mentioned models apply to Brazil and Uruguay in terms of the manner in which they frame poverty and inequality. I therefore take debates in the press as a proxy of elite public response to externalities of inequality.

The Brazil-Uruguay comparison contrasts two opposite cases in South America. Brazil holds a record of high inequalities, while Uruguay poses a more homogeneous society and historically lower levels of income inequality. Moreover, Brazil is characterized by extreme levels of urban violence (BRINKS, 2008; CANO and SANTOS, 2007), which elites tend to attribute to poverty and inequality (REIS, 2000b, 2011), while Uruguay poses low levels of violence and criminality (LÓPEZ, 2013a). In that sense, Brazil and Uruguay fit the two opposing poles described by recent literature.

All things considered, how much elite public mobilization can be expected in Brazil and Uruguay? Contradicting the expectations of the state-of-the-art literature, the results indicate that elites can promote public discussions regarding the poor without any sense of urgency, even in the context of high inequality in Brazil. Concordantly, a greater sense of urgency can emerge out of a context of lower inequality, as seen in Uruguay. For the most part, elites in these countries use the printed media to urge the economic action on the part of the state. In the discussion section, I will suggest that rather than worrying about externalities, elites ought to concentrate on economic policy as a means to demand the reproduction of a longstanding corporatist and patrimonial relationships with the state.

However, first it is important to understand why the press is a suitable and promising data source for elite studies, and especially to those concerned with elite reactions to the poor. To begin with, elites are aware of the press as a powerful tool for inducing state action. The opening quote in this article illustrates elites' perceptions of their influence through news media. Furthermore, in the quote, a Brazilian corporate leader argues that, if left alone, the state would be incapable of diagnosing actual needs and that elites are likely to benefit from channeling state action toward the "right direction".

Elites are aware of their use of news media; therefore, one can assume it as a channel of inter-elite communication. As such, elite public statements in the press should echo externalities of inequality. The more inequality disturbs elite rule, the more elites should debate the matter in order to find solutions. Furthermore, I argue that it is important to understand how elites frame poverty and inequality. Even if elites perceive the poor as a threat, different frames may lead to different courses of action. …

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