Public Lives

Politics and its consequences

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It is a testimony to the undifferentiated nature of our political system that many other social institutions are mobilized during elections.  There’s the family, there’s religion, there’s the business sector, and then there’s the science of surveys.  Their chief purveyors try to convert the power they wield into the currency of politics.  We are disturbed by this because, more than ever, we now have a clear sense that it is not right.

It is not right that the power to govern is monopolized by a few families, or transferred along kinship lines. It is not right that priests and religious ministers can decide who their flocks should vote for.  It is not right that money from the propertied classes should determine a candidate’s chances of winning.  And it is not right that paying clients should determine the agenda and content of scientific studies.

Interestingly, theorists of modernity do not fret over the fact that premodern societies do not measure up to these standards.  They believe that societal evolution eventually favors the emergence of autonomous political systems.  In short, whether or not there’s an explicit law banning them, political dynasties, religious meddling in politics, corporate financing of electoral campaigns, and the use of surveys to sway voters are bound to become less important, or even obsolete, as society becomes modern.

Maybe this is an over-optimistic view.  But there’s plenty of evidence to show that, as societies become more complex, they do tend to form differentiated institutional systems as a means of reducing complexity.  Of course, people will always try to bring other values to bear upon politics, as they do on other systems.  The big difference is that in a modern society, they may not always be understood or appreciated when they do.  That is when we say a society has changed.

But, of equal interest to students of transitional societies is what happens to basic institutions like the family, religion, the economy, and science when they are heavily tapped for politics.  Will love survive when the family is converted into a political machine?  Will notions of the transcendental life outlive the engagement of the clergy in the partisan contests of the temporal world?  What happens to economic production when the owning classes are invested heavily in the fortunes of individual politicians?  And what happens to science when its agenda is set by politics?

We have seen in the course of our life as a nation how political power, like money, can so distort the operation of the justice system that people who could not win their cases in court attempt to redeem themselves in the polls, or buy protection from prosecution by winning in elections.  Unable to preserve its autonomy, justice becomes no more than a commodity and a tool of political power.

Why would it be any different when the family, religion, or science are fed into the mill of politics?  Marriages become tools for forging political alliances.  An ambitious politician chooses a celebrity spouse or partner to enhance his political assets.  Children are valued not for who they are but for what they can contribute to the family’s political strength.  Or vice versa, ties of kinship are thrashed when members of the same family take different political sides.

It was in view of these real dangers that Benedict XVI counseled against the clergy taking partisan positions in politics. Doing so, he said, would be to risk undermining the moral authority of the Church.  It would go against the Church’s principal function of educating consciences and serving the poor.

This kind of reflexivity, I’m certain, has also begun to take root within the corporate community, which has become accustomed to setting aside a huge amount of resources every election for campaign contributions.  It is an obligation they are minded not to shirk, given that those who wield political power can easily put businessmen who back the wrong politicians out of business.  But no economy can flourish in the long term under these conditions.  Vulnerability to political shifts limits the scope of rational economic planning and decision-making.

But, it is the effect of politics on scientific activity that concerns me most as a sociologist. I have been keenly observing the public reception of preelection surveys.  It is worrisome to see how much value Filipino voters and political coalitions assign to surveys to determine the suitability of candidates for public office.  I am bothered by the way the science of opinion surveys in our country has been massively shaped by the short-term interests of partisan politics.

I am not merely referring here to the danger of deliberate data manipulation in order to serve the propaganda needs of certain clients.  I am particularly troubled that the scientific study of public opinion itself appears to have become narrowly focused on the concerns of electoral politics.  There’s hardly any attempt in these surveys to uncover or illuminate the long-term developments in the nation’s political life.  Whatever scholarly objectives they may have are vastly overshadowed by the informational requirements of paying clients.  One wonders how long our survey firms can continue to invoke the authority of science.

Until now, we have only worried about the way other sources of social power have distorted our politics.  It is time we also paid attention to what politics is doing to our families, our churches, our economy, our justice system, our scientific community, etc.

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