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Public Lives

The antipolitical in politics

/ 12:22 AM April 10, 2016

One of the puzzling things about the political situation in our country today is that while President Aquino enjoys continued public approval by a majority of the people (the latest Pulse Asia report puts this at 52 percent)—quite unprecedented for a chief executive nearing the end of his term—his own anointed successor, Mar Roxas, has not been doing well in preelection polls. The disconnect is even more baffling in light of the fact that the country has recorded high rates of economic growth in a stable political environment in the last six years, enjoying a level of investor confidence not seen in previous decades.

How does one account for these seeming contradictions in public opinion? There might be three reasons: (1) the reality of unfulfilled expectations; (2) the absence of a strong party system; and (3) the growing disenchantment with politics itself, which has spawned an ironic style of politics that resonates with the public with its antipolitical messages. Let me explain.

The political system needs a mirror by which to be able to see and orient itself, and that mirror is public opinion. Public opinion is thus to politics as the market is to the economy.  Opinion surveys are the most popular way of determining public opinion, but they are not the only way. We need other studies that try to dig into the complex origins of the choices that informants make as they respond to the usual survey questions.

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Unfulfilled expectations. My hunch is that with increasing economic prosperity, a growing segment of the public also begins to be aware of the restricted access they have to the limited goods and opportunities available.  Against the backdrop of rising expectations, the reality of their exclusion becomes more pronounced. They become more aware of the sharp inequalities in the growing economy. That is why the most politically disaffected do not necessarily come from the ranks of the very poor but from those who have freed themselves from the shackles of absolute poverty and are determined to flourish. The latter’s level of frustration and anger tends to be much higher. Consider the groups that are virtually rejecting the administration in preelection polls: They mostly come from the relatively more prosperous National Capital Region and the “D” segment of the population.

Weak party system. In a political system with strong and stable parties, there would be no room for “privateer” presidential aspirants like Rodrigo Duterte and Grace Poe who are running on the sheer strength of their personal popularity. (I borrow the term “privateer” from the world of motor sports where it refers to individual competitors who are not backed by a corporate team.) But, Philippine political culture being what it is—a system that favors idiosyncratic personal narratives over party-backed political programs—it doesn’t seem surprising that a party leader like Roxas is trailing in the race.

We are also beginning to see this phenomenon in American politics today in the rise of Donald Trump. It is threatening the stability of the US two-party system where candidates go through a grueling series of party caucuses at the state level before the actual national convention itself. Party ideology and structure are supposed to assert themselves in these caucuses, weeding out individuals who are basically outsiders to the party. But Trump’s stunning performance in these caucuses signifies that the Republican grassroots constituency has changed in ways that the party itself may have failed to recognize.

Antipolitics. I am led to think that a lot of this has to do with the postmodern turn against politics itself. Rather than see politics as a necessary and inescapable component of social life, people begin to view it as the source of all that is wrong in society. Voters then go for candidates who defy all the existing norms of political correctness and professional conduct, and who, unafraid and uncensored, say what they feel like saying, and don’t seem to care about winning.

Duterte has tapped into this antipolitical vein in an amazing way. He loves to tell his audiences that he himself could not decide whether he wanted to run. He tells them to vote for any of his opponents who have prepared for the presidency all their lives. “Just remember, I am your last card,” he says—a clever pitch for authenticity in a time of despair.

But, it is important to differentiate the current support that Americans are giving Trump from the Filipinos’ present love affair with Duterte. While the wellsprings of both are antipolitical, the former is a reaction to the exhaustion felt in the recurrent gridlock that besets modern democratic politics, while the latter arises from the feudal yearning for a willful autocrat who can unite, restore order in, and protect the nation.

The implicit message seems to be that the inherited institutions of modern governance have failed to solve the problems of Filipinos. They need someone who will make the decisions and solve the problems for them, unencumbered by due process and debate. The tough-talking strongman from Davao thus forms a pair—not with the Bible-quoting Alan Cayetano—but with Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. who is running on the mantra of national unity. The young Marcos says that politics has divided us against ourselves, that we need to forget the antagonisms of the past if we are to face the future with hope.

As we may note, the 2016 presidential election is not entirely a contest of personalities. It is also a battle between traditional and modern leadership, between the old and the new mode of governance.

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TAGS: approval rating, Donald Trump, Elections 2016, politics, Public opinion
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