There is nothing permanent except change,” ancient philosopher Heraclitus once observed. In the world of politics, no principle could be truer. We live in a post-ideological era, which is paradoxically both modern and medieval.
On one hand, the decline of ideology as a force for social mobilization is a reflection of the emergence of postmodernism, an inherently pluralist state of mind built on the belief that there is no singular truth. As British historian Perry Anderson observed in “The Origins of Postmodernity” (1998), it all began with avant-garde architectural and artistic experimentations that defied the rigidities of modernism. Over the decades, this subjective free-spiritedness fused with the explosion of consumerism among the aspirational middle classes.
Eventually, the average Westerner would be drawn to commercial brands (think of Apple) rather than political ideologies (think of socialism), giving birth to consumerist nihilism. Thanks to globalization, this phenomenon has spread from the West to the East.
By the end of the 20th century, no singular ideology, in its traditional sense at least, had managed to hold sway among large sections of society. The collapse of the Soviet Union made capitalism the default reality for the entire humanity.
As a result, many leftist-progressive parties in the West confronted an existential crisis. Their ability to mobilize their base was significantly hampered by the collective loss of confidence in absolute truths, whether political or religious.
Our age is also one of medieval tribalism marked by charismatic leaders—men and women who are endowed, as Max Weber memorably put it, with perceived “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Not only are ordinary voters less attached to ideology, they are also more drawn to such polarizing and tough-talking leaders, who skillfully tap into their basic fears and instincts.
More than policy, what matters to most voters nowadays is affinity and trust—a mystical connection to political leaders who promise certainty and provide a sense of belonging amid dizzying change.
In the Philippines, the liberal-democratic opposition confronts a similar dilemma. Standard slogans of human rights, civil liberties and political freedom are far less appealing to average voters today than during the heyday of democratic struggle in the past century.
As the de facto leader of the opposition, Leni Robredo has found herself in a similar situation with progressive-leftist leaders in the West throughout the 1990s. Yet, there are valuable strategic lessons to be drawn from the latter group’s struggles.
Unwilling to concede the political arena to an ascendant conservatism, a younger generation of progressive leaders opted for a new ideological synthesis, the so-called “third way.” At the forefront of this effort were the likes of Tony Blair, who would become one of the longest-serving British prime ministers, and Bill Clinton, one of the most successful politicians in American history.
Their solution, and subsequent electoral success, was based on the recognition that traditional progressive-socialist ideals no longer appealed to vast sections of society. By fusing economic pragmatism with progressive values of tolerance and social welfare, they managed to establish a potent new political narrative that made the left electorally dominant.
They promised economic growth as well as order. Crucially, both Blair and Clinton recognized the instinctive power of personal charisma by building affective bonds with ordinary voters. This way, they managed to sideline their right-wing rivals like none of their colleagues, though, over time, they also began to lose touch with their progressive roots.
Thus, the challenge for liberal-democratic leaders in the Philippines is to preserve their fidelity to their fundamental principles, such as the inviolability of human dignity and rights, while weaving a new political narrative that recognizes the citizens’ legitimate concerns over order and inclusive development.
In the emerging markets, where rule of law is weak and growth is uneven, disaffected individuals tend to choose order and shared prosperity over law and civil liberties. Even more crucially, one must not forget the sheer power of charisma.
Democratic politics is not the realm of algorithmic rationality, but the struggle for the affections and loyalties of voters. This is the “third way” that Leni and the new generation of liberal democrats should strive for, if they wish to remain relevant in our age of populism and ideological skepticism.