If you keep your money locked in a safe at home, it will steadily lose its value over time. Indeed, even if you deposit it in a savings account, earning minimal interest, the odds are it will also shed much of its value because of inflation. Money needs to be invested in property or economic activity if it is to have any chance of retaining or increasing its value. To be sure, there is also considerable risk of losing all of it in a poorly chosen venture.
Power works in pretty much the same way. It does not operate by the mere assertion of its legitimacy or of its superiority. It has to be “spent” in order for it to have any chance of expanding or retaining its value. The ways of doing this are unlimited, attesting to the complexity of power relations.
After every election, we project the hope that the leaders we have chosen will have the wisdom, the selflessness, and the will to apply their political capital to society’s most difficult and persistent problems. In survey after survey, we affirm this faith in the nation’s elected leaders, as though it were a prophesy that cannot fail. We stay hopeful despite early signs that we may have erred in our choices.
Some presidents go for long-term goals like strengthening institutions or reforming government, with little to show by way of visible programs or campaigns. Somewhere along the way, they lose their nerve as their popularity declines. They learn to compromise, and to employ what remains of their political capital to ensure their political survival. Their biggest accomplishment would be to avoid being removed by impeachment or by a coup.
Others spend their political power mainly to settle old scores, with idealism quickly giving way to egoism. A lot of moralizing attends this approach to power, all aimed at convincing the voters that their moral intuitions are upheld when the bad are jailed and banished from the political world forever.
Still others go through the motions of conventional governance but reserve their political capital mainly to accumulate personal wealth. Such leaders merely mirror the prevailing practice in the rest of the country. But, projected on a national scale, this form of expenditure of political power is enormously damaging to the nation’s institutions and, ultimately, to the country’s core interests.
The road to power can be so arduous for a president that it tends to breed an inclination toward the conservative use of political capital. In contrast, someone who campaigned for and rose to the presidency with little expectation to win — like Rodrigo Duterte — might regard the position more or less like money won in a lottery. He came upon it almost effortlessly, so he doesn’t really care if he loses it overnight. Somebody in this position can afford to view his actions as experiments — intended, in Mr. Duterte’s own words, “to shake up the tree” or “to test the limits of civility” — just to see what can happen.
This attitude was already visible during the campaign. Mr. Duterte, the candidate, practically joked his way through the presidential debates, dishing out nonsensical responses to policy questions and mocking the seriousness of his rivals. Yet, he got the loudest applause. He projected a disarming indifference to power and privilege, sounding almost contemptuous of the very position he was seeking.
Voters found his cynicism justified, his irreverence funny, and his crudeness an antidote to the distant formality and earnestness of our political rituals. To them, he was the personification of the authentic Filipino. They laughed heartily at his jokes and relished every profanity he uttered. They saw themselves in him.
Mr. Duterte carried this signature rawness with him to the presidency. Against all expectations, he had clearly stumbled upon a formula for political effectiveness. He refused to be trapped in the scripts of power prepared for him by those charged with enforcing the protocols of the state. He enjoyed the disruption he created, unafraid that he was squandering political capital by espousing unpopular causes and simultaneously taking on all his critics.
No other president in the nation’s political history has commanded so much fear and popularity at the same time as Mr. Duterte. No politician has been more admired for his sheer guts. No one has freely flouted so many Filipino values — respect for life, compassion for the poor, courtesy in speech, respect for religious belief, deference to religious figures, respect for women, etc. — and emerged from it unscathed, as this president. Indeed, no one has spent more scarce political capital as thoughtlessly, but ended up with more.
For some observers like myself, such behavior seems like so much pointless expenditure of political power. We wish that it would be more usefully employed to solving the perennial problems of corruption, of mass poverty, of urban congestion, of social injustice, of environmental degradation, etc. But that is because we are wont to think of political power only in its positive sense — as a means to achieve the collective good.
We forget that, in general, people don’t judge their leaders by this criterion. Not many take the trouble to reconcile their actions to their professed beliefs, or to arrange their values in some reasonable hierarchy of importance. We forget too that the pursuit of one set of values often results in violating another set of values.
In truth, as a society, we have not spent enough time sorting out the things we truly believe in or consider non-negotiable. That is why many Filipinos admire Mr. Duterte for exactly the same reasons others despise him.
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