Grace Poe’s tragedy and triumphs
“Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides,” the late former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher warned.
For “The Iron Lady,” leadership was a matter of conviction politics — pushing your policy priorities to their preferred destination at all costs, regardless of the magnitude of obstacles and depth of objections. Despite vehement opposition, Thatcher oversaw the vitiation of the social welfare system, the aggressive deregulation of the economy and financial liberalization at the expense of the manufacturing sector.
She was a woman of unparalleled conviction and steely will, confidently disparaging middle-of-the-road political posturing, especially in times of tortuous upheaval and excruciating transition. Yet her single-minded style of leadership also brought about tremendous suffering, especially among the working class, while weakening the foundations of the British economy in the long run.
In short, “political will” and a linear style of leadership is a double-edged sword. Winston Churchill may have rightly utilized conviction politics during the darkest hours of Nazi ascendancy, but there are many other cases of decisive leaders wreaking misery and pain on their helpless citizens with such leadership. Think of the horrors brought about by Joseph Stalin’s or Mao Zedong’s rule as the most potent expression of the inherent dangers of the single-minded, unchecked and hubristic exercise of power. As I have always argued, for every tempered authoritarian like Lee Kuan Yew, I can cite a dozen Mugabes and Gadhafis who ravenously enslaved and recklessly ruined their nations.
And this is where the value of centrists such as Grace Poe lies. In times when an authoritarian populist is ruling with whimsical fiat and arbitrary relish, tempered and calibrated leadership can at times serve as a radical break from the status quo.
Poe is at once among the most appreciated and underappreciated political figures of our times. Back in 2016, she was cumulatively the most preferred candidate, if one were to combine the first and second preferences of voters. And, far from an empty shell, she dominated the presidential debates with a commendable mixture of accessible delivery and substantive depth.
Were she not sabotaged by her rivals on a highly questionable citizenship issue, there would have been a clear path for the daughter to accomplish what her father didn’t back in 2004.
Despite lacking machinery and expressly refusing to bandwagon with the ruling administration, Poe still managed to almost top the Senate race once again this year. Were it not for the “solid south” phenomenon, with an organized Mindanao systematically voting down independents like Poe, she would have likely ranked first.
At the same time, her greatest tragedy is the almost willful lack of appreciation by certain sectors of society, especially those who prefer either left-leaning or right-leaning conviction politics. For instance, few progressives appreciated the fact that she actually called for the regulation of fake news, a dangerous move in our current information ecosystem. Instead, they focused on her supposed schmoozing with notorious proregime online propagandists.
Poe was also among the leading senators who consistently raised the alarm bells over President Duterte’s China policy. She took up the cudgels on the potentially adverse national security implications of the entry of China Telecom, the prospective purchase of Hanjin by Chinese companies, and the untrammeled influx of illegal Chinese workers into the country.
Few also appreciated the fact that she was one of but two senators (along with Nancy Binay) who refused to fall into the fist-bump bandwagon during her inauguration. In times of shameless co-optation and unbounded opportunism, these were radical acts.
Even fewer appreciated her consistent call for easing our traffic crisis through calibrated (rather than carte blanche) emergency powers. For her, you need sufficient internal safeguards against abuse, while giving the administration enough leeway to institute urgent reforms.
Similar to California senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, Poe appears to believe in concrete, gradual and meaningful change rather than grand exhortations and ideological battles. By choosing her battles carefully, she seems to be working toward creating the best possible impact within her limited time in office — what may be called the Grace Poe doctrine.
This way, she avoids the trap of what philosopher Slavoj Zizek aptly termed as “principled opportunism”: Self-righteously taking the high road, while avoiding the tough, dirty and difficult job of helping ordinary people on a daily basis.
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