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The apolitical in politics

/ 05:02 AM June 05, 2022

It may sound like a contradiction in terms. But, in fact, it happens most of the time. Irrespective of social class, the average voter tends to be driven more by unconscious dispositions than by explicitly formulated opinions on the issues that candidates represent. Only the latter type of participation can properly be called political.

I borrow this insight from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who has noted why ordinary voters tend not to take the trouble to clarify their own interests in elections and make these count in the act of voting. The root of this, he argues, is “the apathy associated with dispossession of the means of production of political opinions,” which often expresses itself as simple absenteeism from the polls. Or as “unconditional delegation” to others who may know better. (Bourdieu, “Practical Reason,” 1998)

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Whatever form this general apathy may take, observes Bourdieu, it is the latent dispositions that prevail, not political consciousness.

To give an example of this, let me recount the experience that a friend recently had in the course of waging an active campaign in his community for presidential candidate Leni Robredo. A progressive academic, he had had no previous experience in electoral campaigns. But this did not deter him.

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Believing that the 2022 presidential election was a critical moment in the nation’s life, he set aside time and money to help the pink candidates get elected. He conducted political discussions with his neighbors, served the signature lugaw as an act of solidarity, printed and posted tarpaulins, attended the pink rallies, and, in the latter part of the campaign, got his neighbors to join him in house-to-house campaigning in an adjoining informal-settler community.

Here is where it gets interesting. One morning, he saw a long line of buses parked near that community. He found out they were meant for those who wished to join the BBM rally in San Fernando, Pampanga. To his utter dismay, he saw among those enticing residents to come and join the San Fernando “excursion” some of his own leaders. They were wearing BBM shirts. Horrified but curious to know what this was about, he quietly approached them. “Hi, Prof,” someone greeted him with a sheepish smile, “we’re just going on an excursion.”

My friend left, deeply shaken by what he saw. He never found out who his community leaders eventually voted for. But it dawned on him that political conviction meant little or nothing to these neighbors. Did they join him in his house-to-house sorties for the sake of pakikisama? Were they fooling him? Was it the money they expected to get from the other camp? He didn’t have the answer.

Neither — I’m quite certain — would these voters be able to offer a coherent account of their own actions. One thing is sure though — these actions cannot be explained as proceeding from any consciously defined political position. Bourdieu’s explanation is bleak: Many voters, especially the economically excluded, are painfully aware of their lack of competence to formulate their own opinions on political questions. The result of this is apathy — and vulnerability to all kinds of disinformation and clientelism.

But the larger social question is the role that unexamined emotional dispositions play in electoral politics. If, as we suspect, they play a greater determining role in electoral outcomes than coherent political discourse, then it is understandable why the seeding of narratives or stories through memes, caricatures, and parodies on social media platforms like TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, and the like has become the single most preferred practice in elections today. It is now clear that the object of all such operations on social media is ultimately to manipulate preexisting dispositions, to reinforce or affirm them, rather than to create new ones.

Sowing disinformation narratives is, of course, not new. Gossip columnists do it all the time. What makes it different and more insidious in the era of social media is the ease with which a narrative can become viral in a very short time, giving it a communicative power that allows it to oppose the truths of mainstream social media. This explains why it is difficult to fight disinformation narratives with plain facts. People are drawn to narratives, not because they can be proven to be true, but because these make them feel good.

There is a wide range of such powerful but unexamined dispositions as anti-elite resentment, deep mistrust of government, faith in strong leaders, etc. They lie at the root of the current populist authoritarianism that is sweeping democratic societies in many parts of the world.

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As I noted above, social media does not produce resentment, so much as it gives shape to it. The blend of bitterness, anger, and cynicism that is encapsulated and communicated through memes require no verification. Strictly speaking, not all of these images are instances of disinformation, but they serve the same purpose — to tap hidden dispositions and manipulate feelings.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr. played this game very well. He avoided political debate and the reasoned comparison of political programs that would unavoidably touch on factual questions. His campaign rested entirely on the combined myth-making power of the new social media and the old patron-client structures of traditional politics.

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TAGS: #VotePH2022, being apolitical, PH politics, political apathy, political conviction, Public Lives, Randy David, voters
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