The school of politics

There are no schools for making a marriage work and raising a family, or for seeking public office and serving the community.  It is remarkable that in areas where it matters most,  we seem content with learning by doing.  We take the plunge first, then we learn.

Some go through an apprenticeship with an old master, and proceed to replicate his style, the only model they know, never acquiring the perspective to realize whether it is good or bad.  One therefore wishes there were a school for family life or the public life, where models are assessed against experience, and values constantly reformed on the anvil of reason.

These thoughts  come to mind because one of my brothers, Dante, a lawyer, has decided to enter politics, the first in our family to do so. While my father, the late Fiscal Pedro David, served as a municipal councilor shortly after the war, he did not think political life suited his temperament.  Until now, there have been no politicians on either side of our family.  I think this has produced an instinctive aversion to politics.

My mother’s first reaction was one of inexplicable sadness.  She felt she had lost a son.  Like many middle-class Filipinos, she could only think of politics in the negative sense: as violent, dirty, wasteful, chaotic, and dishonest.  You could die senselessly, or live a life of compromise, she told me when once she read my name in the papers as a possible candidate.  To her credit, and to my surprise, she did not dissuade my younger brother.  Take care and stay clean, she counseled him in a tone of resignation.  I tried to lighten her somber attitude by joking that of her thirteen children, she has given one to the Church, a priest; it was time to give one to the State.

One Sunday morning, I drove off with our budding politician to a remote barangay where he was to meet some local leaders.  I was curious to know how he introduces himself to his constituency and builds his network in a province long known for its tradition of patronage and money politics.  We stopped at a small restaurant along the way to pick up a group of young professionals who had offered to assist him.  They were lawyers, teachers, and small businessmen my brother had met in the course of his law practice in the province.

Apart from Ambo, the priest, whose well-crafted homilies I have always admired, I have not had the pleasure of listening to any of my siblings give a speech.  And so on this humid morning, as this political neophyte faced his small audience under the trees, I felt like an anxious parent watching his child perform in public for the first time. He spoke in our language, the language of our childhood, and at once, the ring of familiar words and sounds brought me home.  I felt better; I did not think he knew the formal language of our elders.

He spoke only of three things: sovereignty of the people, public service, and transparency.  I thought he sounded professorial, and his talk more like an academic lecture than a political speech. Sovereignty, he said, means that you the people must make the decisions.  This is meaningless, he warned, unless you are organized, especially between elections, and you have stable mechanisms for making your voices heard.

Public service, he noted, must begin with an awareness of the differing functions of public officials.  Legislators must enact and review laws, and discuss the problems we face as a nation.

Executives must attend to the day-to-day running of government.

Right now, he said, there is a confusion of functions in government. Congressmen perform functions that properly belong to mayors and governors.  As a result, local constituencies are not heard at the national level.

Then he spoke of the ethic of transparency, and how it has become crucial for a society like ours that has been demoralized by endemic corruption to compel all public officials to render a clear and open account of their activities while in office.  He lamented the poisonous practice of patronage whose seeds are planted during election time, when candidates promise all sorts of things, and ward leaders pledge votes in exchange for money.

His audience was quiet.  No comments were made nor were questions asked.  But I knew they listened intently.  Over lunch, I asked my brother why he chose to speak like that – abstract and conceptual.  His reply was forthright.  “Like you, I am a teacher,” he explained, “and I think of politics as a school.”  He said that we cannot expect to reorient our national life unless we remind our people of the basic principles of governance, and where they fit in the scheme of our political life.  This is only the first phase of the course, he said.  He asked me to come back during the campaign period, when he begins to discuss the issues, and the choices we can make as a people.

I never thought of politics as a school.  It is an impressive idea.  And listening to him as he speaks, I see that in this school, he is really both teacher and learner.  As he teaches, he also discovers the great divide between theory and practice, between rhetoric and achievement.  He comes face to face with the realities of entrenched loyalties, and the contradiction between gaining organized support and getting trapped in the web of group affiliations.

In politics, of course, there is no substitute for actually winning the vote.  But if he continues in this direction, he can only emerge from this journey a better Filipino.  And in my eyes, that is as good as winning.


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