The irrational in politics

Foreign journalists who come to our country to gather stories on Philippine politics nowadays never fail to ask about Erap.  They say the outside world’s fascination with Erap is fast approaching the intensity of its previous obsession with Imelda.  Imelda remains an abiding subject for international media apparently, but now there is also Erap, the movie actor with the outrageous lifestyle, who could be the Philippines’ next president.  The world is dying to know what lies behind his magic, and how the country might fare with him at the helm.

The quick response I give when I am asked about Erap is to point to Ronald Reagan, another actor who had fantastic rapport with the public, and to ask if America went down because of Reagan.  And when reminded of Erap’s tortuous way with English, I counter by saying that he is a Filipino and speaks straight Filipino, and besides, it did not seem important that only recently the US had a vice president who could not spell.  This way of answering, of course, is hardly satisfactory, but I do it as a way of reminding foreign readers that countries like ours do not have a monopoly of the ridiculous, the fabulous and the irrational.   And that people everywhere choose their leaders not solely on the basis of reason but also of passion.

Indeed, much of what we call charisma is nothing but personal attractiveness  based on the perceptions of others.  The magic of these perceptions lies precisely in the fact that they are unrecognized. Charismatic leaders understand the fascination of the masses with eroticism, vulgarity, naked power, blood and violence.  Their access to their followers is first through these unsublimated impulses, rather than through the intellect.  The rationalizations come after.  This is what Pareto meant when he said that our ideas are often but the shadows of our darkest desires.

There is a long tradition of inquiry into the relationship between the conscious and the unconscious, the rational and the irrational, reason and desire, intellect and impulse.  Most of the writings of Freud, Nietzsche, Pareto, Weber, and Adorno sought to address the question of how far civilization can come under the dominion of reason.  Their answers provided a brooding counterpoint to the naïve modern optimism in the capacity of reason and science to regulate human affairs.

The irrational in politics has bothered generations of scholars everywhere.  They have tried to account for the rise of Hitler in Germany, of Stalin in Russia, and of Mao in China.  And lately, analysts have turned their attention to the unexpected and indecipherable global mourning that attended the death and funeral of Princess Diana.  The phenomenon being examined is the same: the charisma, the magnetism, the power that draws the multitude to a particular person.

The best antidote to charisma, theoretically speaking, should be demystification.  The more the charismatic person’s life is placed under the lens of reason, the weaker he must appear in the eyes of those who follow him.  Unfortunately, that is not the way it works in real life.  Magic is a separate language, and the intellectual assault on the charismatic person often only serves to heighten his attractiveness.   A great deal of the support he gets seems to depend on the style that he exudes when he expresses himself, rather than on the logical coherence of his public statements.

As political modernists, our preference should be for a public life governed by the open discussion of issues.  That is why we demand that every candidate for any public office, especially the presidency, be made to present a program of government, a political platform.  Yet the writers we mention above also remind us that people everywhere seldom choose their leaders exclusively on the basis of their stand on issues.  Rather they tend to choose them because of certain personal characteristics that respond to their own unrecognized desires.  In this regard, I suppose voter education must begin with an interrogation of our own impulsive fascination with particular types of candidates.

But a recognition of the role of the irrational in politics also compels political groups to take personal charisma seriously.  This is especially crucial in societies where competing political platforms tend to converge around a few so-called motherhood statements.  We can see this clearly today in the race to 1998: just about every one is rooting for social reform and poverty-alleviation, for a crime-free society, an honest government, and sustainable economic development.

Given such ideological homogeneity, the element of personal appeal acquires singular importance in the victory of a candidate.  Supporters will know whether their man or woman has it when they begin to put together a guide on how to project their candidate.   There is a limit to what spin-doctors can do for any candidate.

In politics, it is said, it is not enough that you have the right ideas; it is also important that you have the right faces.   Having the right faces is not a question of beauty or appearance.  In the context of our discussion, it means that groups vying for power have no choice but to respect the irrational in politics,  and to be on the look out for those gifted with abundant grace or inexplicable eroticism when choosing their champions.


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