“All that is necessary… is that good men do nothing,” said Edmund Burke. Burke’s powerful reminder has always pricked many consciences. Every election year, a few good Filipinos, moved by Burke but otherwise without any compelling reason to become politicians, find themselves wading in the murky waters of traditional politics.
The first thing they learn is that goodness is its own constraint. In the thick of battle, they come face to face with the question whether it is better to remain good and lose, or to surrender to the pragmatics of a flawed political culture for a chance to win. They learn that though winning is not everything, they won’t get anywhere either by losing.
They know they must win before they can hope to make a difference. Understandably, they are not in politics just to learn its lessons.
Still, how an ethical candidate finds his way through the dilemma of having to participate in a system that he detests and wants to change is an important subject for political research. The lessons accumulated from the experiences of first-time alternative politicians could be the starting point of any program of political transformation.
Since the start of the campaign period, I have had a chance to observe at close range the journey of my own brother, Dante, a new recruit into the dark world of Philippine politics. He is running for the congressional seat of Pampanga’s second district against the administration party’s candidate and the incumbent, who is running with the major opposition party. What I have seen fascinates me as a sociologist and as a journalist, athough it has also, I think, permanently inoculated me against the virus of political ambition.
I do not have the patience of my brother, and as an academic, I tend to be more drawn to the pessimism of theory than to the optimism of practice. In contrast, he goes through his sorties like a traveling preacher, carrying a message of hope and telling his listeners that their redemption from poverty cannot come from any politician, but only from their collective will. He tells them that it is not foolish to dream of a better life for Filipinos, and urges them to dream with him.
But on our way home after a long day, my brother confesses his despair. Almost naively, he says, “I have been told that the language of politics is money, but I didn’t think people could be so blatant about it.” Wherever we went, persons claiming to be ward leaders talk endlessly of “logistics”. We pass young people playing basketball, and almost instinctively, they motion that they need uniforms and a ball. Every morning, as he starts the day, he faces a queue of people with a variety of requests, mostly for medicines or hospitalization or burial assistance. A politician to them is obviously nothing but a dispenser of charity.
“Patronage has corrupted the core of our people’s being,” he says. “They can no longer think in institutional terms. They feel they must beg for their entitlement, or approach someone with influence to secure it for them. Politicians exploit their need and helplessness. That is why they have no respect for politicians.”
Dante tells his audiences that he would not play the patronage game. “If I did that just to get elected,” he explains, “I would be spending the next three years trying to recover everything I would have spent. I would not be able to say no to the pork barrel or the so-called ‘diligence’ from the gambling lords.” He tells them, however, that as a lawyer, he would continue to take up their cases whether he wins or loses in the election.
That is not good enough for some voters. Their needs are immediate and short-term. They demand cash. Over the long term, they measure the performance of their legislators by the length of roads they pave and the number of waiting sheds and health centers they build. It is an absurd standard — for that is not the meaning of legislation — but that is how the system works.
Yet people who have had a chance to hear him speak instantly become his most devoted supporters. His caucuses are largely spontaneous street corner events, and while his audiences may often be sparse, those he is able to win over to his side never leave him. There is a group of women, young and old, many of them neighbors of ours in Betis, who join him wherever he goes. “Dante’s Angels,” they proudly call themselves. They bring their own food and water, and draw their daily strength from the sheer pleasure of being in the campaign of a person they admire. There are many like them.
I was particularly touched by a woman in Floridablanca who, upon seeing his slow moving caravan in their neighborhood, rushed up to Dante just to tell him: “Campaign hard and well, my son, because you cannot afford to lose; it would be a great waste. Not so much for you, but for the community.” An incident like this cures my cynicism and cancels out everything that depresses me about Philippine politics. I am certain it is also what keeps my brother’s adrenaline flowing.
I have realized that Burke’s good men need not always be politicians in order to prevent the triumph of the corrupt and the incompetent. They can be volunteers, and help create situations like Candidates’ Fora, where the good who have a vocation for politics may have the chance to show what difference they make. Government reform is painful; it should not be the task of solitary crusaders.
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