The presidency in our time

The debate whether we need a change in system rather than a change in leaders is a sterile one.  The shift to a parliamentary, or federal, or unicameral system will not mean anything if not accompanied by changes in the distribution of power, wealth, and opportunity across social classes.

The pressures toward a radical re-ordering of our society have never been stronger than they are today. These are reflected not only in the relentless political activity that seems to plague our present national life, but also in the kind of expectations that our people carry in their choices for the presidency.

The most urgent of these expectations come from the seventy per cent of our population who demand immediate relief from economic insecurity, oppression, and cultural exclusion.  The word that summarizes these conditions is poverty, except that in the hands of policymakers the term has been so stripped of meaning that charity alone seems sufficient to end it.

They are the “masa” who turn to movie actors and mass media personalities for leadership.  Not simply because they know them by name, but because, rightly or wrongly, they see in them the qualities that dissolve the remoteness of the powerful. They trust them implicitly because they speak their language, they belong to a world they know, and they show more than a passing interest in their problems.

Do not ask them about competence or qualification.  These are terms that are unfamiliar to them.  As far as they are concerned, what is important is that we choose good leaders who personify simple decency, humility, courage, and compassion.  They may not themselves be knowledgeable, but they will know how to recruit experts who will run the day-to-day affairs of society.  To them good leaders are measured by the quality of their judgment, not by the length of formal education or previous experience in government they have had.

We often speak of the masa as the sector in most need of political education.  We believe their perspective to be narrow and limited, and unsuitable to the demands of a fast-changing world.  We seek to raise their consciousness so they can use the power of their votes to elect competent leaders who can lift them from their present condition.  We forget that, unsophisticated though they may be, their preferences are founded on a rationality that is not necessarily inferior to that of the country’s more educated voters.

They have seen how their lives have become more impoverished under the leadership of modern educated leaders who paint visions of a prosperous future while remaining blind to the misery of the many. They do not trust them.  They do not see themselves as participants in the economic growth of which these types of leaders speak.  To them, the issue is simple – the country needs a president who cares for those who are brutally left behind by so-called development, a government that enforces a clear preferential option for the poor. This logic, rooted in the experience of an economic growth without jobs, cannot be assailed.  To be oblivious of the cumulative stresses to which the poor in our society are subjected is to bring the nation closer to the edge of a violent conflict from which it may not recover.

Unfortunately the rest of our people do not see the situation in these terms.  They see poverty as a chronic economic ailment requiring long-term solutions.  They see it ultimately as the consequence not of unjust social arrangements but of a general failure of governance, a failure to define clear plans and mobilize resources, and to enforce the law.  To them, incompetence and corruption are the key problems of our time.  These are the principal impediments to economic recovery.  The lack of development causes poverty, and poverty, in turn, breeds dependence, political patronage, crime and corruption.

Not surprisingly, this perspective is generally held by the middle and upper classes of our society.  They see the poor as mired in their own culture of despair and dependence, permanently disabled from taking the first step toward improving their lives even when given the opportunity to do so.  They fail to see that this culture of poverty is not an endowment but is itself a symptom of the structural realities of economic marginalization and social exclusion, which have worsened with globalization.

These two perspectives are sometimes referred to as the populist and the modernist.  They represent rough images of the burdens of the presidency in our time.  They are conceptually not hospitable to one another, but they need not clash.  A pro-poor president need not be corrupt and incompetent.  And a modernist president, with a clear bias for efficiency and good governance, need not be anti-poor.

The problem arises when a pro-poor bias is instantly equated with patronage politics and an inclination to use public funds to buy popularity.  It also arises when a modernist president interprets her mandate to mean defending markets rather than caring for a nation. But why can’t social justice be the overriding goal of a modernizing presidency?  Where disparities in opportunity are so large as to practically exclude the great majority of the population from any meaningful participation in the nation’s life, one would think the first order of the day is to narrow this gap in the quickest way possible as a condition for unifying the nation.

If this is what being populist means, then I say no president in our time can succeed without being populist.


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