The “masa” vote

My colleague Raul Pertierra of Ateneo de Manila’s department of sociology takes issue with my column on the emergence of the “masa” vote (Public Lives, Feb. 8)  He writes that my analysis, while “persuasive”, suffers from “serious flaws,” but does not say what these are.  Instead he raises some questions and observations.  His comment warrants a detailed response, and I thank him for writing (PDI, Letters, Feb. 21), because it forces social observers like us to reflect on the radical changes that have been silently taking place in our midst.

First, let me review the main arguments of that column, “The making of the ‘masa’ vote.”  The masa, I said, who today determine the outcomes of Philippine politics, have not always been a social force to reckon with in our society.  In the past, those who wielded political, economic, and moral power over them at the local level shaped their political beliefs and behavior.  Access to television and overseas contract employment changed all this. The new prosperity brought in by overseas remittances from the mid-70s onwards scattered television sets, not to mention VCRs, all over the countryside.  The broadening of TV audiences led to a change in TV fare, and, more importantly, compelled the use of the Filipino language as a medium of serious political opinion.

Television, I argued, more than radio, connected the masa to the circuits of national life.  It broke their dependence on the moral and political elders of their local communities. For the first time, they felt entitled to have their own opinions on issues that affected the whole nation.  Television also demystified government and, with it, the politicians who run it.

In the meantime, television intensified the cult of celebrity, lavishing upon broadcast newsreaders the same adulation that used to be reserved only to movie actors and basketball stars. It didn’t take long before celebrity status would become political capital.  This is the situation we have today.

Rogelio de la Rosa, the prince of Tagalog movies, was indeed, as Pertierra points out, the first celebrity to seek political office, first as senator and then as president.  But in 1961, when he made a bid for the presidency, leadership recruitment through the political parties was still strong.  No major political parties of that time would have him as standard bearer.  He had to withdraw from the race, that, incidentally, was won by Diosdado Macapagal, his brother-in-law.

Things have changed since De la Rosa’s time.  Since the 1987 elections, we have seen a deluge of mass media celebrities in politics. But, of course, this is not to suggest that henceforth there would be no room for professional politicians.  For all the erosion of their influence, traditional politicians remain very much in control of the nation’s political life.

Professor Pertierra wonders why some very popular actors, like Nora Aunor, have failed to win public office.  But of course, mere celebrity does not guarantee political victory.  The popular actress ran for governor in a province that was still very much a stronghold of political clans.  In contrast, the action star Lito Lapid first ran for vicegovernor and then governor of Pampanga, a very much urbanized province that was seeing the demise of its own traditional political oligarchy.  He won every election because he followed the same patronage route that every local politician before him had taken. Nora Aunor’s decision was quite impulsive; she hadn’t made investments in Bicol politics before she threw her hat into the ring. She would have fared better if she ran for senator, a national position, which is what the husbands of Sharon Cuneta and of Vilma Santos respectively did in 2001.

But Pertierra doubts the sea change in the country’s political configuration that I wrote about.  “Why have these significant social changes not produced other political shifts such as the rise of women, youth, or religious (except the Iglesia ni Cristo) voting blocks?”  You can ask the same question of European and American politics.  I don’t think there have emerged any such blocks even in the mature democracies.  The INC voting block is of course a phenomenon all its own and surely does not owe its existence to modernity.  Be that as it may, it is fascinating to watch party list organizations like Abanse Pinay, a women’s party, and Akbayan, a multisectoral group, flourish in the current political milieu.  I don’t think that the party list concept would have made any sense in a milieu that had not been previously touched by civil society activism.

But, Pertierra insists: “The present political spectrum looks remarkably like the days of the trapos and political kingpins.  While some things have undoubtedly changed, others have remained stubbornly the same.  We cannot blame the masa for both the change and the continuity.”

The whole thrust of my piece on the masa vote has been to examine the conditions that made the emergence of the masa vote possible.  I celebrate what I believe to be their emancipation from their traditional political handlers, but I do not necessarily agree with the way they now use their vote.  If it is just to elect useless celebrities or to extract short-term concessions from traditional politicians, then maybe things haven’t really changed much. I do not blame the masa.  Like the rest of us, they are individuals expressing their desires and responding to opportunities — a nation in itself but not yet for itself.  I know it will not always be like this.


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