The quest for preemptive stability

If the recent surveys are saying anything, it is that Filipino voters are rudely awakening to the pressing need for stability in our national life. This strong conservative impulse is born of a sense of uncertainty and uneasiness in a troubled world.  It is driving voters to support the incumbent president, who, under different circumstances, would be thrown out of office at the first chance.

The evidence is all there.  Many of those who are voting for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo are doing so out of fear that the other side might win.  It’s GMA for them not because they believe in her vision or style of leadership, but because the alternative is fraught with greater insecurity.  They are voting out of fear rather than out of conviction. The usually adventurous middle class is shutting down further experimentation.  Against all its reforming instincts, it finds itself embracing the devil it knows for fear of drowning in the deep unknown.

This frame of mind affected most of all the candidacy of Raul Roco, by any measure the most modernist of all the candidates. Roco’s chances began to falter at the precise moment that Fernando Poe Jr. began to loom as the choice of the underprivileged classes.  From that point on, security became the dominant consideration of those who have always regarded themselves as the principal stakeholders of the nation.  Suddenly it became necessary to drop all thought of change and support the uninspiring Macapagal presidency in order to ensure the defeat of yet another idol of the masses who is expected to inaugurate a new round of uncertainty.

Ms. Macapagal seized this moment to peddle the message of continuity.  But it is not continuity that the middle class wants so much as preemptive security. They are not numb to the systematic corruption that has been the hallmark of this administration from day one.  They are not blind to the blatant misuse of public funds that nearly every department of the present government has had to resort to in order to ensure a Macapagal victory.  But to them these are minor problems that can be reversed compared to the major catastrophe that awaits the nation if its foundations are shaken from below.

Compared to GMA’s voters, FPJ’s followers are typically more steadfast in their support.  So naked are they already in their poverty that they have nothing further to lose by supporting their hero.  In exchange for something they can immediately use – a job, a PhilHealth card, the promise of a home lot, seedlings for the farm, a scholarship for one’s child, etc. – a number of them may actually shift their votes to GMA.  But this is only a transaction of goods, not a transfer of loyalty.  In the long run, it does the buyer no good.  Ms. Macapagal may be their patron for the moment, but she will never be their hero.  She’s using them, and they know it.

The quest for stability at all costs leads to what the Brazilian political theorist Roberto Unger calls “a willful closure to the surprises of politics.”  Divisions and hierarchies, roles and practices, that have no place in a modern democracy are defended for no other reason than because they are familiar.

I know many levelheaded people in GMA’s camp who have been fighting for good governance all their lives.  But they are not protesting against the squandering of public money in a time of grave budgetary deficit because perhaps they see this as the only way to neutralize the misuse of charisma to elect an unfit government.  In effect, they close their eyes to everything that violates their firmest advocacies in order to prevent what they perceive to be a greater wrong from happening.  That is how moral and ideological bottomlines are re-drawn, how social activists end up becoming subservient political technicians.

Deep in our hearts we fear change because we don’t know where it will take us. We fear the empowerment of ordinary people because we imagine them to be misguided and incapable of thinking of the collective good.  We distrust their democratic impulses because we think of them as nothing more than puppets of manipulative patrons.

How wrong can we be.  In 1986, no one thought it was possible for Cory Aquino to defeat Ferdinand Marcos.  All the conditions for boycotting a controlled election aimed at shoring up the legitimacy of a dictatorship were there.  Everyone knew that Marcos would do everything to steal the election.  But the people’s need to show Marcos how much they were disgusted by his rule was greater than all the rational arguments for a boycott.  They saw the election as the perfect opportunity to come together and stand up to the dictatorship.

By their engagement in the election, they overcame their fears.  They discovered the meaning of solidarity.  Rich and poor alike linked arms not as stand-ins for rigid social hierarchies but as equal citizens of a nation.  They learned vigilance and effective political strategy.  They made democracy.

The whole objective of that exercise was not so much to make Cory president as to awaken a stupefied nation.  It was not to restore the old elite to power but to reactivate the Filipino polity.  What the Cory the government eventually became is not as important as the recovery of our capacity for a democratic life.

With every election, we should become better as a people, more empowered rather than cynical, more confident in our actions rather than alienated.  We are not puppets of unchanging structures. Democracy is not embedded in procedures; it is recovered only in the course of actual practice.  We should not resist change.  We should institutionalize it.