The merchant in Malacanang

“I’m tired of chasing the bullies around the schoolyard,” Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo told a gathering of local officials in Pampanga the other day.  “Those who would heed my call for unity and reconciliation, they are welcome.  But those who would keep on creating disturbance, we’re on top of the situation.  Our barangay officials will enforce the rule of law.”

The metaphor is wrong.  Those who criticize her from the streets have no power other than their banners and voices.  They are not the school bullies who can browbeat the weak into submission.  And she is not the teacher who can use the moral and administrative authority of her position to restore order.  She is the unelected bully who deploys coercive and remunerative means to maintain her hold on people.

It is unfortunate that Ms Arroyo uses the school as an analogue for society.  The school is founded on dialogue and reason.  Her regime is founded on deceit, bribery, and intimidation.  She conspired with a top election official to manipulate election results in the 2004 presidential election.  She has freely used public funds and appointments to choice government posts to buy loyalty and secure political advantage.  And now she is threatening to use more force to stop the rallies against her.

Ms Arroyo’s model of politics, however, remains that of the market, and Senator Richard Gordon’s recent characterization of her as a “transactional politician” is very apt. The legal scholar F.I. Michelman describes politics of this type as one that “asks people to consider no one’s interest but their own.  Its medium is bargain, not argument.  Its tools of persuasion are not claims and reasons but conditional offers of service and forbearance.”

We fall into this mode of politics when we start to think that anybody who airs a contrary opinion, quits the government, or participates in rallies is just eyeing a position in a future government or preparing to run in an election.  Without fully realizing it, we have perhaps already slid into this attitude.  That is why many of us think of the current crisis as nothing but a choice between Ms Arroyo and the discredited remnants of past regimes.

Is it too late, or futile, to re-imagine Philippine politics as a search for agreement over the kind of nation we want for ourselves and our children?  This is what Michelman calls the approach to politics as a “normative activity.”  “It imagines politics as contestation over questions of value and not simply questions of preference.  It envisions politics as a process of reason not just of will, of persuasion not just of power, directed toward agreement regarding a good or just – or at any rate, acceptable – way to order those aspects of life that involve people’s social relations and social natures.”

These two kinds of politics were on full display at the recent impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. Listening to the individual explanations that the legislators gave for their votes, one cannot fail to note the contrasting styles of the two groups in the House.  The oft-repeated mantra of the rule of law – dura lex sed lex – summed up the majority’s concept of politics as a contest of will.  On the other hand, the nuanced arguments of the minority reflected their notion of politics as reasoned debate.  They saw the political process not as a mere counting of heads but as a pooling of judgments.  What distinguishes these two political styles from one another is the importance that the latter gave to deliberation and the power of persuasion.

The preferred model of politics for a young democracy like ours is not that of the market transaction but that of practical communication.  In the market model, the citizen is cast in the role of the buyer or seller looking only after her own interest.  Coordination is expected to result from the natural process of mutual exchange. In the model of politics as practical communication, on the other hand, the object is to achieve mutuality of meaning toward cooperation.  Participants to a conversation exchange utterances on the basis of assumed meanings.  A speaker commits herself to these meanings and expects the other to abide by them in the process of give and take.

The goal is to achieve reciprocal understanding, not the pursuit of private meanings.

Ms Arroyo’s politics, and maybe the only one known by most politicians in our country, is the market type.  Here, the wisdom of laws and policies is seldom argued and validated in the public sphere.  Rather their value is fixed, and their enforcement is traded like any commodity in the political market.  The fate of the E-VAT law is a good example of what happens when laws and policies are treated like negotiable instruments, rather than as collective tools to achieve a long-term common good.

But the ultimate example of transactional politics has to be the merchandising of Charter Change under the auspices of the American lobby firm Venable.  This is nothing but a thinly-veiled attempt to sell key provisions in our constitution to American investors and politicians.  It has little to do with the change in the form of government.  The real goods that Ms Arroyo wants to sell are the nationalist restrictions on foreign economic presence and the constitutional limitations on foreign troops and facilities on Philippine soil.

I refuse to think that we are condemned to reproduce this brand of politics.  I view the crisis we are in as a rare opportunity to break the cycle of market politics that has long retarded the growth of Philippine democracy.

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F.I. Michelman, “Bringing the law to life: A Plea for Disenchantment,” Cornell Law Review 74 (1989): 257.  Cited in Jurgen Habermas, Between facts and Norms, MIT Press, 1998, pp 272-273.