To run or not to run: an ethical question

People pursue public office for a variety of reasons.  For some, politics is just another livelihood.  For others, it is the best way to protect the wealth of their families.  A rare few enter the political arena because they like the feeling of holding in their hands “a nerve fiber of historically important events.”

In our society today, a large number of individuals enter politics not because they have a vocation for it but only because they have an advantage they think they must not waste.  Many of them bask in the glory of the public exposure they have gained in other fields like the mass media, entertainment, or sports.  Others are the inheritors of illustrious family names and great wealth.  Still others simply happen to be the scions of families that count among the prized heirlooms a solid political machinery formed in past elections.

Should you run just because you have a good chance of winning? This is not a political question but an ethical one, says the great political theorist Max Weber: “What kind of a man must one be if he is to be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history?”  I ask myself this question whenever well-meaning friends prod me to take up a political career and cash in on the public visibility I acquired in the course of my stint on television.

They tell me: You have the right kind of training, you have progressive values and a deep love for country, and people know you.  Then comes the clincher: it is your duty to run.  Coming from trusted friends, these words are sweet and heart-warming.  But they cannot substitute for the kind of soul-searching that Weber prescribes to anyone considering a career in politics.  I am convinced that politics is not my vocation.

Is politics your calling?  Weber lists three traits that are essential to a political vocation — “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.” Passion is devotion to a cause, the quest for power being just an unavoidable means to the attainment of that cause. What that cause may be is purely a matter of faith, but it must be there.  Politics without a cause is worthless.

Devotion to a cause, or what Weber calls “passion”, is essential, but it is not everything.  It has to be accompanied by a feeling of responsibility – a readiness to “give an account of the foreseeable results of one’s action.”  The ethic of responsibility demands that those entrusted with political power always anticipate the possible consequences of their decisions and be ready to answer for whatever injury they may cause others.  This is the opposite of Gloria Arroyo’s favorite maxim: “To do what is best and leave to God the rest.”  A person who will not assume responsibility for the results of her decisions so long as she thinks she is right is capable of reckless behavior and poses a distinct danger to political life.

Finally, passion and responsibility must be tempered by a sense of proportion.  A good politician, in the positive sense of that word, must not be deceived by his own propaganda or seduced by the adulation of his own followers.  He must be capable of looking at himself and at reality objectively and with calmness and concentration.  This is what distinguishes, Weber says, the “passionate politician” from the “political dilettante.”

Many feel called to political life for no other reason than because their distinct circumstances give them an electoral edge over the average citizen.  To them we say: Do yourself and your country a favor – resist the temptation, think hard, and ask yourself honestly if this will make you happy and if this is what you can do best for your country.

“What if I win?” asks the veteran actor Dolphy in reply to those who nudge him to spin off his long and outstanding film career into a political one.  He is not only being practical; he is being ethical.  In his heart he must know that, try as he may, he will not be able to do justice to the power that the public is going to entrust to him if he asks for it.  Dolphy knows his limits – that, to me, is wisdom and responsibility.

Alas, for every Dolphy, there are a hundred others who turn to politics out of sheer egoism.  We do not need a systematic study to know who they are.  In the legislative chambers to which they have been unfortunately elected, they sit still and silent, fearful that speaking would expose the void in their minds.  When compelled to break their silence, they manage to do so only according to a prepared script. They are not comfortable where they are, and so they continue to do what they really love to do: act.

But the celebrities in our midst are not the only ones who find themselves in this situation.  There are countless others who are drafted into electoral politics against their better instincts.  The most typical are the children and spouses of politicians who, even as they may have their own professional careers, are pressed into service to keep a political line alive.

In our society, the family continues to function as a mechanism for leadership recruitment because of the absence of genuine political parties. A ban on so-called political dynasties, such as exists in the 1987 Constitution, will not be able to prevent this as long as the political system of our society has not fully evolved into a differentiated institutional sphere.  This comes with modernity and the emergence of a broad educated middle class.  We are getting there, I think, albeit very slowly.  The finest proof of that is our deep disaffection with the present system.


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