Why movie actors get elected

When Lito Lapid, a k a Leon Guerrero, was campaigning for governor of Pampanga, he got stuck somewhere and could not attend an important rally in another town.  The people had lined up the streets waiting for him all morning, but he could not be there.  So he sent his horse instead.  It was a brilliant if bizarre substitution.  His fans applauded the animal as it strode into the plaza.  The spectacle of a saddled horse without a rider proved more eloquent than any speech that the absent candidate might have given. And Lapid went on to become governor of the province.

This anecdote was told to me by some local leaders in the course of a discussion of the uphill fight that former Lubao Mayor Lilia Pineda is waging against Lito’s son, Mark, incumbent governor and also a movie actor, in this year’s gubernatorial race in the province.  It may or may not be true, but it is plausible.

Among educated Filipinos, stories like this automatically elicit sighs despair over the state of politics in our country.  They are part of the narrative lore about the average Filipino voter’s presumed political immaturity.  But how valid is this image of the Filipino voter?

Many of our people are no doubt mesmerized by the heroic exploits of their favorite movie characters.  But to suggest that they cannot tell the difference between fictional figures and real life politicians is to misjudge them.  They know whom they are voting for and why they are voting for them.  It is not because they are larger than life.  Rather it is because they believe they are good people, and that they can trust them.

It is important to understand where this moral code of the average Filipino voter is coming from.  It proceeds from the belief that little people in a highly unequal society are invisible and cannot be heard. Their plight has to be championed by individuals who can see them and can empathize with their powerlessness.  These are the movie actors who bolster their will to life through the films they make.  To them they are more real than the politicians who make empty promises and treat them like children. Government is too remote from them; they seek the familiar to help them access the services they think are reserved only to those with influence.

It is obvious that they look at government as nothing more than a source of benefits, and at public officials as primarily the bearers of these benefits.  They can hardly be blamed for this pre-modern mindset.  The whole political system we have, which revolves around the pork barrel, appears to the ordinary citizen as no more than a contest for control of the State’s distribution system.

In such a world, intelligence and experience or competence in statecraft are of little value.  The virtues that matter are generosity, approachability, and a strong sense of empathy.  It is the latter that they associate most with their movie heroes.  If anybody should tell them that that’s the movies and this is reality, they might answer that they are fated to live like fans in a society that has room only for the wealthy, the powerful, and the popular.

This too is a form of rationality.  It is neither blind nor passive.  The poor who vote for movie actors are not lost in adulation; their eyes are as open as those of the educated.  They invest trust, and they expect to be able to collect on their investment.  It is futile to remind them that the work of a senator is to craft laws and to debate national policies, rather than to serve as a funnel for dole-outs. For the fact is, the great majority of our legislators today measure their usefulness by the amount of projects they bring to their constituents rather than by the quality of their interventions on the congressional floor.

For as long as politics in our country feeds on the deprivation of the poor, and for as long as the basic needs of our people are coursed through a feudal system of patronage run by politicians – we will continue to have voters in search of champions.  In the Philippines, we pick them from the ranks of movie actors, TV celebrities, and athletes — a solid testimony to the power of television.  In other countries, the poor turn to fundamentalist religious leaders.

But this will pass.  Slowly, a growing number of our people are already freeing themselves from absolute poverty.  These are mainly the families of our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs).  They are investing heavily in the further education of their children.  With the improvement in their socio-economic situation, they learn to demand policies rather than material favors from their elected public officials. This shift is bound to affect their choices of leaders. We are already seeing this value shift in the loud critical voices that have greeted boxing idol Manny Pacquiao’s recent announcement of his intention to seek public office.

As politics evolves into an autonomous system, sealed from the imperatives of family, religion, and business interest groups, there will be less and less room for instant politicians.  Stable political parties with clear ideologies and programs of government will take center stage and put some order in the recruitment and training of leaders. In the West, the problem takes a different turn – how to inject new blood into a political system dominated by professional politicians and bureaucratized parties.  But that’s hardly our problem at this point.


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