Politicians as product peddlers

It is difficult to imagine Claro M. Recto advertising a brand of soap, or Jose W. Diokno endorsing a brand of toothpaste, or Santanina Rasul lending her lovely face to a skin-whitening product.  All three were once senators of the Republic to whom the serious business of deciding what directions we should pursue as a nation had been entrusted.  The high-mindedness with which they tried to discharge their duties as national leaders would have clashed with the trivial and superficial message of typical commercials.  They would certainly have been stunned to see the growing list of incumbent senators who, unmindful of the effect on the public image of the institution they represent, have crossed the line to commercial modeling.

Today’s senators will, of course, vehemently object to any suggestion that they take their responsibilities as legislators lightly just because they have agreed to become product endorsers.  No doubt many of them take their job as legislators seriously.  But what point are they making when they style themselves as product peddlers? If the idea is to augment their incomes by moonlighting as commercial models, then voters are entitled to tell them to make up their minds on whether they are decision-makers for the nation, or sales promoters for commercial products.

The same norm applies to movie personalities like Senators Lito Lapid, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla, who were elected as legislators but have continued to work as actors.  Presumably, they ran for public office because they wanted to serve in government. They could not have been unaware of the financial sacrifice this entails.  To argue that there is no conflict between being a public servant and earning a living as a professional actor, model, or entertainer on the side betrays a lack of understanding of the vocation of political leadership.  Political office is a full-time job.  The employer is the nation, no less; that is why the holder of a public position is expected to give to it all the attention and respect it deserves.

This problem seems to arise with the advance of democracy – as government gradually frees itself from the control of the aristocracy and of religious authority.  The secular democratic state has to create the basis of its own legitimacy and invent its own traditions in order to gain some of the aura of authority that belonged to the sovereign in the traditional world.  This transition is not easy, and we find ourselves precisely in the middle of it.

The problem becomes visible as the spaces vacated by the old elite in the upper echelons of government are taken over by the celebrity icons of the voting masses.  Looking at the composition of the present Senate, one cannot fail to note the growing number of crossovers from the mass media and entertainment world, clearly a result of mass media dominance in our contemporary society.

Politicians aspiring for the country’s highest office know this only too well.  Indeed, the presence of Senators Mar Roxas, Loren Legarda, Panfilo Lacson, Manuel Villar, and Francis Escudero on billboards and TV commercials is no more than the flip side of the presence of Lapid, Revilla, and Estrada in the Senate hall.  What is emerging here is the fusion of the mass media, entertainment, and politics into a single horizon.

The social critic H. L. Mencken observed the same phenomenon in the American politics of his time, and satirized it in these words: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Such apprehensions as Mencken articulates here often prefigure an elitist backlash that seeks to restrict access to elective public office and favor those with higher education.  Young nations like ours can avoid this kind of reaction if we can focus our energies on the creation of a professional political class drawn from various sectors of society.  Whatever their individual background may be, the members are to be distinguished by their rigorous training for specifically political roles.  We need modern political parties to do this for us if we are to evolve as a mature democracy. Party organizations and their institutes must take on the essential functions of leadership recruitment and selection that have been consigned to the selfreferential dynamics of political families and the contingencies of the mass media.

I think of young politicians like Roxas, Legarda, and Escudero as harbingers of a modern political system.  It is disappointing to see them take the route of the “trapo” in the age of the mass media.  Their appearance on commercial billboards and TV spots as product endorsers may not come under the purview of prohibited premature campaigning.  But it is hard not to see it as a cheap attempt at enhancing political visibility.

It is remarkable that this is happening at a time when the mass media themselves are trying to differentiate the news from advertisement and from entertainment.  In media networks where credibility is highly-prized, news readers are not allowed to advertise.

Senators cashing in on their popularity to endorse products may improve the sales of their clients, even as they increase their own visibility.  But in so doing they may be eroding what is left of the credibility of the Senate as the nation’s most important deliberative institution.


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