Hopes for modern politics

The interesting term “trapo,” as presently used in Philippine politics, is a fusion of two words – “traditional” and “politician.” In the beginning, the preferred word was “tradpol.” But this contraction fell into disuse because, I suspect, it lacked the pejorative power of “trapo,” a piece of worthless cloth meant to wipe off dirt.  Over the years, “trapo” mutated in meaning, acquiring moral connotations supplied by the growing negative attitude toward politics in general.  Today, the Filipino understanding of “trapo” has little to do with being merely traditional; it has more to do with being dirty and immoral.  This is all too ironic, because to be traditional originally meant a commitment to an all-embracing morality in a simple world.

This semantic shift has shaped our understanding of what ails Philippine politics.  Against the trapo, we now raise the image of the morally unblemished politician.  To fight evil, we are now in quest of the good and moral.  But, how do we measure the good in politics?

By their personal traits alone, or primarily by their political visions? The depiction of our political opponents as not merely our rivals in the contest for power but as the very incarnation of evil is misleading and dangerous.

For, our problem is not simply that we’ve had bad men and women in politics.  Every society does.  Our main problem is that our entire political system – the mechanism by which we govern ourselves – has become dysfunctional. It no longer serves the interests of our people in a complex world.  Yet it persists, by design and by public acquiescence.  The perpetuation of this dysfunctional system is what breeds corruption, incompetence, and misuse of governmental power.

By “political system,” I am not referring merely to the form of government — the choice between a presidential and a parliamentary system, or between a unitary and a federal government.  I mean rather the whole system by which we choose the leaders who make decisions in our name.  I mean as well the entire quality of the relationship between the governors and the governed.

One word probably best captures the substance of politics in traditional societies like ours – patronage.  This refers to the support rendered by superiors to subordinates in exchange for the latter’s loyalty.  Given the mass poverty and the sharp inequalities among our people, relations between the rulers and the ruled in our society normally take on the character of patronage.  Under this system, the benefits given to the many are represented as acts of benevolence of the rulers, rather than as the legitimate entitlements of the recipients. The ideal leader is kind and generous, rather than knowledgeable and law-abiding.  The ideal citizen is loyal and grateful, rather than informed and assertive of his rights.

This culture of patronage so pervades our political life that elections are seen as nothing more than contests to determine who can give more and promise more in the short-term.   Accordingly, the image that candidates assiduously cultivate is that of approachability rather than competence, and compassion rather than wisdom.  It is personal traits that are projected more than concrete programs of social reconstruction. These are the things that make our politics traditional rather than modern.

It is not because our people do not understand the difference that our political system has remained the way it is.  Their dependence certainly stands in the way of a more rational assertion of their rights. But poverty alone does not fully account for the persistence of patronage politics.  To complete the picture, we have to look at how the mass organizations of the poor, the peasantry, and the working classes in our society have been crushed and demobilized over the years.  The remnants of the organized constituencies of a more radical era have either been driven underground, or they have been accommodated as party-list organizations in the margins of the political system.

Today the contest is between the traditional and the modern elements of the political class.  Though this is far from being a battle between the elites and the masses, it is no less important. Modernists desire a type of politics that is insulated from political dynasties, business groups, and ecclesiastical interests.  They seek a strict separation of the powers of government that alone can make checks and balances operational.  They prefer the long-term efficacy of a professionally-run and autonomous public bureaucracy over the short-term satisfactions offered by patronage politics. They believe that politics must move away from the contest of personalities and celebrities that it is today, toward a competition of political groups and parties with clear ideologies and coherent programs of government. They seek the total elimination of all forms of violence and arbitrariness from the political system.

We have no choice but to side with the moderns in this contest. Modernity not only will allow us to build a government appropriate to the complex challenges of our times, it will also move us hopefully in the direction of greater democratization in our national life.  The struggle for good government has to be understood in these terms, rather than in the simplistic terms of a moral crusade against evil “trapos.”

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