How useful are presidential debates?

Most questions asked of candidates in presidential debates take the form “What will you do about” or “How do you intend to solve the problem of…?”  More often than not, such questions only elicit silly responses to what, in truth, are very complex issues.  A trained politician would resort to stock answers uttered in a fast and unhesitating way, more to impress the audience with his command of the language and confident demeanor than to lend clarity to the issue at hand.   A mindful candidate, in contrast, might stutter, take more time than permitted, as he tries to reduce the question to something manageable.

If only for this reason, I find most presidential debates unsatisfying and even misleading.  They reward glibness rather than intelligence, shallowness rather than depth, bombast rather than thoughtfulness. But more than this, they reinforce a mindset that magnifies the role of political will in social change while ignoring the concrete conditions that make certain solutions possible or not possible.

We only need to take a cursory look at three major national problems to realize how complex and intertwined these are – mass poverty, corruption, and organized violence.  None of these problems can be traced to a single cause.  Each one of them seems to spring and lead directly to the other.  Moreover, it is not easy to tell how many of these problems are part of the slow evolution of societies, and how many are outcomes of our unique history as a people.

Let’s consider mass poverty.  Regardless of how it is measured, poverty is undeniably the lot of the vast masses.  Half of our people have no steady or adequate incomes.  At least one-fourth periodically experience hunger.  They live in crowded shanties or makeshift homes, vulnerable to various types of diseases and natural calamities, with no access to affordable medicines and medical care, and unable to give their children the kind of education that would pull them out of their present circumstances.

Clearly, jobs and livelihood are what they need.  The economy cannot provide these to a growing population unless it is itself able to grow. There are many approaches to economic growth, but some that have worked in other countries may not work in ours. Some that worked in the past may no longer work today.  We must define a strategy appropriate to our needs and resources, and fine-tune it as we go along.  Human capital seems to be our strongest asset.  Filipinos are adventurous, friendly, adaptable, and have a strong will to learn.  But their skills are low compared to the requirements of a highly competitive world.  We must embark on a program of continuous quality education and training.  But this is a costly undertaking; who and how will we finance it?

We cannot develop our cities at the expense of the countryside without provoking the kind of mass migration that we are already seeing today.  How do we improve the lot of the rural folk so that their progress is in step with the modernization of the rest of the country?

A basic prerequisite, according to recent social science theory, is the containment of organized violence in our political and economic life. In societies like ours, the control of violence tends to rest on the agreements forged by the dominant elites to respect each other’s property rights, rents, and access to resources.  The rest of the people are subject to patronage and coercive power. But, this intraelite peace, as we have seen in Maguindanao, is basically unstable. New forces arise to challenge the existing ones.  Or, the equilibrium of coercive power gives way to imbalances as shown by the excessive growth in the power of the Ampatuans relative to the other clans.  The way forward, say the authors of the book “Violence and Social Orders,” is via the formation of “powerful, consolidated military and police organizations subservient to the political system.”

This brings up the issue of corruption in the political system.  There is no guarantee that a consolidated police and military will not be used by one political faction or group to perpetuate its hold on state power. Indeed the police and the military are usually among the first to be targeted for corruption.  While corruption can exist in any social order, it is particularly troublesome in societies like ours where it is systemic — meaning, its operation is functional to the existing economic and political system.  Here, moralizing must give way to sociological understanding.    Any effective check against corruption must come from society itself – particularly from those groups whose access to economic and political opportunities has been blocked by those who monopolize state power.

This seems easier said than done.  But when people are finally freed from dependence, and they begin to participate as economic or political actors in their own right, they will, in the long run, not tolerate corruption.  And so we come full circle to the prior need to free our people from the trap of mass poverty.  This is not just a matter of mustering political will.  It also demands mastery of the conditions that make change possible.

Electoral debates can show how the problems of our society are often the composite products of our individual responses to the challenges of daily living.  They can point to the gap between our laws and our social reality.  Such realizations can be an antidote to the immodesty of politicians and to our desperate quest for messiahs in public life.

They can bring home the message that governance in a democracy is a shared responsibility, not a special task reserved to government officials.