What’s wrong with our politics?

The Inquirer editorial yesterday got it right: “Same old, same old,” referring to the familiar names that are expected to adorn the 2013 senatorial slate of the newly-registered United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).  UNA’s list includes Loren Legarda, Francis Escudero, Cynthia Villar, Alan Cayetano, Jackie Ponce Enrile, Gringo Honasan, JV Ejercito, Joey De Venecia, Jamby Madrigal, Ernesto Maceda, etc.  But, it must be said, in fairness, that the ruling coalition’s list cannot be so different.

Our dominant political parties simply do not choose candidates on the basis of shared convictions.  They look at what aspirants can offer in resources, bailiwicks, trade-offs, and popularity. The main idea is to win, not to govern or change a society according to a vision.  Our parties have little use for a steady set of leaders nurtured from their youth in party beliefs and principles. That is why the ones who rule our country are the same people who cannot rise above family interest and personal ambition.

Every now and then, a nation might be lucky to have someone squeak through the old system who doesn’t think like the rest.  He or she might be gifted with a charisma and a bold and clear vision of the nation’s future.  But this rare individual may not have the perseverance and the organizing ability required of anyone who is called upon to blaze a new path.  This person has to gather a critical mass of like-minded leaders around a common program. Together, they must reach out to the masses and get them to change the way they think and act.

This is never easy.  Many promising young leaders with solid ideals have all too often found themselves sucked into the same system they seek to shake up.  They find themselves entering into compromises with those who control the system in the hope of using its resources to raise a new breed of leaders.  It is a gamble that seldom yields enduring results.  The ideals that fired these young visionaries are often conveniently set aside if not forgotten; the next generation of leaders they nurture are hijacked by conventional politics along the way.

The talent scouts of traditional politics never sleep. They are the first to spot political stars on the rise, the icons of the youth, and the idols of the poor.  They put them in touch with the movers and shakers of business, the media, and the grizzled impresarios of the political system.  Public relations outfits subject them to a make-over, arrange radio and TV guestings for them, and plant their names in every survey of potential candidates. That is how the system reproduces itself.

This part of the story tells us how the system recruits new leaders who will do its bidding, but it doesn’t tell us how it gets them elected in supposedly free elections.  That part takes us into an examination of the political culture in which most of our people are mired because of poverty. This culture of patronage preys upon the dependence and vulnerability of ordinary people, offering them security in an uncertain world.

I have often wondered why our people keep electing politicians who either know little about governance or too much about the private uses of governmental power, or both.  The answer that keeps ringing in my ears does not come from some grand political theory but from the people themselves.  “Mabait” (generous), “madaling lapitan” (approachable), “malapit sa mahihirap” (pro-poor), “magaling” (intelligent), “matapang” (brave)—these are the most common words one hears when Filipino voters talk about the politicians they like. They all proceed from the standpoint of the subjugated in a sharply hierarchical society.

In the classical world of the Greeks, “politics” meant the activity of free men.  They were free to participate in the collective life of the “polis” (city), or to stay away from it. Relieved of economic necessity and household chores, these men interacted with one another as equals.  They of course brought with them into the public sphere the concerns of their respective households.  But what bound each one of them to the others was the goal of the common good.  This was possible only where there was substantive equality among them, rather than merely formal guarantees of the right to participate.

While the Athenian model of direct democracy is no longer plausible or practical in the modern world, the fundamental principles it exemplified are undiminished in their significance.  They remind us that where gross inequality among citizens exists, it is impossible for politics to function as an instrument of the common good. It is bound to be misused as a tool of private wealth and power.   And this is exactly what has happened to politics in our society: it has become the plaything of the few who make decisions that shape the lives of the rest that are shackled to the basic economic need of keeping body and soul together.

This state of affairs however cannot last forever.  Even slaves and the serfs yearn to free themselves, and sooner or later they learn how to do this. The old order increasingly has to defend itself by force as well as by ideology.  I personally think we have already come to the limit of the legitimate use of force, as we may note from the fact that we have one of the largest private security contingents in the world. What remains is the illusion of an inclusive political system that is renewed by elections.  But this gets harder to sell every election year, simply because our major political parties, saddled by the “same old, same old” characters, have become incapable of generating new ideas. At no other time is the birth of new political forces more awaited.