Political influence

The approval and trust ratings of the top public officials, as reported in Pulse Asia’s latest survey, probably tell us more about the nature of Philippine politics than they might suggest at first glance. President Aquino’s ratings are at 78 percent, up by 11 percent from the previous quarter, which is unusually high for a president after being in office for two years. Vice President Jejomar Binay’s are quite astounding—an approval rating of 85 percent and a trust rating of 84 percent. Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile’s ratings are not far behind: 72 percent approval and 68 percent trust. If these are indicators of political legitimacy, then we may say that no previous administration has been perceived to be more entitled to exercise power than the present one.

But in stable societies, where legitimacy is rarely questioned, power seldom needs to be used. It may thus be more instructive to view these ratings as indicators of political influence. What is political influence and how is it measured? Survey firms have occasionally touched on this phenomenon by asking if the endorsement of candidates by political influentials would make any difference in voters’ preferences. They can do more by inquiring into the nature and sources of this influence.

Political influence takes many forms, and its careful analysis may show us what people in a given society admire in their leaders. In this regard, we cannot fail to note how little—in terms of social and political background and leadership style—Aquino, Binay, and Enrile have in common with one another. This makes us wonder what kind of leaders Filipinos are really looking for.

Political influence, says the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann in his work, “Trust and Power,” comes in at least three forms: authority, reputation, and leadership. In Luhmann’s framework, someone is said to have authority when his influence cuts across time. In this sense, it is synonymous with tradition. Reputation, on the other hand, is influence that is generalized across different circumstances.  It is not questioned even when it is applied in the most disparate circumstances, as when a boxing champion is elected to a seat in the legislature.  And we speak of leadership when someone’s influence depends on the sheer perception that it is worth following it because others abide by it.

P-Noy, Binay, and JPE are today the country’s three most influential political leaders, but the basis of their individual influence cannot be more different from one another.

P-Noy’s influence takes the form of authority.  Its starting point is the moral authority that his parents gained as a result of the heroic roles they played in the nation’s history.  In the absence of a monarchy, the Aquinos are possibly as close as we may get to a political nobility. No one could match the enormous influence wielded by Cory, the widow of the martyred Ninoy, when she challenged Ferdinand Marcos for the presidency. P-Noy became the heir to that tradition when his iconic mother died. His presidency’s strong advocacy of upright governance is consistent with the high moral tone set by his forbears.

The antithesis of the Aquino tradition is, indeed, that of the Marcoses, whose presumptive heir, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., remains within striking distance of the presidency.  But the young Marcos’ star can only rise further if the Aquino leadership loses its moral authority.

Binay’s form of influence is perhaps the most conventional one in our society. The form it takes, using Luhmann’s theory, is that of  leadership, more specifically populist leadership.  “Leadership,” says Luhmann, “is based on increasing willingness to follow, stimulated by the perception that others are also following; in other words, it is based on imitation.”  In 2010, Binay deployed this quality to full effect when he pledged to do for the whole nation what he had done for Makati as its longtime mayor: take care of the ordinary citizens’ basic needs.

Of the three forms of influence we are examining here, I find  reputation  to be the most fascinating.  I think this is what JPE exemplifies best.  His reputation for intelligence and mental sharpness, despite his advanced age, is legendary, even more so after his superb handling of the recent impeachment trial of the chief justice. Whether he can transfer this reputation to his son Jack would be interesting to watch.

Again, in the context of Philippine society, it would be useful to qualify Luhmann’s concept of reputation by equating it with prowess—the possession of exceptional ability, valor, or skill.  While Enrile’s reputation is based on his mastery of the law, that of his young antagonist—Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV—is based on apparent valor as the leader of military rebellions.

That P-Noy, Binay, and Enrile represent three distinct paradigms of political influence in our society—i.e., moral authority, populist leadership, and reputation for prowess—seems to be confirmed by surveys. But we are in transition.  Theorists of modernity suggest that as a society becomes more complex, people will rely less and less on these forms of influence in the political choices they make.

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In 1963, I defied the advice of my parents by joining a fraternity. I managed to assuage their anger only by assuring them that I was not hazed, and that the Greek letters A and S in Alpha Sigma stood for Alay sa Sambayanan.  I think I can tell my late parents that the fraternity I joined has lived up to the full promise of those letters. On Oct. 10, Alpha Sigma marks with pride its golden anniversary at Makati Shangri-La, and like my son who followed me in the fraternity a generation later, I intend to be there.

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