Political wisdom

In a speech at Far Eastern University last November 22, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago mocked the nation’s political system, in which she has played a prominent role, as one dominated by the ignorant.  “Let me summarize the problem with Philippine elections,” she told her young audience. “Of the 50 million voters who will troop to the polls in May next year, the greater majority are not intelligent, they are not educated for voting, and the candidates they choose are not educated for serving.”

That is a pretty strong statement even for a politician like Miriam who enjoys dazzling her listeners with hyperbolic sound bites.  But, what may be more disturbing is to find that many educated Filipinos actually agree with her without giving her statements much thought.  I suspect they like listening to her because she lends credence to their own unexamined beliefs and prejudices, and confirms, ironically, their own cynicism about politics and politicians.

What exactly does it mean to be “educated for voting” or “educated for serving”?  This cannot be equated with having a formal education or possessing an academic degree or diploma.  Educated people closeted in academe can be as narrow-minded as the unlettered in the streets. And vice versa, the formally unschooled can be as much a source of wisdom as scholars who live the life of the mind. Yet Miriam argues as if the sad state of our country’s politics can be cured by simply requiring voters to be at least high school graduates and candidates for public office to have college degrees.

I would counter that what is crucial to what she calls intelligent voting and serving is not formal education as such but a clear understanding of the meaning of citizenship and the promise of politics. Voters and public officials need to be reminded that citizenship and politics are instruments of the common good: They fail to function when they are subordinated to personal interest.   But it is one thing to mouth this, and quite another to live by it.

It is unrealistic to expect people to be always willing to sacrifice personal interest in favor of some notion of the common good.  But, they will often not mind setting aside instant personal gratification if they can be shown that the long-term outcome of doing so may benefit not just themselves but the rest of the community.  That, to me, is the task of politics.  It proceeds not from the assumption that there is one true path to be discovered, but from the recognition that there is a plurality of interests in the community to be reconciled. To be political—which is really another term for citizenship—is to learn to think, to speak, and to act in the name of the common good.

In ancient Greece, the birthplace of democracy, politics was reserved only to free men, meaning heads of households who could stand in the public square as equals.  There was no room in politics for slaves or dependents, like children and the women of that period.  The assumption was that an individual without property is not free, and therefore does not have a voice of his own. This explains why, even during the early years of the modern period, the right to vote was initially denied to women and those without land.

We have certainly come a long way from that era.  Today modern democracies treat the right of suffrage as belonging to every citizen who has reached a certain age, irrespective of economic standing, educational attainment, religion, or gender.  Writing this into the constitution, however, does not alter the reality that a hungry person may be more concerned with filling his stomach than with asserting his political voice.  Such a voter may be more predisposed to give his vote to somebody he idolizes or who can quickly respond to his basic need than to someone with a well-thought-out vision of prosperity for all.

This, as Miriam correctly argues, creates distortions in the political system.  But the way to eliminate these distortions is not by barring those without a minimum level of education from voting.  The remedy has to come rather in the form of guarantees of a minimum level of subsistence and functional literacy for every citizen.  Though constitutionally enshrined, these rights have not been fully realized in our country.  To do as Miriam proposes would be to perpetuate the structural inequalities of our society.  It would legitimize an elitism that has long consigned the great majority of our people to the margins of national life.

The drive to reverse the political and economic marginalization of our people can be greatly reinforced by a sustained movement for political literacy that pushes vital national issues to the center of every electoral exercise.  Candidates with nothing sensible to contribute to the nation’s political discourse, who merely rely, as Miriam says, on what their handlers feed them, should be shamed into withdrawing from the political arena.  While it may take time before Filipino voters are weaned from the habits of celebrity and patronage politics, a lot can be done to support those who take the promise of politics seriously.  The mass media can be prodded to give them every opportunity to present their vision to the public and test this against those of others.

Politics is not about knowing a lot of things or having superior knowledge.  That is the province of philosophers.  Politics is about being able to forge a practicable vision of the common good from the raw material of the community’s experiences and aspirations; it is about being able to persuade fellow citizens to own this vision, and to get them to follow one’s lead.  That, needless to say, is not necessarily the vocation of the most intelligent.