In defense of politics

The word “politics” or “pulitika” has been so abused and so misunderstood in our society that there is probably a need to clarify what it means. The concept comes out so badly in everyday usage that it is no longer recognizable except as a synonym for everything that is negative in public life.

If it were so, we should ban all politics and its institutional expressions—i.e., free elections, political parties, legislatures, public opinion, etc. From our brief experience with martial law, we know what that means.

When politics is banished from society in the name of order, unity, or progress, all decisions are made by a ruler, dictator, or a junta into whose hands the roles of legislator, administrator, and judge are entrusted. All dissent is regarded as subversive. Critics are silenced, detained, tortured, or killed. Yet, even under these circumstances, politics is never completely obliterated. It goes underground, or it expresses itself in conspiracies that are hatched in the dark and narrow corridors of power—away from the public view.

Politics is as essential to a community’s life as the production of its material necessities. It is society’s way of determining for itself what its collective goals should be, how best to achieve them, and who should be entrusted with the power to make decisions in the people’s name.

Like everything else in society, politics evolves from simple to complex forms. In traditional society, politics tends to be massively shaped by what happens in the other spheres. Thus, for example, recruitment for political roles is coursed through the family, and religious leaders might be given a say in how government is run. Modern politics, in contrast, develops its own autonomous operations, jealously guarding its boundaries from incursions by the other parts of society.

Hand in hand with its differentiation from the rest of society, modern politics also acquires a level of complexity that is visible in its internal composition. First, it rests on a split at the top rather than on an obligatory consensus. A loyal opposition fulfills its duty to the nation by keeping the government of the day on its toes, by calling it to account for its actions, and by offering a different approach to solving society’s problems. On this basis, it presents itself as the alternative to the existing government.

What we usually call politics is this continual struggle between government and opposition, between majority and minority, to secure for their respective visions and programs a clear mandate from the electorate. But this particular usage—politics as the jockeying for power—represents only one moment in politics. There are two others that are of equal importance—administration and public participation. The second moment—politics as administration or governance—refers to the utilization of political mandate to craft laws, policies, programs, and decisions. The third moment in politics is public opinion—the articulation by citizens of their views about government.

We may now pull these different conceptual strands together to try to make sense of what people mean when they say: “This is just politics” or “This is nothing political” or “This is all politically motivated.”

Recently, Secretary Panfilo Lacson of the Office of the Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery expressed his disgust over Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez’s encouragement of antigovernment protesters during the first anniversary of Supertyphoon “Yolanda” by telling the mayor: “You should forget personal and political agenda and think about your constituents.” Not to be outdone, Romualdez has been using the term in the same negative sense when he charges the national government with “politicizing” the rehabilitation program. Clearly, all they are telling each other is: “Focus on governance, and forget who is opposition and who is government here.”

If that is what they mean, I think they should say so, instead of denigrating politics.

When President Aquino marked the first anniversary of Yolanda by choosing to visit Guiuan in Eastern Samar, he said there was “no politics” in his decision to skip Tacloban. If it wasn’t political, what else could it be? I think politicians should explain the political choices they make rather than be defensive about being political. There is nothing wrong with being political if the context is correct. In this case, I think the President wanted to avoid having to confront critics who were massing for protests on a special day that he thought should be a solemn moment of solidarity. Whether one agrees with it or not, it was a political statement.

Politics is also being needlessly flogged at the Department of Health, where Acting Secretary Janette Garin has been busy removing from top positions some people identified with Health Secretary Enrique Ona who is on leave. Defending her recent designation as acting secretary, Garin said “there is no politics involved in the current situation.” She added: “I admit I was a politician. But that does not prevent me from serving our country.” The negative reference here to politics is puzzling. All appointments to the Cabinet are political. Thus, there is no reason for any member of the Cabinet to feel defensive about having a political past.

I think we might begin to have a positive view of politics when we learn to differentiate the pursuit of political goals from the pursuit of personal or familial gain, or the pursuit of governance from the quest for power. We might then learn to differentiate politics from the

corrupt mold in which it has been trapped in our society.

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