Four models of political leadership

Governance in the modern world has become anything but simple. The more economies are interconnected, the harder it is to predict and control their outcomes. Worsening inequality among and within nations produces problems that are intractable. Because economic growth can now be achieved without necessarily creating jobs for the many, or improving public services, governments are increasingly unable to invoke sheer growth rates to justify their continued stay in office.

The irony of it all is that simplistic political discourse persists everywhere, offering drastic solutions that substitute strong rhetoric for hard-nosed analysis. Politicians like the garrulous Donald Trump in the United States are the popular purveyors of such talk. They say things ordinary people are too timid to express. They are popular because they serve as megaphones for the public’s collective frustrations. They occupy the center stage of politics because every comment they make sparks controversy. Beside Trump, the rest of America’s politicians seem like wooden figures bereft of commonsense.

But, while politicians are wont to occasionally engage in hyperbole to draw public attention, it is the responsibility of voters to think hard of what they are actually being offered in relation to what the nation needs. Philippine politics shares many similarities with that of the United States. But, given the tenacity of a patron-client culture in our society, our political models are different.

In general, Philippine politics today offers us four basic models of leadership: the patron, the strongman, the caregiver, and the manager. Readers may note that in previous essays, I have used slightly different terms to designate the same clusters of traits. These are “ideal types” in Max Weber’s sense of the term—meaning, each one is a composite of traits not necessarily to be found in one actual person. Indeed, a politician may project elements drawn from the different models. But, as “ideal types,” they serve as a heuristic device by which a political analyst may discern patterns in the empirical world. We can classify politicians according to the style and vocabulary by which they present themselves.

The patron. This quintessential Filipino politician finds a perfect niche in social structures marked by sharp inequality and mass poverty. He promises to take care of everyone, particularly the poor. He demands unconditional loyalty from his followers in return for a pledge of abiding support for all their needs. He tells them: “Walang iwanan” (rough translation: No one will be left behind). It is a pact of mutual support that, while resonating the rules of Filipino friendship, is, in fact, a signifier for a paternalistic relationship. The patron projects himself as the supreme provider. Government, to him, is a personal turf—a family duty he bequeaths to his children and kin. He is accustomed to taking liberties with the powers of his office and the finances of government. He feels personally betrayed when he is charged with corruption. Many of our traditional politicians fit into this model of leadership.

The strongman. This is a variation of the patron type, and is distinguished by the projection of a no-nonsense, tough-talking demeanor. The paternalism of the patron toward his constituents is there, but in addition to personalized power, the strongman is distinguished by a readiness to apply direct force to punish troublemakers and teach their ilk a lesson. The strongman is a figure of awe as much as he is an object of fear. His language is blunt; he does not indulge in courteous platitudes. He takes the victims of power and of criminal abuse under his wing, and swears they will get justice by his own hands. He, too, fits a society characterized by extremes of power and privilege. He likes to mock the pretentiousness of the elite and the institutions they represent by the deliberate vulgarity and crudeness of his language. In that way, he projects himself as the ultimate weapon of the weak.

The caregiver. This is a role that is uniquely drawn from the tender traits of our culture. This is the loving Mother Mary, the self-sacrificing Filipino “Ate,” the protective Tandang Sora, and the fearless heroine Gabriela Silang rolled into one. Best played by women, the caregiver projects moral integrity and compassion as her defining qualities. Paradoxically, her political effectiveness rests on an explicit rejection of everything that is political. To do that, she employs a moralistic language that elevates political inexperience to the level of a virtue, and privileges kindness over competence as a pillar of governance.

The manager. And lastly, there’s the manager, a figure seldom seen in Philippine politics, but who, in view of global complexity, could well become the face of the modern statesman. More comfortable at sorting out systems than with pleasing people, the manager instantly suffers from a strained access to voters. He comes out cold and uncaring, ready with statistics but blind to people’s needs. It is the nation as an entity that he cares about and constantly thinks about, as he charts its preferred path in a world system filled with uncertainty. That is what a modern president should be doing. But, first, he has to get elected, and that, probably, is the biggest challenge a leader-manager has to face.

It’s not difficult to guess who among the current crop of presidential candidates falls under which category. Whatever our choices might be, what is important is that they are informed by an unflinching view of what our country needs at this time.

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