A president for an angry nation

Whenever I am asked to venture an explanation for President Duterte’s high “approval” or “satisfaction” ratings in public opinion surveys, I find myself pausing longer than usual. As a sociologist, I am not sure what exactly is signified by the 84-percent “approval” for Mr. Duterte’s performance in Pulse Asia’s June 2017 survey, or the 78-percent (+66) “satisfaction” rating in the Social Weather Stations’ survey for the same period.

While these figures suggest an agreement over something, it is difficult to say what that something is. Such figures are artifacts created by pollsters, but we can’t say if these stand for opinions arrived at in a coherent way, or for dispositions expressed at the spur of the moment. Unless we are clear what we are dealing with, it is absurd to even attempt to account for these.

In the Pulse Asia survey, respondents were asked to choose the response that best represents their overall view of presidential performance. First, I wonder how many of those who were interviewed gave confident answers, and how many declined to be interviewed at all. More to the point, of the 84 percent who expressed their general approval of Mr. Duterte’s performance, how many might rethink the grade they gave the President had they been asked specific questions like: Do you believe the police when they say that they only kill suspected drug runners and drug users who fight back? Do you believe that the police are seriously investigating so-called vigilante killings? Do you believe that it is ultimately a waste of resources to rehabilitate drug users?

Or, on foreign policy: Do you agree that it is better to appease China on the West Philippine Sea dispute than to actively pursue the Philippines’ sovereign rights under international law? Do you agree that the pursuit of an independent foreign policy justifies the President’s use of offensive language against some foreign leaders? On the economy: Do you believe that jobs are more easily available today, that workers earn more, and that prices of basic necessities are lower under President Duterte?

Or, on the state of public services: Do you believe that the Duterte administration is doing its best to solve traffic congestion in Metro Manila? Do you agree that President Duterte has done everything to fix the longstanding delay in the issuance of drivers’ licenses and vehicle plate numbers? Do you believe there has been a visible improvement in the public transport system? Do you perceive much less corruption in government today?

On martial law in Mindanao: Do you believe that the government is justified in bombing Marawi in order to flush out the Maute terrorists from the city’s streets and neighborhoods? Do you believe that the government is justified to use martial law not just to ensure public safety in the event of a rebellion or invasion, but also to remove once and for all the roots of crime, and reform society?

There are more questions worth asking on which a meaningful public opinion might be built, such as: Is the rule of law in our country stronger under Mr. Duterte? Is the system of checks and balances working better? Do you believe that fighting crime and drugs is more important today than defending human rights?

The point is this: Assessing presidential performance can’t be like picking a name from a list of contenders. In preelection surveys, we may assume that voters are implicitly comparing candidates. But, where survey informants are asked to grade presidential performance without the benefit of clear criteria, it doesn’t seem fair to treat their responses as though they were comparable answers to uniformly understood questions.

To say that these can hardly stand for public opinion is not to say that “approval” or “satisfaction” ratings are useless. Indeed, they play an important political function. They can be deployed to silence dissenting voices. They can be used to rush the approval of controversial bills. They can prod a regime to adopt ill-conceived measures to solve complex problems.

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu offers an interesting distinction: “[T]here is, on the one hand, mobilized opinion, formulated opinion, pressure groups mobilized around a system of explicitly formulated interests; and, on the other hand, there are dispositions which, by definition, are not opinion if one means by that … something that can be formulated in discourse with some claim to coherence.”

I now think that the Pulse and SWS numbers may not be so much measures of public opinion as of dispositions. In this regard, what the latest surveys may be portraying for us is a Filipino public that, after one year, remains favorably disposed toward Mr. Duterte for reasons that may have nothing to do with actual performance in office.

Reading these surveys, I suspect that, at this point, President Duterte can take pretty much any position on any issue, and the majority of the Filipino people would still follow him. By being able to speak outrageously in public, by repeatedly espousing hitherto unpopular causes, and by getting the nation to accept him as he is, he has turned public opinion on its head.

It is important to understand how we have fallen into this mindset. I am convinced about two things: one, that Mr. Duterte has accidentally tapped into a deep well of anger against a dysfunctional social order—a system in which ordinary Filipinos could find no hope; and two, that, with an angry president at the helm, Filipinos have stumbled into the age of resentment, expecting it will lead to change.

“Resentment,” South Africa’s Nelson Mandela once said, “is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” It will not bring a people any closer to a better society. Hope lies in the nurturing of compassion, knowledge, and active citizenship.