Understanding public opinion

Social Weather Stations, or SWS, pegs President Duterte’s net satisfaction rating for the second quarter of 2018 at +45 percent, down 11 percent from his first quarter rating of +56 percent, but still “good.” Pulse Asia, on the other hand, records a very high 88 percent approval rating for the President for the same quarter, up by 8 percent from his first quarter rating.

These results are not necessarily incompatible. We are often reminded that surveys are snapshots of public opinion at a given period. The two surveys were conducted in June, but they were done at different times. Pulse Asia did its fieldwork from June 15 to 21. SWS did it later—from June 27 to 30, a few days after Mr. Duterte called God “stupid” in a speech in Davao on June 25. The two surveys, of course, also used different samples.

Moreover, SWS subtracts the percentage of “dissatisfied” from the “satisfied” to get what it calls a “net satisfaction” rating. Pulse Asia does not do this. Finally, for whatever it may be worth, the words “satisfied” and “dissatisfied” (in Filipino, “nasisiyahan” and “di-nasisiyahan”), which SWS uses, may not have the same meaning and connotation as Pulse Asia’s “approve” and “disapprove.”

Be that as it may, people will ask: Which of the two surveys is closer to the truth? My answer is: Maybe both, or maybe neither. If surveys are snapshots, it is more important to know what they are capturing. I believe that what the two surveys actually captured were the respondents’ predispositions toward Mr. Duterte as a person, rather than their opinion about his performance as president.

In previous columns, I have argued that, given the way they are typically conducted, we should take so-called public opinion surveys more as measures of predispositions rather than of public opinion.  Allow me to explain.

Some people have opinions, others don’t.  Merely giving a response to a questionnaire does not mean having an opinion. Moreover, some opinions are less thoughtful than others, and therefore don’t carry the same strength or significance, even for the individuals themselves, as those that are formed after careful reflection.

If public opinion were to be seriously considered in the crafting of government policy and in defining the role of government itself, it would be necessary to determine what the Filipino people truly think about the hard questions that confront them today. More than the President’s views about God, the Bible, the Catholic Church or the clergy, I would think that survey organizations like SWS and Pulse Asia ought to pay greater attention to the public’s opinion about key issues that have become more urgent and salient with the rise of the Duterte administration.

In my view, they would include the following: 1) the conduct of the antidrug campaign; 2) the conduct of peace negotiations with the various revolutionary armed groups; 3) the pivot-to-China foreign policy, and its ramifications; 4) Mr. Duterte’s economic policy;  5) the planned shift to a federal form of government; 6) the government’s withdrawal from a world body like the International Criminal Court, and its general denigration of UN agencies; 7) its handling of conflict situations like the Marawi siege; 8) the handling of its relationship with coequal branches of government and other autonomous constitutional bodies; 9) its social justice agenda, or lack thereof;  and, last but not least, 10) its long-term vision for a nation that has relied for a good part of its income on the hard-earned remittances of its overseas workers.

To focus almost exclusively on the popularity of leaders is to fail to capture true public opinion on substantive issues such as these. It is to let Mr. Duterte the politician claim that God, after all, is on his side. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains, “That is the fundamental effect of the opinion poll: It creates the idea that there is such a thing as a unanimous public opinion, and so legitimizes a policy and strengthens the power relations that underlie it or make it possible.”

To return to Pulse Asia’s latest survey—which registers an increase, rather than the anticipated decline, in Mr. Duterte’s approval ratings—I have a feeling that it would have made little difference in the results if the interviews had been conducted after the “God is stupid” remark was made. There was simply a preponderance of Duterte admirers in the Pulse Asia sample.

Evidently, what the opinion polls have captured is the phenomenal way in which Duterte partisans have taken to a president who, unrestrained by the aura of his office, talks plainly, crudely and threateningly like a street-corner bully. Mr. Duterte relishes every facet of the role in which he has been cast, the role of an outsider.  Brimming with contempt for the trappings of power, he dispenses with prepared speeches and goes into meandering monologues with increasing self-assurance. He shows that he is his own man, unadorned and unedited.

In both the SWS and Pulse Asia surveys, the liking for Mr. Duterte, a predisposition for the underdog inscribed by a highly stratified society, outweighed the respondents’ own personal beliefs. Here is a president who routinely mocks nearly every belief most Filipinos are known to embrace: belief in God, in the Church and in its clergy, respect for life, for women, and for the rule of law. But, it doesn’t seem to bother them, and they don’t seem to take offense.  They think it’s just his way of having fun, the way he pokes fun at himself, his failings and his weaknesses.