The antipolitical in politics

There can be no doubt that, on almost every criterion used in modern political systems, President Duterte’s personal choices for the Senate pale in comparison with those offered by the opposition. Gary Alejano, Bam Aquino, Chel Diokno, Samira Gutoc, Pilo Hilbay, Romy Macalintal, Mar Roxas and Erin Tañada are about the best we could possibly get if we were forming a professional political class to help our country and people navigate the complexities of a globalized world.

Highly educated, adequately informed about national and world affairs, and widely experienced in public service, the Otso Diretso candidates exude dynamism, vision, intelligence and love of country. They are not just names of individuals who happen to be endorsed by a popular president. These are outstanding professionals who are running on their own qualifications and experience.

If that be the case, the question is why are they lagging behind in the election surveys?

I would like to venture an explanation for this sad state of affairs. What is curious about Filipino political values, I think, is that they seem to have regressed from being modern, at least in aspiration, to being traditional. The respect reserved for the articulate, the high-minded and the brilliant is at an all-time ebb in our political life. Critics, debaters and people of ideas are often denigrated as useless charlatans.

Voter preference today appears to favor those who are perceived to be approachable, compassionate and service-oriented. In short, those who can help Filipinos with their short-term needs. Our people are looking for patrons, not nation-builders or statesmen.

It has not always been like this.  Something has definitely changed in the way we view politics. The mastery of modern politics and democratic governance is now largely viewed as the sport of a self-serving elite.

This is nothing less than a reaction to politics itself. It manifests itself in the way the average Filipino generally equates politics with politicking, and politicians with corruption, opportunism and double-talk.  This cynicism is palpable in the way Filipino voters treat elections—i.e., not as an opportunity to choose exemplary leaders but primarily as occasions for extracting the maximum they can get from candidates, convinced that the money spent during electoral campaigns comes from the public anyway.

But even as they turn their back on candidates who anchor their quest for political office on an intelligent vision of democratic governance, Filipino voters today tend to be drawn to those they implicitly trust. Here, what is paramount is their spontaneous emotional disposition to a candidate, rather than the rational evaluation of the candidates’ individual worth vis-à-vis some idea of the nation they wish for their children.

The responsibility for promoting elections as a tool for clarifying the nation’s goals and debating its directions in a changing world clearly rests with the Commission on Elections. Rather than see its role solely as an administrator that receives certificates of candidacy and prints and counts ballots, the Comelec could have organized forums and debates in which those vying for public office would have a chance to discuss the national situation and the challenges the country faces. But, alas, there was little or no initiative at all from the current Comelec to bring out an informed vote.   

The broadcast networks did their best to bring some order and clarity to the senatorial campaign. It became obvious, however, that those who felt secure in their survey ratings explicitly avoided participating in these forums for fear of exposing their ignorance or saying something controversial. Television is a particularly cruel medium. Not only does it cast an unforgiving light on the plainly stupid, it also saves the most unflattering images of cluelessness for repeated airing.

But it was the mock polls held in select universities and colleges that, I think, showed the great divide between the masses and the intelligentsia in this country. The opposition’s Otso Diretso bets consistently topped these polls, whereas Mr. Duterte’s anointed candidates were nowhere near the winning circle. By the way they voted in these mock polls, the youth showed in no uncertain terms how they would like to see the rest of the country vote in the May 13 elections.

The youth and students of every generation have always shown the way to a desired future.  Unfortunately, they are also often the least likely to take the trouble to register and vote. For quite a different reason, they also tend to be cynical about the state of politics in a democracy. Believing that there’s little that can be done to challenge those who are already well-entrenched in government, they leave politics to those who have betrayed its promise, content to be passive spectators in an inward-looking culture.

The great American satirist and cultural critic H.L. Mencken foresaw what could happen when democracy loses the enthusiasm of its most intelligent champions: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.  On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

Mencken’s prophecy has come to pass in America. What prevents it from being a total disaster is the election of young, articulate and intelligent legislators in both houses of Congress who are not afraid to challenge the president. We should do no less.