Is Duterte subject to the performance principle?

Conventional thinking has it that the approval rating of a sitting president is a function of his/her performance in office. Performance is typically understood in terms of how well the leader meets the people’s expectations of his rule. The latter is largely a matter of perception, however, rather than of objective measurement of outcomes according to well-defined criteria.

The surveys show that the Filipino people do have priority issues in mind that they want the government to address. Not surprisingly, they all deal with indicators of economic performance: prices of basic goods, availability of jobs or livelihood, and adequacy of wages or earnings. These concerns have hardly changed across successive administrations.

Yet, the correlation between a president’s approval ratings and improvement of the economy — as indicated by low inflation, high employment and rising incomes — has not been fully established. In other words, the rise and fall of a president’s approval or satisfaction ratings do not appear to be dependent on performance in any of these key economic variables. Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s approval ratings kept plunging to the lowest levels even when the economy was growing.  In contrast, Mr. Duterte’s high ratings were hardly dented by the widest swings in inflation.

Respondents indicate that there are other issues that are important to them, although they do not assign to them the same level of saliency they give to economic issues. Among these are: peace and order, corruption, national sovereignty, rule of law, human rights, social services, etc. The level of concern they profess for these issues, however, does not seem to have any impact on their assessment of Mr. Duterte’s presidency.

The current administration’s bloody antidrug campaign is a case in point. A sizeable majority of those surveyed admit to being afraid that they could be indiscriminately tagged as drug offenders. They also believe that drug offenders must be given a chance to be cured of their addiction at rehabilitation centers instead of being killed in drug operations. These opinions suggest a strong reservation about the way the so-called war on drugs has been conducted. Yet nowhere does this implied dissent affect their positive estimation of Mr. Duterte.

Indeed, the public seems to have gifted Mr. Duterte with a blank check to do anything he thinks necessary to bring about the far-reaching social change he has promised. This means that, at this point, there is perhaps hardly anything he could do that would diminish in any significant way the people’s belief in him. I call this currency “trust.” On many complex questions where survey respondents may not be sure of their opinions, all uncertainty is resolved by trust.

This is a dangerous stage in the nation’s life. All kinds of people may be expected to advance their personal agenda under the auspices of this generalized presidential trust. Suffused with confidence in the correctness of his instincts, Mr. Duterte himself is wont to issue orders on impulse, oblivious of the alternative ways in which a problem may be defined, and with little or no regard for the consequences.

If at all, Mr. Duterte appears capable of thinking of consequences only in personal terms. He has often said that he really does not care if his actions may make him criminally liable, as he is not afraid to go to jail. He appears indifferent to the danger that he might lose public support, for he has often said he does not need the presidency, and that he is ready to step down anytime.

But he has no concern for the orphaned children of murdered drug suspects who must carry their burdens and scars for life. Nor does he worry about the irreparable damage on law-enforcement institutions that blindly carry out his whimsical presidential orders. Long after Mr. Duterte exits from the political scene, an awakened public will surely be demanding accountability from all those who thoughtlessly enabled his rule.

Many in his government are not unaware of this. Yet the allure of charismatic rule and its potential for breaking the established patterns of public life persists and overrides whatever qualms they might have. A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber theorized the meaning of charisma and its impact on societal development. So bothered was he by the “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationality in which modern society appears trapped that he came close to endorsing charisma as the antidote to crippling bureaucratic systems.

“We must ask,” he wrote, “how anything new can ever arise in this world, oriented as it is toward the regular… The evidence of ethnology seems to show… that the most important source of innovation has been the influence of individuals who have experienced certain ‘abnormal’ states… and hence have been capable of exercising a special influence on others.”

Such perspective, which focuses on the personal traits of the charismatic figure rather than on the societal context that creates the need for it, is so uncharacteristic of Weber the sociologist. Some critics have accused him of ignoring the ease with which charisma could be fabricated by today’s image-making machines.

Accordingly, observers are keen to know how long a figure like Mr. Duterte can last without being asked for proof that he has changed the lives of Filipinos for the better. Personally, I believe that charisma finds little need to prove itself. But, once its rule collapses, for any number of reasons, nothing tends to remain of the magic that once mesmerized its adherents.