‘Othering’ and reactionary populism

One of the things that have baffled me about the rise to the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte — apart from the phenomenal way he broke into the national stage of Philippine politics straight from the periphery — is the astounding level of popularity he seems to enjoy among Filipinos overseas, particularly the OFWs.

As a sociologist with a longstanding interest in the impact of the OFW phenomenon on Philippine society, I have always thought of our OFWs as that segment of our population most open to modern liberal ideas. Because of their experience as individuals who have “stepped out of the skin of their own culture” — to borrow a phrase from Benedict Anderson — they must be in the best position to see what it means to live in a society with stable institutions like the rule of law and an independent judiciary, and a strong human rights tradition.

Perhaps part of this expectation rests on my romantic appreciation of the personal transformation of the young Filipino students who went to Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century, and came to be known as “ilustrados.” They became the bearers of Enlightenment values. I viewed the OFW experience in the light of that early expatriate generation’s role as the vanguards of modernity.

It is now clear to me that there is no basis for that naive expectation. In the first instance, there is a vast difference between the political culture of liberal Europe, in which Rizal thrived, and the repressive monarchies of the Middle East, which is host to millions of OFWs. Or between cosmopolitan Europe then and today’s anti-immigrant European nations. More importantly, one cannot presume to know how the typical Filipino migrant worker abroad processes news from home, or what kinds of lessons he draws when he reflects on the country’s most persistent problems.

From letters and well-meaning comments I receive from the overseas Filipino community, I get the sense that many of them have bought into the idea that the times are different, and that the persistent problems we face call for urgent solutions that cannot be provided by conventional leaders.

In the advanced countries where they work, they readily assume the righteous attitude of the dominant population that feels besieged by the influx of immigrants and refugees from war-torn societies. They view themselves as hardworking and peace-loving migrants who have made immense contributions to their host country — in contrast to the new immigrants who freeload on the generous social services of their adopted country.

This mindset — sometimes referred to as “othering” — easily becomes a generalized moralistic worldview that then is applied to large segments of Filipinos back home who seem unable to rise from their poverty. Some of them may even be their relatives, who, unable to finish school, spend their time hanging around with the same kind of people. Before long, they get involved in drugs, first as users, then as pushers. Soon, they graduate to more serious crimes. They are the “others” — who, as far as this worldview is concerned, are beyond reform. The threat they pose cannot be dealt with in the usual way. The kind of leadership that is required must have the willfulness to carry out drastic “final” solutions.

This is the stuff of populism, more specifically of reactionary populism.

An early book on populism by the British political scientist Margaret Canovan describes populism as “an appeal to the people which deliberately opens up the embarrassing gap between ‘the people’ and their supposedly democratic and representative elite by stressing popular values that conflict with those of the elite: typically, it involves a clash between reactionary, authoritarian, racist or chauvinist views at the grassroots, and the progressive, liberal, tolerant cosmopolitanism characteristic of the elite.”

Reactionary populism seeks to avenge this elite betrayal through a leader, typically an outsider to the political establishment, who personifies — and not merely represents — the collective resentment of the downtrodden, the exploited, the oppressed and the forgotten.

Typically, a charismatic strongman rides on the widespread disenchantment with conventional politicians and, indeed, with politics itself, and offers himself as the savior, redeemer, the punisher, the protector of the people or, in President Duterte’s own memorable rhetoric, “the nation’s last card.”

The strongman affirms and gives expression to the people’s darkest thoughts and inclinations. As one American observer, referring to Donald Trump, aptly put it, populist politics “speaks to our collective id.”

Unlike conventional politicians, the political outsiders who ascend to power via the route of reactionary populism are not subject to the same expectations and criteria by which the performance of elected officials is conventionally measured. None of them feels obliged to present a coherent program of government. Rather than viewed as a failing, their manifest disregard of the basic rules of modern governance is treated as a necessary counterpoint to the phlegmatic intellectualism of the modern politician.

As in our experience with Mr. Duterte, there is almost no reliable metric available by which we can assess the strongman’s performance, except by the brutality and contempt with which he deals with the perceived enemies of the people. It is almost as if, given the magnitude of the task before him, the people are prepared to grant him unlimited leeway, rather than admit to the grave mistake of having made him president. Total trust is what the strongman demands from those who have chosen him to lead the nation, the kind that people blindly give when, faced with complexity, they believe there is no alternative.