Making the republic work

Whoever thought that a Sara Duterte-Rodrigo Duterte tandem might be the ideal team for the country in the 2022 presidential election is either joking or being cynical. He or she — or they — show no respect for the Constitution, and no regard for the incalculable time and effort the Filipino people have invested in the building of a free and democratic nation over the last 123 years. The idea is tantamount to an admission of our failure as a republic.

But the fact that some supposedly responsible and educated Filipinos find the idea appealing, and that, so far, we have not seen any widespread public outrage against it, is disturbing. It can only signify the final erosion of what is left of our national self-esteem, and the total distrust in the ability of the nation’s political class to govern.

To be sure, this could not have happened in just the last few years. There have been intimations of political retrogression — of a retreat from the democratic norms of a modern republic — since at least the early ’70s. Ferdinand Marcos precisely seized upon the people’s growing impatience over the slowness of development in a democracy to justify his authoritarian project of a “New Society.” As dictatorial as his regime was, it had at least a progressive pretense.

In contrast, the last five years of the Duterte presidency have been marked by the sheer ascendancy of a pre-modern local politician who knows almost nothing about the challenges of modern statecraft, and, even less, of the imperatives of political leadership in a globally interconnected world. His mass followers and admirers worship him for his unadorned eccentricity and willful defiance of political convention. The elite like him for the fear he instills in the hearts of the subordinate classes. Those who profit from his rule want him to remain president for as long as possible, regardless of what the Constitution may say.

We need to look back farther into our past as a nation to understand the factors that led us to Mr. Duterte.

The Filipino nation’s entire institutional framework had been built mainly from the material of our colonial past. Our leaders failed to adapt this colonial legacy to the changing conditions and sensibilities of our people. Instead of adjusting these inherited institutions to make them part of the people’s everyday life, they became the main source of the divide between the educated few and the vast masses. Take a look at the judicial system: To this day, witness testimonies rendered in any of our local languages have to be translated into English. The language of the law is still basically English.

The extensive use of English by those who were fortunate enough to go to school hastened the modernization of the Filipino middle class and their insertion into the circuits of the global economy. But the cost of this has been the further exclusion of the vast majority who were already being pushed to the margins by the forces of a dualistic economy.

Having seen how badly our educated politicians have run the country all these years, Filipino voters were primed to cast their lot with the folk heroes they know and trust. That is how it became possible for movie actors and other media celebrities to break into what used to be the reserved terrain of electoral politics. But this did not spell the total disappearance of the traditional political class. It only meant that the outmoded political system they presided over would increasingly blend the politics of patronage with a politics of fantasy.

All this may give us some new faces every year, but it is far from solving our major problems as a nation. We have the same institutions, many of them becoming more anachronistic in the face of new challenges. The world has become smaller, and migration easier. No one waits anymore for a nation to develop.

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the nation as an “imagined community” bound by a deep comradeship progressing through time by the efforts and solidarity of a chain of generations is, for us, wearing thin. Many young Filipinos are leaving the country of their birth, unable to feel any sense of responsibility for the nation that has failed them.

Things will not fall into place of their own accord. We have a defective electoral system that is subject to multiple manipulations. Only if we can act in concert to plug its many loopholes can we begin to repair the whole institutional framework in which the electoral system is embedded. If we fail, then politics will remain as it has always been — the periodic competition among different elite blocs for the dwindling resources of the nation within an essentially unchanging social order.

That need not be the case — if we take to heart the literal meaning of nation-building. Nations are imagined and created: They do not just happen. They are artifacts of human ingenuity, created from the complex historical experiences of existing communities, and shaped and reshaped by the contingencies of survival in a globalized world.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us many things about ourselves. Not the least of these is the recovery of the power latent in our local communities to protect and take care of the people. The community pantry is only the most notable example of this capacity. But in truth, new institutions grow every day from the creative inventions of ordinary human beings.

It may be easier to imagine what we can do if we think of nation-building as consisting of two tasks — the rebuilding of our communities, and the bridging of the great divide between the masses who have lived without hope and the well-off who should know better.