The outside of politics

In deference to the dead and to those in mourning, propriety demands that the community avoid talking in public about the possible impact that someone’s death may have on the world he or she leaves behind. This is not easy to follow, especially when the death is untimely, and the deceased has been a public figure.

It is the elephant in the room. Every meaningful tribute or eulogy that is given in honor of the dead recognizes its presence yet leaves it unmentioned. The speaker might recall the dying person’s last days and final words, and the serene irony with which he looked upon his life and the unexpected turns it had taken. But it is up to the knowing listener to supply the omitted referents and the missing meanings.

No matter how much we may avoid talking about it, death has always played a significant role in our national life.

Ninoy Aquino’s tragic assassination in 1983 sounded the death knell for the Marcos dictatorship, and the rise of his widow Cory to the presidency. The late President Cory Aquino’s death from cancer in 2009, in turn, triggered a public clamor for her son, Noynoy, then a senator, to run for president the following year. Now, in the wake of former President Noynoy’s unexpected death from kidney failure, people wonder how his passing might affect the political climate in view of next year’s presidential election. It is neither an irreverent nor an irrelevant question to ask.

Listening to the outpouring of grief, lamentation, and praise for this quiet and self-effacing president on his death, one cannot help but ask if the electorate in 2016 saw things differently, so much that they threw all caution to the wind and picked someone who was his antithesis to succeed him. What was it they were looking for at that time which they thought had been lacking in Noynoy Aquino? And what is it they may be seeing today, in the light of his sudden death, that they have missed in a president?

Perhaps if the death of a leader serves any purpose at all in the nation’s life, it must be as an occasion for collective soul-searching. “Though I was far from perfect, I did my best while in public office,” he seems to be saying. “I defended the rule of law and looked after our country and its interests under my watch. Each one of us is called to service at one time or another—and this begins with the responsible exercise of the duty to elect good leaders. What have you done?” To provoke such reflection is part of the power of the dead, wrote Elias Canetti.

So powerful has been the role of the dead in the world of the living that there was a time when some observers of our political life thought this was what the word “necropolitics” was about. Unfortunately, that is not at all what it means. It refers rather to something else: the power to decide who lives and who dies. In its original sense, therefore, “necropolitics” might more accurately be applied to the current administration’s murderous war on drug suspects, which has targeted mainly the poor, than on the way death shapes political fortunes.How death affects politics belongs to the “outside” of politics—i.e., the contingent and the imponderable. It is one of those things that people engaged in politics, whether as participants or as observers, typically do not consider when they define the boundaries of the system with which they are dealing.

Access to this “outside”—for example, the shifting public mood, or the volatile forces and emotions that are unleashed by economic changes or catastrophes like pandemics and weather disturbances, etc.—has been the abiding object of empirical studies in the various sciences. In politics, this is the “reality” that opinion surveys, for example, have tried to capture with varying success.

We are dealing here with a very complex phenomenon. We are limited by the questions we ask of reality, which are inescapably self-referential. Opinion pollsters can only get responses to the choices they pose to their informants, who usually are not afforded the chance to explain their answers. Even if they are, they may not exactly be able to communicate their own feelings properly. In any case, when reduced to numbers, survey responses all appear uniform.

The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann describes this paradox thus: “Cognition deals with an external world that remains unknown and must, as a result, come to see that it cannot see what it cannot see.” Reality is that which we cannot see when we are looking, limited as we are by the observational tools we use.

It is what may explain the rise of Donald Trump right after what is supposed to be the successful two-term presidency of America’s first black president, Barack Obama. It is also what may account for the startling rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidency soon after the dignified, incorruptible, and relatively uncontroversial tenure of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. It is the outside of politics. One can never truly know what surprises the world is capable of throwing our way. The surge of populist authoritarian leaders in recent years is one of these.

Whatever PNoy’s death might mean to the nation’s political life, particularly in the light of the 2022 presidential election, we cannot therefore presume to define it. It may not necessarily take the form of a clamor for another Aquino, but because it has happened so close to another presidential election, PNoy’s death is bound to shape the discourse on the presidency. It is my hope that it will fuel a powerful drive for the return of decency, dignity, and diligence in government.