Politics in the age of mass media

In the time of our elders, when we were just starting out as a young self-governing nation, those who aspired to lead our country felt bound to a code of political statesmanship by which they measured their eligibility for public office. They looked at themselves, so to speak, in the mirror of political virtues to see if they were worthy to offer themselves as stewards of the nation.

Only fools and clowns (read: nuisance candidates) dared to present themselves as candidates for public office, purely out of self-delusion. The electorate typically reacted to their presumptuousness by simply ignoring them. Political parties offered such pretenders no space in their slates, no matter how popular they might be or how much money they had, for fear of being mocked.

All this changed in the era of the mass media. The old values of statesmanship have been replaced by the ever-shifting topics of public opinion. Today, what animates public opinion has become more difficult to pin down. We see only whom it favors, but we are left guessing what moves it at any given time.

Over the years, opinion surveys have tried various ways of decoding the “secret” behind the unpredictable swings in public opinion. They ask questions that attempt to bring out the peculiar rationalities of the public mind. They perform sophisticated calculations to determine the best correlates of the responses they get from survey participants.

What’s behind the choices the public makes in an election? Is it ethnic or regional affiliation? Is it social class? Is it religious identity? Is it the high value placed on certain concerns? No one really knows. The survey organizations were completely blindsided by the sudden rise of Rodrigo Duterte to national prominence. He himself was surprised by the manner in which the public gleefully responded to his speeches in the campaign trail, for he was not exactly the paragon of eloquence.

What did he say that caught the public’s imagination? Was it the way he said it, the way he carried himself? What longing, what hidden needs, what sentiments or emotional dispositions was he able to tap?

The answers to these questions show the true complexity of the conscious processes by which politics orients itself to public opinion. The latter remains basically a “black box”—we can’t quite comprehend the way it works. But, at the end of it all, it spews out winners and losers.

And so, after every election, politicians spend a lot of time interpreting the results out of a desire to improve the image they present to the public, and thus make it more relevant to whatever it is that seems to inspire the voters. Consequently, matters like qualifications and experience have become less and less important, in much the same way substantive issues and advocacies seem to have become increasingly peripheral during elections.

Instead, candidates spend a lot of time and resources creating personal “narratives” that might appeal to a fickle voting public. But even this entails a lot of guesswork, for nothing is assured. Some narratives backfire simply because they hit a public nerve that produces a different kind of reaction. One can’t just copy: Some narratives fit some individuals like a glove to a hand. The same narratives seem ludicrous when adopted by another person, or when used in a different time.

It is easy enough to assume that name recognition and celebrity status might be the key to winning. But we have seen in past elections that the conversion of popularity into votes is not quite as simple. There is something else that makes the conversion possible, and we don’t know what it is. It is part of the “secret” of public opinion.

It was hard enough to keep track of the twists and turns of public opinion when mainstream media—print and broadcast—dominated mass communications. One cannot imagine how far more complicated this terrain has become with the entry of internet-based social media. While mainstream media developed standards and mechanisms for fact-checking and fairness, the same thing cannot be said for social media. It has become difficult to tell what is fake from what is factual, and, even more, what is worth knowing from what is there merely to distract.

In the face of all these developments, one can hardly blame political parties and coalitions for preferring the merely “winnable” (as shown by surveys and past elections) over the truly qualified and worthy candidates. Gone are the days when political parties did what they were supposed to do—to diligently assess the worthiness of their candidates before offering them to the nation.

If they who are supposed to know the candidates better than the electorate place more weight on proven “winnability” than anything else, are we to expect voters to be more discerning? I think most voters have long surrendered this critical function to the sensors of public opinion—they that provide us regular updates on who or what rates, who gets more viewers, and who is the latest sensation on YouTube or TikTok. Thus far, the most dominant of these sensors are still the established survey outfits like Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Pulse Asia. Online shopping platforms like Lazada, Shopee, or Amazon tell us which product is selling more, or how many stars an item is getting from past customers. But we have yet to see in the opinion surveys the equivalent of the shopping platforms’ comments section—i.e., what verified voters found positive or negative in the people they had previously trusted to run the nation.