The Presidency and the Crisis of Modernity

SOURCE: Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain
SOURCE: Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, Spain

I. “Today began yesterday”

–As Leon Ma. Guerrero once put it.

From Nick Joaquin’s reportage on the 1963 midterms, “Ayos na ang Buto-Buto,”

The following night, at the NP miting de avance, there was again no doubt that the crowd responded most fraternally to another Southerner, Senator Roseller Lim of Zamboanga—and this on the testimony of a Pampango-Manileño, Senator Puyat. A forecaster could indeed have read in the size and temper of that multitude on Plaza Miranda the great swing of the South to the Opposition that the next day’s polls would reveal. If the politicos want a new rule on Manila, here’s a possible one: As Manila goes, the South goes. Because Manila is now the biggest Southern city in the Philippines.

Puyat says he felt rather scared when the atmosphere became so charged with passion the miting turned into a mighty dialogue between speaker on stage and the crowd below.

SPEAKER: Ano ang gagawin kay Macapagal?
CROWD: Palakolin!
SPEAKER: Ano ang gagawin kay Macapagal?
CROWD: Martilyuhin!

“I felt,” says Puyat, “that if the speaker had shouted On to Malacañang! that mob would have followed—and I fear to think what would have happened there. We politicians carry a big responsibility.”

As one listened to Puyat’s account, one had the creepy feeling, too, that our political campaigns have gotten out of hand and are becoming sick.

The unease of 1963 (in the context above last felt, perhaps, during Edsa Tres) has come back in our Republic of Amnesia, though now seen as new, precisely because of that amnesia (among other things, caused by the lost generation in our national life, just at the point when a handover from one generation to the next was supposed to take place).

So I do think Patricio Abinales has a point in saying it ain’t new –it’s just Imperial Manila that’s shocked, shocked!– at what everyone else knows. See his essay, Digong’s Mouth in Rappler. And so his (Duterte’s) blunt talk is not so much blunt, or the kind of Id-speak that put Miriam Defensor Santiago on the politicial map, as it is the tone and style of the provincial barons. And here it’s important to consider that Duterte is, indeed, a provincial baron: as he himself has pointed out, he was always immersed in politics because his own father was governor. The last time we saw this in a candidate for national office was when Joseph Estrada ran for the presidency.

Duterte’s advantage is novelty —particularly compared to the candidates who kicked off their campaigns for 2016 back in 2010— and for being the lone non-Manila-centric candidate (their Visayan, Ibanag-Batangueño, etc. origins and constituencies notwithstanding, the other candidates are all firmly part of the Manila establishment); and so he can –and is– tweaking the noses of the Metro Manilans. This is no small matter and carries with it many long-standing issues on representation and recognition. See my Notes for a prospective article on the emerging politics of a national identity from 2009.

An interesting article by Richard Javad Heyderian is Philippines’ Black Swan Elections: The New Normal in Democratic Politics: proposing that Trump, Le Pen, and Duterte represent a brewing revolt against the democratic system. Buddy Gomez says as much in more trenchant terms. An online commentary by Nik @ iwriteasiwrite suggests unease, even revulsion, with the tenor of some of his supporters. Though if one recalls the 2010 campaign, the tenor is much the same as the supporters of Dick Gordon (supporters of Miriam Defensor Santiago on the other hand, are closer to the style of the supporters Gibo Teodoro). So, these things should be par for the course.

To be sure, going back to Heyderian, he qualifies the survey numbers he uses with the usual caveats –some question the surveys concerned, etc.– but on the whole he puts forward Duterte as a Black Swan, a political phenomenon no one saw coming, as demonstrated by the upsurge in Duterte’s numbers.

A few things, though, that can explain that uptick. First, there’s being the Flavor of the Month due to–

a) The “teleserye” nature of the will he or won’t he chatter;

b) His coming in, at long last, when he was predicted to enter the fray: by December.

Second, more importantly, to my mind, is that Duterte’s numbers can be explained by a question repeatedly polled: martial law. At the heart of this constituency is something I pointed out when Adrian Cristobal passed away: the idea that you can have a Year Zero, a New Society, a Restored Eden –if only drastic action is undertaken:

Everything that Marcos claimed was the problem: a conceited yet essentially incompetent ruling class, a slavish society devoid of a sense of intrinsic self-worth, a society that required a firm hand to rule it –all continue to be said of ourselves, by ourselves, all the time. Whatever the infinite variation, the central theme continues to be that of the need for a New Society: it was precisely that, but without the Great Dictator, that even Edsa tried to accomplish, and which has been used as an indictment of People Power since.

If one views politics as a contest to gather and expand constituencies, then the martial law constituency is not only actually rather large, but consistent –and except for some senatorial candidates, one only tangentially cultivated by presidential candidates –until now.

Just as in 1992 –where few noticed that the alarming subtext of the election was that the Marcos Loyalist bloc would have won if it hadn’t been fatally divided between Imelda Marcos and Eduardo Cojuangco, Jr.– the showdown in 2010 –between the Reformists and Populists (who themselves were heirs and veterans of the Marcos Machine)

Up to the entry of Duterte, the division between Populism and Reformism essentially had a reshuffling of the deck between the Reform Constituency: Liberal Wing (Roxas) and Populist Wing (Poe); the Populist Constituency: Traditionalist Wing (Binay) and Loyalist Wing (Santiago). What Duterte did was give the Marcos-Populist-Leftist side of things a shot in the arm by daring to break the post-EDSA consensus on Martial Law (of all establishment groups, the one left in the most awkward situation is the Left, which, already having dumped Binay and hitched its star to Poe, will be hard-put to justify yet another tactical move to Duterte even though he actually has the “best” record of dealing with them –the modus vivendi he’s reached with armed partisans in the past representing an inconvenient dilemma for some Leftists in the Metro Manila  chattering class upset over his perceived scorn for human rights, for example.

What he has done is awakened a constituency that has always been there (see The Praetorian Temptation) but in past probes of public opinion, it was considered so small as to be a harmless minority: because the pro-martial law segments of the population added up to a slall minority compared to those against martial law. But in a crowded field which has divided the large constituences, cultivating a smaller but cohesive constituency no one else has tapped into, is significant.

Here’s the constituency over time (see Felipe Miranda’s Anyone for having martial law? from 2001 and Mahar Mangahas’ Filipinos rarely approve of martial law from 2009):

SWS - Survey Ratings on Martial Law
PULSE ASIA - Survey on Martial Law

The surveys above also slice and dice the public on the basis of class –the ABC, D, and E familiar to us in the surveys. But an interesting point to consider is that there can be other ways to view –and explain– the public and the opinions people hold. Consider the following, which is basically a distillation of the thoughts of some marketing people:

(1) A new way of looking at Filipino voter demographics

(2) (1) A new way of looking at Filipino voter demographics

How would the above come into play in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a campaign? To the extent that it offers up a different approach from the usual class-based one, it can go far in explaining how a candidate can break down barriers between economic classes, or put another way, have cross-class appeal: because there are ways of thinking or approaches that are shared by Filipinos regardless of socioeconomic class. An easy way to understand this would be the cross-class appeal of particular shows and personalities in entertainment, for example.

II. Traditional expectations of the Presidency

I do not think that the public’s expectations of the presidency have changed in three generations. Two comments, a decade apart, summarizes these expectations.

  1. Teodoro M. Kalaw, a follower of Osmeña, quoted Manuel L. Quezon as having said to Osmeña in 1922 that “The problem with you is that you take the game of politics too seriously. You look to far behind you and too far ahead of you. Our people do not understand that. They do not want it. All they want is to have the present problem solved, and solved with the least pain. That is all.”
  2. Writing in his diary on December 23, 1938, former Governor-General Francis Burton Harrison caught his friend Manuel L. Quezon in a moment of reflection. “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government,” adding that, “the fear is that the Head of State may either exceed his powers, or abuse them by improprieties. To keep order is his main purpose.”

In a review he wrote, Arturo Rotor (who, besides being a well-known writer and botanist, served as Executive Secretary in the Commonwealth government-in-exile), pointed out how politicians use off-the-cuff statements to gauge public opinion:

Quezon had his own way of gauging public opinion, of taking a poll survey. He would say something preposterous or do the completely unexpected to find out what the people thought of a political leader, or to measure their opposition to religious instruction in schools. If the act aroused a bigger rumpus than he had calculated, he would institute an appropriate measure.

Thus to the uninformed, Quezon often appeared inconsistent, mercurial, unreliable, a man whose word could not be trusted. No greater mistake can be made. When Quezon had studied a problem and made up his mind, no earthly force could stop him.

So there can be method in what might superficially appear as madness –just as there can be a line easily crossed between being hot copy and becoming a caricature not to be taken seriously.

III. The Crisis of Modernity

So let us see how Randy David defined the Crisis of Modernity:

But, in general, the problems we have gone through and are going through – the multiple crises, the almost unending instability, the cycle of confusion, despair, hope, disenchantment, and cynicism – that have accompanied our evolution as a society are part and parcel of the often wrenching transition to a modern society. A transition is a particularly confusing stage – marked by what Gramsci once called the dying of the old and the inability of the new to be born. The old habits of our culture are quickly vanishing, yet the ways of modern society have not fully taken root. In the interim, our people suffer from a surplus of dependence. They are subservient even when they no longer need to be. They slide into the easy habits of the powerless even when the tools of emancipation may already be at hand. They seek patronage even where it is not necessary.

Our leaders and rulers, on the other hand, suffer from a nobility deficit. A sense of honor, drawn from tradition, no longer deters or restrains them. The poverty and ignorance of the masses brings out the predator rather than the hero in them. They take advantage of the weaknesses of the legal system and the persistence of the old habits of an unequal society, even as the old values like delicadeza no longer compel them.

But all this will pass as our society slowly moves from a hierarchical order to a more democratic one. There are many drivers of modernity in our midst, not the least of which is the migration of millions of our countrymen to various parts of the world. Working abroad, they are no longer just improving their material lives; they are also discovering new values, developing a work ethic appropriate to modern settings, and building a strong sense of self that had been denied them in a traditional society.

In the near future, inherited status will no longer be an asset. Occupations and public office will become more accessible to those born without privilege. Politics will be more accountable to the general public, to the citizens, rather than to a few dominant centers of influence. Kinship will decline in importance as a passport to economic or political mobility. With universal education, which has so far eluded us, citizens should be in a better position to distinguish between roles like entertainment and governance, between public service and profit-seeking, and between the quest for spirituality and the quest for justice.

What I am describing here is the trajectory of the transition to modernity. Our political institutions, modern as they are, came as a legacy of American colonialism. They were grafted onto a feudal social order and culture defined by the values of a patron-client system. The disconnect became apparent to us only after the generation that had been schooled in colonial America’s modern ways had left the stage. We are just starting to grasp the logic of these institutions. Our hope is that the next generation can make them a reality.

Creeping modernity manifests itself in many ways (just as it creates a paradox: “can the aspiration to be modern, remain modern, if it’s built on what is, after all, a very traditional assumption? That political involvement and its goal of control of the government, are not only good, but necessary, and capable of achieving beneficial change?”). One sign is the extinction of the honorific “Don” and “Doña.” It’s gone out of style only in the last decade or so.

The decline of “church, club, and school” –the institutions that defined what I have called the Old Middle Class, in contrast to the New Middle Class– I’ve written about several times in the past, whether concerning fraternities (still strongest in the legal profession, and a core constituency of some candidates such as the Vice President), or the two periods of social transformation, i.e. World War II and Martial Law, or even the gerrymandering of the national territory; the relationship between politics and business; leading, however, to fears over the loss of social mobility.

Here is a bullet point version of the above:

  • Politics has been our biggest failure as a nation.
  • We are faced with a political system increasingly useless, out of synch with the modern world.
  • While our institutions are modern in form and concepts, the underlying concept is different: things are highly unequal, and patronage is built on powerlessness and poverty.
  • No long-term vision; only short-term vested interests.
  • We look for patrons because we do not trust legal systems to be fair. The ordinary Filipino has an ambivalent attitude towards the law, either an hostile or predatory attitude, a legacy of colonialism. Ten percent of Filipinos have participated in rallies; but the overwhelming majority has taken part in civil disobedience.
  • We do not assert our rights, we steal them.
  • Instead of being a burden, politics should be a tool for long-term survival and growth.
  • Leaders have to be competent, qualified, not merely popular.
  • Personal integrity and trustworthiness are important… but not enough… authentic leaders create new ways… superior in achieving collective goals.
  • The paradox of modernizing politicians:to achieve change, it cannot be done from outside; one must secure a foothold within, to effect change; but then, one risks being swallowed up by the system one is trying to change.
  • People are growing in numbers but are also growing more sophisticated as they imbibe new values from abroad; and yet Filipinos abroad do not immerse themselves in the politics of their host countries.
  • There is also a higher percentage of those with education, made possible by new money from relatives working overseas. These people are not hospitable to traditional politics; but have yet to become organized and still feel powerless.
  • In the short term, this changing attitude and frustration feeds crises.
  • The Middle Class in this country does not believe in elections, they believe in coups. They are impatient.
  • And yet, the boldest initiatives in the past 50 years have come from the Middle Class, from whose ranks even the leaders of the Left have sprung.
  • The current Crisis of Modernity is also driven by the bifurcation of the Filipino elite:  ”Moderates” who want to shield the government from capture by vested interests versus “Traditionalists” who want to preserve the existing captivity of the system to vested interests
  • We know what we want but it takes time to figure out why things don’t turn out that way.
  • And yet Filipinos are know throughout the region for Organizing Abilities.

Consider the above, and how these insights correspond to our society’s views and expectations of the presidency.

IV. The Presidency and the Crisis of Modernity

Even in 1953, the Philippines Free Press in an editorial foreshadowed the argument Randy David has been making, see Politics: Means and End:

But politics is the art of government and government is not a game. It is, especially in times such as ours, in a revolutionary age, a matter of life and death. The need to establish a regime above personalities, a government of laws instead of men, cannot be exaggerated. In a rule of law alone lies social stability. Those who are for chaos may welcome a personal regime; those who are for order know the need for an impersonal government.

Today, politics as a game is being played with the same fine recklessness that Quezon played it, but viciously. His heirs have his faults without his virtues; he went far but they would go too far. His private conscience drew the line beyond which it would be dishonorable for a public official to go, a line which only an impersonal law should draw. He did not overstep the line, for he had a conscience. His heirs have none and the law may be too weak to draw it for them.

So the crisis presents itself in the candidates and what they are against, as much as what they are for. Rizal put it, tal pueblo, tal gobierno; he might as well have said, tal pueblo, tal candidato –for however much nation-builders have tried, we are still many sub-nations. As recently posted on Facebook by Alvin Campomanes:

Sa isang lumang jeep, biyaheng Quiapo. Napansin ko ang Duterte sticker ng driver sa tabi ng lalagyan ng barya (yung may nakasulat na “atin ‘to pre” at may kamao).

Manong, Duterte kayo?
Oo, Duterte tayo ser.
Bakit po?
Para bumalik ang disiplina. Kasi ang tao ngayon nasobrahan sa laya, wala nang takot sa batas. Matigas ang ulo. Dapat kamay na bakal uli parang kay Marcos.
Ah, eh bakit ho kayo naninigarilyo sa jeep, alam niyo namang bawal?
Minsan lang naman, ser, tsaka wala namang humuhuli sa akin.

And the gun as absolute veto –well, it has its own inherent dangers, as a Free Press editorial (“If,” August 23, 1986) once pointed out. Referring to Marcos, it argued,

He was able to terrorize and rob the Filipino people as he pleased, to the extent he wanted, and he never ceased wanting. This is intelligence? This is what those who collaborated with his regime called brilliance, turning away from those who opposed his regime. Isn’t the better part of valor prudence in the face of such a master intellect? Al Capone ruled Chicago for years and there was nothing the U.S. government could do all that time except, finally, get him for income tax evasion. Capone ruled – robbing and killing at will – so, he, like Marcos, was brilliant? Anybody could be “brilliant” – with a gun. So, Marcos was brilliant – at the start. He did not have a gun, then: martial law enforced by the Armed Forces of the Philippines with his Number 1 hood, Ver, as chief-of-staff. Then, martial law! Brilliant he was, okay, or just cunning, unprincipled, a thinking son of bitch? All right, brilliant Marcos was. But the intellect deteriorates not meeting real challenge. The gun makes all challenge ineffectual. The mind becomes dull. Absolute power does not only corrupt absolutely, it stupefies. There is no need for intelligence when the guns serves. The blade of the mind rusts. Absolute power brings absolute stupidity. Such is the lesson of all dictatorships.

Of course the given is the inherent self-destructiveness when corruption is allied with brute force. Would tempering the aspect of greed make it more acceptable? This is the proposition being made, or assumed, by those yearning for an iron fist to solve the country’s problems. The underlying message is that not only is life cheap, but that those in the periphery are expendable if they challenge not just life and liberty, but property. Without benefit of law, or even a limit on force being the monopoly of the institutions of the state (instead, local executive discretion operates in an ill-defined and thus, unappealable, area outside the military, police, or the courts).

Again, this is nothing new. For example, during the FQS in Diliman, the counter-story were the residents who formed gangs to hunt down the students. More recently, recall the disagreement between Jesse Robredo and the then-Mayor of Makati over the “clearing” of informal settler colonies.

To close the circle, consider, though, that even as he breaths fire and talks tough, he often qualifies what he says, for legal cover or to secure maximum publicity while assuming a minimum of accountability. From these interviews alone, see: Rappler (here and here), Davao Today, Edge Davao, PDI (here and here) and DZMM, one could chart the tough talk and the wriggle room for one’s self, as follows:

(1) Duterte Contradictions
(2) Duterte Contradictions
(3) Duterte Contradictions

So the takeaway will be tough; the finer points can blur into the backfground but provide useful cover later. Sounds like a recipe for success?

But who is to say that a war on Algebra and Trigonometry, or on smoking and drinking (particularly drinking!) or a nationwide curfew, will be great vote-getters. Or that considering appointing Jose Ma. Sison to a cabinet post can compensate for bragging about liquidating or causing the liquidation of people (without really being pinned down on whether it’s an assertion of fact or merely bluster). There is a fine line between making a splash in the headlines and becoming a parody of one’s self.

But the tiger’s out of the cage –how long can he ride it?

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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