Victories even in defeat
In politics, mastery of the rules is what separates durable success from flash-in-the-pan wins. Here at home, we saw it in the manner the President’s own coalition found its new arrivals, nationally speaking, losing out to the veteran thoroughbreds in the Speakership sweepstakes, from the deposing of Pantaleon Alvarez by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and by the manner in which only a new, surprising survey ended up torpedoing Alan Peter Cayetano’s seemingly unstoppable bid to scrap his previous term-sharing agreement with Lord Allan Velasco.
Think of it. In his own term, President Duterte has had a handpicked speaker only half the time. Contrast this with, say, Ferdinand Marcos, who, before martial law, exercised so much control he ousted his own party’s speaker (Jose Laurel Jr.) and put in a speaker from the opposition party but who was more under his thumb (Cornelio Villareal). That 50 percent is a pretty good batting average for the political pros the President despises, in an era when everybody has supposedly been super-intimidated by him.
In a similar manner, the Republicans’ mastery of the rules has eked out a relevance in politics out of all proportion to their actual standing before the national electorate. We forget that the Democrats, in terms of the popular vote, have actually won seven out of the eight past presidential elections (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020). Both 2000 and 2016 were Democratic victories as far as the popular vote was concerned, but ended up Republican victories in terms of the Electoral College. The American historian Joseph J. Ellis (whose magnificent book, “American Dialogue,” is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding America’s institutional crises of the past few decades), pointed out that the Electoral College was an unwanted child from the beginning, when, in mid-August 1787, constitutional convention delegates were in a rush to escape the summer heat and go home. What makes it distort democracy is best demonstrated by why it’s difficult to abolish.
As Ellis wrote in a 2019 Los Angeles Times commentary, “Ironically, the electoral college resists replacement for the same reason it needs to be replaced: the unrepresentative power of states with small populations. Any proposed constitutional amendment must first negotiate the gantlet in the Senate, where the Dakotas, with less than half the population of Los Angeles, control twice the votes of California. It must then achieve a supermajority among the 50 states, where Vermont and Rhode Island have the same clout as New York or Pennsylvania. Think of it as the constitutional version of a Catch-22.”
These small states retain an outsize influence for voters who are outnumbered in national terms. This mastery of rules is something the Republicans have maintained even after the recent election: In the battle to redistrict American congressional districts, Republicans control enough state legislatures to be able to gerrymander districts in their favor, making it tougher for Democrats to get elected (we know a thing or two about gerrymandering, but we’re cruder — we just create new provinces to create safe districts for political clans). Which brings us to the constituencies that have clashed: The Democrats have cobbled together winning coalitions composed of minority groups; the Republicans are able to veto minority-coalition majorities through a minority of their own, whites, who see the end of their majority status and manage to attract minorities of their own, such as some of Latin American descent or even Asian descent.
Trump spoke to these voters with his insistence on deploying federal troops against protesters and rioters, for example, placing himself squarely apart from and against such movements as Black Lives Matter. Even Joseph Biden’s status as the second Roman Catholic elected president is tarnished by the reality of so many priests and bishops who campaigned, publicly or privately, against him for being too liberal.
Here, another book, “Nixonland,” by Rick Perlstein, is instructive, as it chronicles the manner in which fear of social change and resentment of voting rights for blacks allowed Nixon to craft a winning coalition composed of Southerners formerly loyal to the Democratic Party, and working-class voters resentful of the decline in living standards even as minorities received affirmative action.
For a brief time, Trump managed to turn resentment over a black president and globalization into a winning coalition that might have won, if COVID-19 hadn’t intervened. For Filipino-Americans, too, as more than one feature article claimed, one winning argument was the perception of the Democrats being soft on China. But more on that next time.