The Long View: Opposition is total


Opposition is total

 / 04:06 AM February 24, 2021

You often hear that all politics is local, and yet in our political system, the truly local is, officially, “nonpolitical.” I’ve written about this repeatedly and am doing so again, because of my colleague John Nery’s interesting column asking who, exactly, is the opposition.

While everyone fires up their emails to answer his question, let me suggest that the opposition will be a coalition. Since we’ve had national elections in 1935, the pros and antis have always been coalitions. But what separates the coalitions of the past (meaning before Marcos) and the present (after Marcos) is that our coalitions are essentially floating torsos: bodies with heads but no legs and feet, because the political legs and feet, the local leaders, are “nonpolitical,” and kept on mercenary retainer by every administration, whose first order of business is to extend their terms to buy their support (which, as you will see below, does not extend to when they are needed most by presidents facing the end of their terms).

To be sure, one can argue that some of these torsos can unite with some sort of lower halves: the communists, in theory, but they have chosen to game the system by making their numbers count in discrete chunks sufficient to multiply their party list representatives; truly national office is (perhaps permanently) beyond their ability. Similarly, some religious groups and big business leaders are able to cultivate strategic chunks of legislative followership; in that sense, these religious, ideological, and business figures exercise a certain amount of leadership. As Garry Wills once proposed, a leader is someone who can move people to act on, and pursue, the goals leader and followers share.

Here’s the rub: An opposition, in its most basic sense, exists to provide an alternative to the existing system or the policies and practices of the incumbent executive. But if this is so, what happens when crucial chunks of the electorate are beyond motivation? Whoever wins, they will be part of the ruling coalition. An opposition under such a situation is doomed even if it were to achieve electoral success. Because whoever ends up in charge, they will be needed, and so need only wait for the dust to settle to reveal to whom they should stampede to proclaim everlasting loyalty, which in our politics is a fixed period of five years. As for what the Americans, since Andrew Jackson, have crudely but accurately described as the “spoils system”: The political patronage that rewards party loyalty when victory is won, that is where presidents are both limited by the number of reserved slots for the eternal mercenaries — most local officials — and have a check-and-balance in that they can reward those who genuinely took a gamble in supporting and fighting for them.

But again, here, the coalition has to come together first. This is why the first order of business in the 1980s and in the early 2000s was the formation of various “convenor groups” to replace the by-then defunct ritual of party conventions. It’s why, up to now, some still propose a similar effort, but without the figures able to command wide respect as in the past.

Since 1922, we have also believed — because in politics, belief is tantamount to reality; if we believe it, then it exists — that there is such a thing as “public opinion,” and that furthermore, it should matter. It is something to be courted, and whoever courts it successfully is crowned with that priceless political prize, victory, which confers legitimacy. Since 1992, however, we have never had an administration that could claim full legitimacy since every administration has been a plurality; some gain partial vindication by means of the midterm elections, but the problem is after a year of savoring victory, the single-term presidency means legitimacy begins to erode, so that it is practically evaporated by the time the next national campaign rolls along: just in time for there to be a reshuffling of alignments as new coalitions come together to court public opinion.

Old media once believed it communicated public opinion, and the public believed it. It may still do so, to a limited extent; but algorithms can identify trends of opinion and ensure they become dominant faster than old school media and even politicians can do so. The ironic result is one we’ve seen constantly on display without even a blushing effort to disabuse the bald-faced opportunism of it all: In truth, nearly everyone becomes a member of the opposition come the last year of an administration. And why not? We have not had a political system where believers in a cause can join a movement, and rise up the ranks of public service, since 1987.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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