The name of the game, it may turn out, is not the traditional political mission of conversion but rather the identification, and embracing, of a diverse but related enough set of biases, to form an electorate bigger than the next biggest collection of biases. I think it was Serge Osmeña who confidently told me, early in the term of the Great Eagle Father, not to believe all the talk about President Duterte being out to shake the establishment and change the way things were run. Instead, he said, if memory serves, what the President wanted to avoid was to end up disgraced like Presidents Marcos and Estrada (and possibly, Arroyo). He is as shrewd a judge of political character as anyone can humanly be, and as I watched, with interest, the Cabinet showdown between Christopher Go and Leoncio Evasco Jr. unfold, with the former representing the status quo and Evasco the radical wing of the administration coalition, the more I believed that Serge’s initial reading had been right all along.
Put another way: In the same manner that what had been a presidential campaign on the question of how to continue the growth of the economy and the reforms begun in 2010 was disrupted so that it became a campaign based on the alleged drug menace and middle-class resentments over the pains induced by reforms, the administration of President Duterte could have become a radical movement to disrupt our institutions. But the President used his power — including the perception of popularity — to firmly come down on the side of business as usual, however unusual his own personal style might be.
The British filmmaker Adam Curtis’ question, since the Trump era, on whether the perception that social media giants like Facebook can massively change political behavior actually has a basis. His daring assertion is that we are all victims of the propaganda of those, starting from the big tech giants themselves, who want to convince people to spend on online advertising when, Curtis argues, all online advertising does is nudge you toward what you’re already inclined to buy. Take Trump or Brexit, which many believe were creations of social media. Curtis told Time in a recent interview: “The thing that really got in my head was not so much Trump or Brexit, but that the people who hated Trump and hated Brexit weren’t really dealing with the elephant in the room, which was that all those people voted because they were angry.”
Viewed in this new light, what happened in 2016 was not that people were convinced to embrace the Great Eagle Father, but that Mr. Duterte’s sponsors identified that there was a minority big enough, if the existing political majority broke apart, to become an electable minority under our weird system where the majority is made to accept a minority president because we lack runoff elections. It was enough to leave all other candidates prepared to fight a campaign which had become obsolete virtually overnight. Add to this the well-documented balimbing nature of the Filipino (our politicians, much as we like to say we despise them, are no better or worse than all of who they, after all, represent) who survey after survey claim to have voted for the winner at a greater percentage than they actually did, and you have the perception of a massive surge in popularity that is as true as it is meaningless. True because there will always be a surge, and meaningless because it’s only as long-lasting as the next election.
Curtis, in the same interview suggested that, “I just thought to myself, if I ran an opposition party immediately after Trump, I’d be going out there saying: in a way, you’re right. But you voted for the wrong person. He’s going to con you, which Trump did. Because actually the truth of the last four years is that Trump completely failed. He didn’t do any of what he said he was going to do domestically.”
The same can be said of the current dispensation now, a year ahead of the next presidential election. It is tacitly admitted even by (some of) the boosters of the candidacy of Mayor Sara Duterte. Success will go to those who can best identify the preexisting inclinations of people and stand up to claim they represent them. Randy David said something similar to Curtis: “The world is not really black and white. But polarization (of political views) allows people to feel that they have ideas when in actual fact, they only have biases.” Just as in five years we’ve learned, all the gang wars in social media haven’t led to people changing minds, only hardening preexisting positions.