The Long View: Government by opinion (1)


Government by opinion (1)

 / 04:30 AM December 20, 2023

In 1922, the fundamental parameter that governs our national politics was established and has applied ever since. Usually given short-shrift by both academics and frustrated politicians (for reasons we will soon see), it was defined because of a split in the then-ruling Nacionalista Party and a showdown over the question of the role of public opinion in party politics. Who can claim to enjoy it? Who can be condemned for lacking it? How, in other words, to demonstrate you possess it? The key, of course, is elections, because elections conclusively prove who has public opinion on their side. The contest then becomes one of being to mold it, master it, and, thus, direct it (which is what academics wrestle with because it is ever-shifting, and, thus, difficult to measure, much less define: consistency is not just the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson famously despaired; it is the allergy of entire electorates, which also offends the tidy minds of frustrated politicos).

Magsaysay famously expressed it as “Can we defend it at Plaza Miranda?” which is why the signs of deterioration and the end game for the Third Republic were both signaled by grenades hurled at Plaza Miranda in 1947 and 1971. But even during the dictatorship, public opinion continued to be the ultimate arbiter: the annual or semi-annual plebiscites were meant to prove, in the absence of actually contested elections, that public opinion rested foursquare in the corner of the Great Dictator.

Which it did, arguably, from 1973 to 1981, as Marcos slowly, systematically, reversed the collective bargain he’d made with the political class in 1972 (abandon the 1935 Constitution with its limits on all of us, and I’ll give you a risk-free slice of the New Society, was the deal: senators, congressmen, constitutional convention delegates would all get guaranteed seats in parliament, while local governments that kowtowed would be excused from elections; justices in all the courts would keep their jobs if they kept quiet). Even as plebiscite after plebiscite proved to friend and foe alike that public opinion was on the side of the powers-that-be, the deal with various subsets of the powers-that-be got redefined—by the Supreme Power, the president. What 1983-1986 was, then, in contrast to 1978-1981, was a demonstration of how public opinion was emphatically no longer on the president’s side, which neutralized, slowly, and then surely, his coercive powers. The trinity of Philippine political theory and thought, such as it is (and such as it’s been practiced), lies in three observations. The earliest, from 1938, is that “The people care more for good government than they do for self-government … 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.” Virtually limitless authority and trust are bestowed on those who can promise order, but only so long as either tyranny or abuse are avoided. The second, from 1972, is “Nothing succeeds like success!” That to get away with the bold move is admired, so long as it succeeds; but if it fails, then public opinion will respond not just with derision, but electoral defeat. The third, coming from someone who served the presidents in 1938 and 1972 is, that the key to the presidency is to win and hold it “by shrewd and subtle manipulation of the Filipino psyche: an appeal, basically, to our common weaknesses: passivity, the love of spectacle, financial greed, and, most of all, the innate desire to have a leader who can make the decisions for us …” A tired and despairing conclusion except for the startling ability of Filipinos to recover their idealism—but perhaps once a generation only.

After 1986, public opinion has remained the arbiter of power as both the Marcoses and Aquinos found out: the fundamental difference being in Maria Ressa’s recollection of the late President Benigno S. Aquino III asking her, in alarm, about social media and whether that could possibly reflect reality, and the Marcos Restoration being built on a foundation of carefully, and ruthlessly, cultivated Alternative Reality: the key to the heartbreak of the former and the victory of the latter being a media that collapsed under the weight of its own arrogant conviction that it would always be, if not respected, then feared.

The primacy of public opinion remains even if, increasingly, it’s unclear who actually represents it, which strengthens the importance of elections. All the more significant that the centennial (1922 to 2022), when public opinion has been the parameter of power, was marked with the first majority presidency in a generation: the irony of a Marcos achieving what all the post-Marcos administrations tried to claim but only partially possessed: a majority mandate.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.