The Long View: Government by opinion (2)


Government by opinion (2)

 / 05:06 AM December 27, 2023

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At first, the shock and awe in 2022, the centennial of our having a government by opinion, was in the realization that the Marcos Restoration could claim to be the new center, a generation after the old anti-Marcos coalition had claimed to be the center; something no longer tenable after the results were known. A year after that victory came the newer realization that even if it was a coalition that won, not every faction of that coalition could fully partake in the historic majority that was achieved. The coalition might have, on its marquee in bright political lights, the names Duterte, Estrada, and Arroyo but the name selected at the top of the ballot was only one: Marcos and it was that name alone that was given a majority.

To be sure, historic, too, was Duterte: as vice president but, as I’ve pointed out previously, if the presidency is limited by expectations (not just of performance, but conduct), so is the vice presidency. It must be seen to be subordinate, cooperative, and thus, loyal, to the presidency, otherwise it is politically punished by diminished public opinion. To a certain extent, much as public and media ignorance and political irresponsibility have tarnished public opinion surveys, the two main firms have maintained their political relevance because they remain professionally reputable (many of those who habitually slander them quietly still rely on them). While the mass media has lost much of its independence and audience, self-censorship or the unwritten rule that everything is fair game except the national management or ruling money ceases to apply when the public gets irritated, since usually this means the initial targets are underlings who are low on the bureaucratic and official pecking order. All sides can posture, as public opinion is formed.

Outside of elections, public opinion could be formed, and claimed, based on those willing to go through the inconvenience and risks of public protests, but here public opinion itself has changed and what is acceptable behavior has changed, too. In a sense some of the critics of people power are now the victims of their own success: having politically edged out those who claimed to represent it, they themselves cannot claim it for themselves: here, the Marcoses, Dutertes, Arroyos, and Estradas are all in the same boat. The Left has some leeway for what used to be dismissively described as “Agitprop” since permitting rallies and strikes allows officialdom to condescendingly claim it respects freedom of association and expression. But if it’s not exactly “Springtime for Hitler,” the spirit of the time is more conducive to the Right than the Left, just as the balance of forces favors the continuing liquidation of rebel guerrillas before they ever reach the point of being able to liquidate their liquidators (similarly, alliances of convenience can be made with radicals in the legislature whose electoral appeal has been proven to be manageably limited).

Armed, as it is, with a historic mandate and continuing popularity as far as it is usually measured, I expected there to be more of a concerted effort to reap the political rewards than proved to be the case until recently. The President, for one, proved to be surprisingly indifferent to party-building, and surprisingly inclined to put a brake on schemes to amend the Constitution. This eventually made sense as his political style emerged, in contrast to that of his father (or, to be more precise, the caricature that passes for public memory of his father on the part of admirers and detractors alike). Understanding his family dynamics and how he is far more of a conventional, establishment, figure than has been hitherto realized has also taken time—and is still unfolding. Just as the Marcoses of today actually represent the third restoration regime of our modern political history, the President, too, is the third specimen of a particular, post-independence type of president, namely the coddled crown prince motivated by past family trauma.

This, in turn, brings with it a fundamental shortcoming that, for the political class, at least, is the saving grace of this type: a lack of political imagination. So much so that out of loyalty to the memory of his parents, Benigno S. Aquino III would not challenge the system even when it was obviously failing; or Rodrigo R. Duterte would not change the system, even when one of his principal lieutenants laid out to him a scheme to create a radically revised one to replace it; or Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. embracing at last, what every one of his post-1987 predecessors couldn’t risk but which the public has repeatedly said it would accept: a constitutional convention. He will seemingly only go where his uncle Fidel V. Ramos once tried going before.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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