Ateneo PolSci Bloggers

“”Beyond the Spectacle?”: Debunking Popular Notions About Elections

In Elections, History, Philippine Issues, Politics on March 12, 2010 at 9:57 am

by Hansley A. Juliano

With the campaign period for the 2010 Philippine elections kicking into high gear, one might be prone to the pessimistic notions which Jessica Zafra has outlined so succinctly in her Pinoy Elections: A Guide for the Dismayado. To paraphrase: “we are governed by actors and entertained by politicians.” In a sense, I doubt much of our desensitised population would be dissuaded of their notion that politics and artists are of different breeds: one only needs to visit any forum that would host opinions on the upcoming polls to see gems of cynicism such as the following:

Interchangebable nga lang sila; Politics at Showbiz.

Diba may MMFF parade ang mga stars, may Campaign sorties din naman ang mga Politiko. Pareho lang.

Umaakting den naman silang pareho, sa parehong manonood din.

may mga tsismis silang pareho. covered by media of course.

kung may talent fee ang mga artist at bonus kung kumita ang pelikula, sa politics, may pork barrel at kickback pag may projects.

Pabong-gahan sila ng damit, kotse at bahay.


Coming from the tradition of Political Science, such a sweeping statement (written in horrible grammar, no less), despite being something I believed in my childhood, nonetheless makes my blood boil. For one who is striving to understand the discipline of people’s interactions with each other, together with harmonization of interests, to call politics akin to a “pabitin for the elite” is a grave insult to millenia of free thinking. Nonetheless, I cannot but admit that people cannot be blamed if they think this way simply because what we have are residual institutions devoid of their former glories.

Then again, nothing could be solved with moping and pining for “innocence lost.” True, what our government and political institutions have come to are definitely not what is expected of an ideal democratic institution, but perhaps the root of problem is that we ourselves are not made to appreciate what democracy even means in the first place. It might be helpful, perhaps, if we would look at most of the time-old snippets we would here in our families and communities whenever issues of political significance arise, and then see why they are not conducive for “citizen-like” bearing:

1) “Ang iboboto ko yung nakukuha ang kiliti ko.”

Most of us who speak of who our candidates will be are prone to joining the bandwagon of who is the most popular or the most “populist.” This most likely explains (at face value) why Senator Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III and Sen. Manuel “Manny” Villar, Jr. are leading in the polls. Supposedly, those who embody the people’s aspirations are the ones we should go into office. However, corollary to these beliefs is the notion that once these candidates are placed into power, we already have the freedom to bash them when we want to, simply by being suspicious of their “incumbency.”

Some academics and pretenders to political analysis usually share the hypothesis that it is almost a sociological construct born out of almost 400 years of colonization, this tendency to “up one over our masters” as a coping mechanism of oppressive circumstances. Most believers of the class struggle hypothesis (somewhat erroneously lumped into the umbrella term “Marxists”) would also claim that this is an expected by product of the continuous slow mobilization of the working class to overthrow “unjust elite domination.” More often than not, these arguments sound rational enough to a generation who was not raised on critical thinking, but even a few doses of common sense can debunk them.

To actually believe that the price of a vote is simply one’s projection to populism or “populist” interests is definitely dangerous, something almost bordering to totalitarian domination no better than Hitler’s fascist rule or Stalin’s reconfiguration of the Soviet Union. Political theorist Hannah Arendt, in her monumental work The Origins of Totalitarianism would condemn such:

The masses share with the mob only one characteristic,namely, that both stand outside all social ramifications and normal political representation. The masses do not inherit, as the mob does—albeit in a perverted form—the standards and attitudes of the dominating class, but reflect and somehow pervert the standards and attitudes toward public affairs of all classes. The standards of the mass man were determined not only and not even primarily by the specific class to which he had once belonged, but rather by all-pervasive influences and convictions which were tacitly and inarticulately shared by all classes of society alike. (Arendt 1958, 314).

What drives people to an understanding that elections is a mere giving off of interest to the one which he can identify most is a product of a rejection of individuality, the fetish for “being as same as most people” which kills off any impetus for creativity and innovation. This is most likely the reason why despite countless public presidential forums people are not convinced that their vote is worth committing to someone. The more candidates’ platforms are becoming more identical to each other is a signal that the democratic system is unhealthy and mediocre. In fact this the complaint of Senator Aquino regarding the forums he attends to. To paraphrase: “Puro naman pagpapalakihan lang ang ginagawa namin dito: hindi pinag-uusapan ang mga isyu.”

This is precisely the problem: issues are not being tackled, mostly because people have been taught to be desensitized by issues. What is the most important value fetishized by candidates is the simple delivery of services: food, housing and jobs (which is what almost all, but most importantly Senator Villar, puts forward as their sole agenda). This is basically national housekeeping, which should be undertaken by a bureaucracy and not be put to question. The moment we begin thinking of washing our hands from public responsibility as mentioned in the film Network (“Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone!”), we already know citizenship is dying. And this is likely something we can blame on the egocentric elites who find it expedient that the masses remain ignorant, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

2) “Bakit mo iboboto iyan e hindi naman iyan mananalo?”

Perhaps we are committing and error when we follow the idea of “politics of convenience.” This is the rhetoric people have about OMB Chairman Edu Manzano’s affiliation with Lakas-Kampi CMD, lamenting how he would top the polls if he was a Liberal senator. This even extends to the standard-bearer Gilbert Teodoro, who supposedly is an ideal candidate if not for his affiliation with the incumbent Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who statistically and rhetorically is the most unpopular president than the unlamented dictator Ferdinand Marcos. (Not that we sanction the growing rhetoric that Marcos was actually a good president; that statement is outrageously stupid and is a different matter.)

If Lakas-Kampi CMD holds the ideological underpinnings and program of governance a candidate believes, then so be it: let the candidate stand for what he/she believes in. Politics is about standing up for one’s principles and then moving around your limitations to push them through. If we are mad at personality-centered politics with candidates marketing only themselves and not the stands of the party, are we not making the same error of judgment by becoming personality-centered ourselves and not looking at the arguments of these parties? It is definitely true, political participation is a matter of investing oneself and convincing other people to what you believe in in the practice of elenchus, but relying on personal charisma alone is not healthy in promoting a thinking electorate.

There are values for tradition and myth-making in political participation: this is why the argument about Senator Aquino not having any original platform and simply riding on the names of his deceased forebears does not hold. As postmodernist thought will hold, why destroy the old wheel and make a new one if it is still workable? If the history of people power is still a potent weapon of democratization, why should we not hold on to it? Why believe the discredited neo-liberal dialectic of the Arroyo administration which foists the bogey of “stunted development” if another EDSA Revolution occurs? The obsession for modernization as rhetoric and sacrificing what is held dear by the people is totalitarian, if not at the very least emasculating for the demos.

3) Bakit ka pa sasali sa halalang ito, pare-pareho lang naman sila, sayang lang ang boto mo?

To immediately presume that electoral practice is a futile practice due to the inevitable fact that it will always be the “old players” who will figure in elections is, once again, a non-democratic and anti-political practice which has disastrous consequences for public participation. True, these players have interests counter to the values of the general population, but then again the value of political participation is in the strength to continuously speak out one’s rights and advance one’s interest in conjunction (if not effective suppression) of the aforementioned anti-people interests, achieved through the negotiation table and parameters people agree upon, if only to assert their participation in the community. To paraphrase once again Hannah Arendt in an interview with Roger Errera, departing from the relatively-modern understanding of the nation-state (which as a construct of modernity is questionable in itself), a country is united not by heritage, not by memory or shared origins, and not even by whether one is native or not: it is united by consent to the Constitution it values. In valuing this Constitution, one professes to a desire to participate in governance, in developing oneself as a person who wishes to be a figure that has contributed to the welfare of the public space while allowing for the advancement of private pursuits, but only insofar as it supports the public space.

In quoting noted Neo-Marxist academic Nicos Poulantzas, who wrote in the New Left Review Vol I No. 58, one of the contestations regarding the capitalist state is about how “the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist system, according to Marx, is not at all a contradiction between its social character and its ‘private purpose’, but a contradiction between the socialization of productive forces and their private appropriation. (Poulantzas 1969, 71). Political participation, despite its value for tradition and structures, nonetheless should be able to articulate itself in other avenues available to maximize mobilization and capturing public interest. It is, after all, not about who gets what, but who convinces everyone better in the shared language.

It would be therefore to our benefit as a population if we do understand the spectacle that unfolds before us, but nonetheless do not fully give in to our suspension of disbelief and see what occurs before our very eyes as an automatic signal to just drop our votes and leave it at that. To have a fully appreciative participation in the electoral process, one has to be willing to go out of one’s comfort zone and engage every one who wishes to “serve” in the public space by asking them questions that matter, issues of justice and legitimacy, while keeping a tacit understanding that national housekeeping is important but not paramount above establishing a livable space for all.




Take your vote as a ticket, and leave it at that. Be exhilirated, but not intoxicated.


  1. I appreciate the sentiment but not the ALL CAPS. 😛

    While not enough people will choose to take on the task of finding out all they can about about the candidates, I personally feel that this election is a little more gray. 6 years ago it was the masa for FPJ and everyone else for GMA basta’t hinde si FPJ (I cast my ticket for Roco, may he rest in peace). Now you have a cast of very characters who each have their own flaws but also have their own upsides. I don’t see anyone winning by a landslide this year, and I think that’s great, as it means our options are becoming more numerous with each election.

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