In 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign made several key mistakes, but probably it’s biggest mistake was underestimating the power of populism. Look at Hillary Clinton’s whole life. She is clearly a brilliant woman who has devoted herself to politics. The one smear that her opponents often attacked her with was arguably a Christian virtue: she forgave her husband and stuck with her marriage. So with all of the experience and expertise under the hood of the Clinton campaign, they can’t help but get lulled into hubris as they looked at Donald Trump, a reality show blowhard whose demeanor fits more with pro wrestling than with the halls of government.
The thing is, pro wrestling is incredibly popular. Aside from WWE, many wrestling companies have sprouted and the masses are just eating them up. WWE is making so much money creating low-brow drama and their biggest stars are so popular that they are venturing out into Hollywood. And thus, 2016 officially started the pro-wrestlification of politics. Populists started speaking the language of the people, and by language of the people, I mean the lowest common denominator. And instead of being insulted, Trump’s supporters saw it as vindication. They found a leader who talked like them and can be crass like them, despite his elite lifestyle. Trump created a fictitious character: a multi-billionaire that is anti-elite and is willing to hang out with the masses. A great lie. A great electable lie.
All of this is nothing new in the Philippines. Every time I look at Philippine politics, it depresses me to see how people elect their leaders. Let’s look at the 13th President of the Philippines, Joseph Estrada. Wikipedia defines him as a politician, a former actor (an action star often playing parts defending the downtrodden), and a kleptocrat. A kleptocrat, like it’s an occupation. For the unfamiliar, Estrada was impeached for receiving payoffs, being involved in illegal gambling activity (jueteng), and having secret bank accounts. Along with former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, he is among the most infamous Filipino politicians due to corruption. He was removed from office and was the first Filipino president to be put in trial and found guilty of plunder. After seven years of detention, he was granted executive clemency and released in 2007.
Most countries who finds their leader corrupt and guilty of plunder would often not hear from that leader anymore. But not the Philippines. In 2013, Estrada became the mayor of Manila, the nation’s capital. People love a redemption arc, but more than that, Filipino voters love their celebrities. Despite what parents teach their children, voters seem to value fame over education and actual experience in governance. Estrada’s image as an action star fighting for the downtrodden outshone his record of kleptocracy. This love for celebrity as well as love for familiar political dynasties is something that the Philippines could never shake itself away from. Estrada was a college dropout. The current mayor of Manila who has presidential aspirations was also an actor and only has non-degree programs under his educational belt. Manny Pacquiao, an internationally famous boxer turned politician got a certificate course before serving the public. He now plans to run for president as well. Just think about it. The highest post in the land to a man with a certificate course. I don’t want to sound like a political gatekeeper, but I like my leaders to at least have a bit of education before taking on key roles in the government that affect people’s lives. Fame and being able to be “down with the people” is good for selling movie tickets, or in Pacquaio’s case, Pay-Per-View, but it doesn’t make good leaders.
When Trump was elected in the United States, it was proclaimed as “the death of expertise.” You don’t need expertise or education to be put in office. This has been true in the Philippines for a long time.
The 16th president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, got elected using his tough guy image, crass language, and common man charisma. He admitted to shooting people and encouraged tough on crime policies, and the voters saw him as an action star. Being the first president from Mindanao, instead of the more prosperous major island of the Philippines, Luzon, not only did he promise to be tough on criminals, particularly drug dealers, he also committed to switching to a Federalist form of government, distributing wealth throughout the country more equally instead of just focusing development on the nation’s capital. He painted an almost movie-esque redemption arc for the country’s future: a leader from the nation’s poorer islands transforming the country for the better and shooting the bad guys while he’s at it.
He made good on his first promise. His war on drugs resulted in extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users. Despite being condemned by the UN, he proudly claimed it a success and declared that crime is down due to his policies. The promise of a more prosperous country under a Federalist system however was long forgotten. The war on drugs and talking tough proved to be far easier to do than doing the un-sexy chore of actually governing. Half of the infrastructure projects he proposed are still in the proposal stage, his economic policies have middling results, and despite his tough talks against criminals, when it comes to countries like China, he often succumbs to their threats, much to the disappointment of his supporters.
Sadly, all of this is not going to change anytime soon. Celebrities will continue to graduate as leaders in the Philippines. Being a populist will always win elections, and what better way to connect with voters than to be someone they’ve been watching on television for years? Some have basically been campaigning for a decade outside of the regular election season. Of course, one can also be successful by being a member of a long-running political dynasty in the Philippines; be a Marcos, an Aquino, a Roxas, etc. But that’s another can of political worms.
Elections in the country are like fiestas. Candidates make spectacles along with their campaign speeches, be it some singing, dancing, or even just the act of shaking people’s hands. Being that close to a celebrity makes a mark on people’s minds and translates to votes. Candidates are not judged by their merits in terms of politics, they are judged by their charisma and how they can mesmerize voters. This is why I’m very skeptical of the Philippine’s future in terms of politics. It’s only natural for it to be marred by a history of corruption. Why wouldn’t it be? People keep electing candidates based on charisma.
Filipinos deserve better. I just hope they realize this each time there is an election.