"The more things change, the more they stay the same (plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose),” the 19th century French thinker Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr once lamented. In many ways, this is the state of our ‘national’ politics.
Yes, we do have new faces, including some of the mine-mes of a tropical King Lear, who will soon join the highest chamber of the nation. Two of our newly coming senators never held any elected office in the past -- and their greatest achievement is nothing more than blind loyalty to a former mayor of a provincial town that, during a nationwide “protest vote”, was catapulted to the throne. (Remember, the 2016 elections saw the son of a former dictator/“national hero” almost making it to the second highest office in the land. It was a wholesale rejection, at the highest level, of the post-Marcosian liberal-centrist meta-narrative.)
Anyone with a functioning cognition knows that these individuals would not have gotten anywhere close to any competitively sought-after position if not for the all-out support of the popular president. You can guess their legislative track record before it even kicks off. And yes, we do have a “post-modern” president, who doesn’t seem to even bother to bother with age-old rituals of power.
Ours is a president that relishes defiance for the sake of defiance – including besmirching our most cherished beliefs and traditions. In fairness, this sometimes benefits himself and the country, but, overall, even post-modernism at some point can get regressive, irrational and anti-modern. Despite promising “real change”, he is more or less surrounded by the same coterie of traditional politicians, ‘trapos’, which have infested and fed on our masses for centuries, reducing one of the most promising nations in Asia into one of its poorest. It’s the same trapos, who dominate our Congress.
And yes, unfortunately, widespread extrajudicial killings, blatant misogyny, corrosive corruption, autocratic nostalgia, and socio-economic inequality will likely continue to persist bereft of any serious accountability. Not to mention, our dear leader’s brazen strategic alignment with the very power that has, using Malacanang’s own description, ‘assaulted’ our sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea and beyond.
This is the very president that is willing to go to war with a long-time ally over a bunch of trash containers. What Canada did was illegal and wrong, but threatening war and severance of ties, seriously? It’s all about theatrics anyway, right? Forget about the need for calibration, commensurability, and consistency in foreign policy. Duterte is engaging in what the late Italian philosopher Umberto Eco, a keen observer of Italian Fascism, would describe as “cult of action”: namely, action for the sake of action, because it pleases others regardless of results.
If anything, recent years have seen the vengeful return of the worst kind of predatory politicians. Some even clawed their way back to power through tightly contested elections. Must love our democratic maturity! Meanwhile, there are, in fairness, new faces among the elite, but these are what one can call “Dutertegarchs”, namely the former Davao boys, who now find themselves suavely cruising through the corridors of power and/or in the middle of multi-billion dollar deals (progressively involving China) that, not long ago, exceeded their wildest dreams. In short, we kept the old oligarchs, minus the “Dilawan”, and then brought in new ones. So much for “real change”.
Yet, in the middle of all this dark clouds, there are some rays of hope lurking over the horizon. Maybe in the dark tunnel, there is an incoming light that is not a train, but actually light at the end of our tortuous nation-building journey. And here I put forward my ‘alt-populism’ hypothesis: The only way to transcend feckless liberals and beat right-wing populists is voting into power young, progressive and charismatic leaders, which I term as “alt-populists”.
Similar to their populist contemporaries such as Trump, Duterte and Modi, they fit into what the German sociologist Max Weber described as “charismatic” leaders, who, to their supporters, possesses “supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
The leaders I am referring to are the many men and women (in their 30s and 40s), who rose to power by both embodying and promising change. And, in their case, “good change”, since they base their policies in facts (rather than fiction), reason (rather than anger and fear), and gradual and systematic reform (rather than mindless violence). They are the true adults compared to their much older right-wing populist counterparts.
Whom am I talking about? Well, the alt-populists include prime ministers Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Katrin Jakobsdottir in Iceland, Justin Trudeau in Canada, and Leo Eric Varadkar in Ireleand; the French President Emmanuel Macron, Ukraine’s 41-year-old former comedian and new president Volodymyr Zelensky, and Slovakian hipster-president Zuzana Caputova, an environmental activist and yoga practitioner, whose catchy election slogan was, “Let’s face the evil together” (Postavme sa zlu, spolu to dokazeme), among others.
Harvard academics Noam Gidron and Bart Bonikowski identify ‘varieties of populism’, where some leaders only employ the populist playbook it in terms of their style/rhetoric and electoral/political mobilization, but not necessarily in their actual policy once in power or as their ideology.
Leaders like Duterte and Trump are what I call “consummate populists”, who employ all elements of populism, namely rhetoric/style, electoral/political mobilization, and actual policy. In contrast, the ‘alt-populists’ are radically liberal and democratic in their policies, though populist in their messaging, mobilization tactics, and public projection and imaging (I discuss this further in a book project with Harvard Law school to be published by Cambridge University Press).
We may have finally elected our own versions, though still on the local level, with Isko Moreno and Vico Sotto (“Iskotto”) hopefully leading the way. Last presidential elections, we got a consummate authoritarian populist. In the near future, we may very well get a more progressive, younger and facts-based version. We need change, but good change. There is still hope. The fight goes on for a better Philippines!