Dutertismo’s elitism problem

To continue the fiction of being simple folk, the Dutertians must consistently conjure an upper crust for them to demonize. How far can they go?

As with any form of populism, Dutertismo divides the world into the elite and the everyday person. During the campaign, this division was relatively easy for a Mindanao mayor, an outsider from politics as usual, to foist on the electorate. Mar Roxas and his yellow ilk were hopelessly out of touch, and what the country needed was someone who swore like a sanggano. But the narrative of Duterte as defender of the downtrodden is belied by the fact that Duterte kills the downtrodden.

Dutertismo has an elitism problem, and various mental gymnastics will be necessary to maintain the elite vs. masses binary so essential to populist politics. To continue the fiction of being simple folk, the Dutertians must consistently conjure an upper crust for them to demonize. How far can they go? 

If it wasn’t obvious last year, it is now plain that a violent war on drugs disproportionately affects the poor – a likely reason why Duterte’s popularity has dipped in the two lowest classes. As the police brutality continues, the elitism of Duterte’s authoritarian project will become more pronounced. As it stands, the Dutertians cannot be ordinary since, as the recent Pulse Asia survey shows, the majority of them are increasingly clustered in the middle and upper classes. They also cannot be ordinary, since Pulse Asia also shows that “criminality” is primarily the concern of that same upper crust. The rest of the country is thinking about economic issues like jobs.  

Those who once complained about their foes being tone deaf (“Do you dilawans know what it’s like to be a victim of crime? Do you know what it’s like for a family to be shattered by drugs?”) are now the ones detached from everyday reality: Do they know what it’s like to fear for one’s life because of police brutality? Do they know what it’s like to lose a family member from Tokhang? They call the media useless, yet do they know what it’s like to be a beat reporter who has to talk to grieving families in slum areas almost every night?  

Similar questions can also be asked of the original Dutertians. Once upon a time, Duterte’s most hardcore, his Davao constituents, could claim to know more about the effects of Digong’s policies than the imperialist Manilenos.  So if they said their mayor’s intentions were pure and not psychotic, the rest of us could believe them; they brought to the table the insights of “ordinary” citizens from an underrepresented region.  But, now that the terror of the war on drugs has been clustered among the poor of Metro Manila, can they continue to insist on a privileged insight into the effects of mayor-president’s policies on the average Filipino? Duterte affects everyone now. 

Being an ordinary citizen is, of course, relative: One is only an average Juan in relation to a not-so-average Juan. Many Dutertians will tell you that, the stats notwithstanding, they feel ordinary. Mocha Uson, for example, is educated and did not grow up in utter poverty, but still styles herself as a voice of the masses.

And, indeed, many other Duertians, though not poor, rightly feel excluded. As a ka-DDS interlocutor of mine on Facebook told me, a young professional, sent to university belt college by OFW money, may not be begging in the streets, but nevertheless experiences struggles that someone like me – a graduate of Ateneo – cannot understand: finding a sustainable job, fending for relatives who are poor, feeling like the ginhawa gained could evaporate anytime soon. He added, further, that he was proud of all the San Beda lawyers in the administration, who showed that virtuous public servants could not be limited to graduates of elite, “yellow” law schools like Ateneo and UP. He then chastised me for making fun of Solicitor General Calida’s English (in my defense, his prose is a testament to vacuity of ‘Panyero-speak). 

Precarious middle class

DUTERTISMO. The candidate Rodrigo Duterte at his miting de avance in May 2016. File photo by Alecs Ongcal/Rappler

There are certainly many kinds of Dutertians, but a significant number of them view themselves as part of a large, emergent, but precarious middle class. As early as the campaign period, Julio Teehankee already pointed out that Dutertismo is the “angry protest of the new middle class: BPO workers, Uber drivers, and OFWs.” He added that this class works hard, yet suffers from poor public services and feels vulnerable amid deteriorating peace and order. 

This same class that Teehankee describes also consists of people like my Facebook commenter, who resent those of us educated in elite universities. Why should graduates of a few schools get to run the country when others are also educated, love their country, and even work harder than students Loyola-Diliman? Relative to these spoiled brats Dutertians may, indeed, view themselves as ordinary. 

So fair enough; I am a member of an educated elite, and should check my privilege. But am I the only one who should reflect on my life’s advantages? Some of us may have less than others and some of us will have problems. Some of us will be angry because of these problems. But none of this means we should give up on imagining what life might be for fellow human beings who suffer. This act of imagining is called empathy. And when you stand idly by as thousands die because of ill-conceived government policies, it’s empathy that you need more of. – Rappler.com


Lisandro E. Claudio (Leloy) is completing his final weeks as Assistant Professor at the Development Studies Program, Ateneo de Manila University. Next month, he will be Associate Professor at De La Salle University’s History Department

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