It ain’t democracy either

Patricio N. Abinales
Fil-Ams are confronted by a political system that has no space for their voice, that renders them powerless, and that relegates them to mere spectators of the blood sport

The preponderance of “annoyed” readers (44 percent!) to an essay on comparative American and Filipino corruptions may only increase with this next interrogation: American democracy as illusion.

Filipinos who left the country for good and refuse to allow their children and grandchildren to spend some time in the home country to learn about their heritage, also often argue that their migration had to do with the failure of Filipino democracy. 

Fil-Ams point to the enduring domination of an oligarchic few over the entire society; their control over its resources; their manipulation of its politics to suit their interests; and their distortion of popular culture by turning Filipinos into credulous consumers.

Rodel Rodis, writing from his San Francisco niche, for example, concludes that the “dominance of the family clans has prevented the flowering of democracy in the Philippines. [It is a] system [that] is a vicious cycle, one that prevents the expansion of the base of aspirants and candidates for representation [and] has produced fixers like Janet Lim Napoles who conspired with the dynasts in Congress to steal taxpayer money intended to provide the people with much needed services and infrastructure improvements.”

This “cacique democracy” has been there since the colonial days and while some of the families fade out into obscurity (the Roxases) and new clans emerge (the Binays), the inequity of the system remains. It cannot be changed. 

Unstated in the long-distance observations of Rodis on the fate of our democracy is the subliminal message that what makes the new home, the new country better is because here in the United States democracy prevails. Migrant Filipino-Americans could, therefore, rationalize that only in this democratic setting that one can find solace and be allowed to use one’s talent at its fullest.

Here then is the noblest of reasons for leaving the archipelago and telling the progeny to turn their back on their heritage. 

No argument with that. 

Oligarchic tendencies

Alas, as it turned out the United States has, in fact, been exhibiting analogous oligarchic tendencies as its former colony, according to two Princeton University professors. 

In a study of 1,800 policy schemes from 1981 to 2002, Professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page concluded that the “central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy…while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

Gilens and Page wrote that popular rituals like voting or petitions may look like “ordinary citizens” still have a say in the affairs of government, but in reality it has been the “elites [who] actually prevail.”

The professors note that this is not just a recent phenomenon; it has been observed far back as the 1980s. However they did stop short of calling it an oligarchy because, according to Gilens, “it brings to mind this image of a very small number of very wealthy people who are pulling strings behind the scenes to determine what government does. And I think it’s more complicated than that.”

So, where is this political system heading? In an interview, Gilens sounds despondent: “I don’t know. There have been periods – the ages of Robber Barons and Trusts, the progressive era where there was too much concern about concentration of power. I’m not a historian, so I don’t know – maybe it takes a Great Depression” to undo this inequality. 

The professors are quite modest in making grand claims but historians are not. Go back to the Gilded Age, where machine politics dominated East Coast and Midwestern politics and “the masses” were hoarded, bribed and sometimes threatened to compel them to vote for certain candidates (my favorite read here is Steven P. Erie’s Rainbow’s End: Irish Americans and the Dilemmas of Urban Machine Politics, 1840-1985). Revisit the American South where only in the late 1960s were African-Americans were allowed to vote but only now do we see one or two rising up to as high as the Senate (the classic and most relevant even today is V.O. Key’s Southern Politics in State and Nation). 

Which brings us back to the use of democracy as the excuse for leaving the country: like the argument over Filipino corruption, this too does not hold water anymore. 

Anyone engaging Pinoy politics from this end will have to do so without citing the United States as the “ideal type.” For migrated Fil-Americans are confronted by a political system that has no space for their voice, that renders them powerless, and that relegates them to mere spectators of the blood sport. Sounds like politics in Las Islas Pilipinas! As if you never left home!

And hence, in our academic jargon, quite similar and comparable.


A quick addendum to the corruption piece. Apparently Americans themselves accept how corrupt the system has become. In his New York Review of Books review of Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizen’s United, by Zephyr Teachout, David Cole cites these figures provided by the New York Times essay on political corruption by Thomas B. Edsall. “In 1964, 29 percent of voters believed that government was ‘run by a few big interests looking out for themselves.’ By 2013, that view had become a landslide, with 97 percent feeling that way. In 2006, 59 percent of Americans were convinced that corruption in government was widespread; by 2013, that number had jumped to 79 percent.” Enough said. 

Patricio N. Abinales took American Politics as a minor in graduate school. Back then, he was thinking of writing a research project comparing Ilocos Sur under strongman (and rumored warlord) Jose “Chavit” Singson and Mississippi under the control of white Democrats.  


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