Trash talk: New normal in politics?

In his groundbreaking work, The End of History (1989), Francis Fukuyama emphasized the necessity of “distinguishing between what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history, and are predictably superficial.” One could argue that something "essential" (and disturbing) is taking place among democracies, both mature and infantile. 

Few years ago, Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick worried about a disturbing phenomenon: “Democracy in Retreat” on a global scale. Today, even the United States’ democratic credentials are in serious doubt. There has been an exponential increase in the number of people who have lost faith in existing institutions, even to the point of some Americans welcoming a military dictatorship. 

And this is precisely the context within which one should understand the rise of Donald Trump. Despite his complete disregard for political correctness and his deplorable (and unconstitutional) call for an outright ban on entry of Muslims to the country, capitalizing on growing Islamophobia across the West, Trump is surging ahead in polls. The initial thought that his meteoric rise was nothing but a blip on the radar of American politics is in need for serious re-examination. As New Yorker’s John Cassidy puts it: “Right now the question isn’t whether Trump could win the Republican nomination; it’s: What is it going to take to stop him?”

The success of Trump, and the decline of popular faith in democracy, has tailed a major phenomenon, aptly described by one leading author as the “Rise of the Trash Talkers.” In the Philippines, for instance, things are heading from absurd to outrageous. As a foretaste of the likely quality of our upcoming elections, two presidential candidates with a long record in public service are now drawn into a tit-for-tat, where one is daring the other to have a gun duel. What started as comic slap-for-slap taunting has now ended in a grim gangster-like bravado. And one shouldn’t be surprised if both candidates come out of this bizarre showdown (not only alive but) with a stronger grip on the race. 

Behind the seeming irrationality of our contemporary politics lies a rational public outcry with the status quo. Fed up with the inadequacies of governance for decades, a growing number among the Filipino electorate are willing to look for alternative options. People are sick and tired of business-as-usual politics, whereby politicians say all the right things during campaign period just to betray their supporters once in office. 

Nowadays, openly questioning the merits of democracy is no longer a taboo. And tough-talking by some candidates is beginning to capture popular imagination. It is no longer about crossing certain lines, since the lines themselves are increasingly blurry. In his classic work Political Development and Political Theory (1965), Samuel Huntington correctly warned about the vulnerability of rapidly changing societies to political breakdown, especially when institutions of governance fail to catch up with rising social mobilization and economic growth. In many ways, the Philippines is suffering from this syndrome.   

An unpredictable race

Throughout the past months, there have been at least three seemingly runaway winners among candidates for presidency in the Philippines. Earlier this year, Vice President Jejomar Binay, who has banked on his vast network of patronage and his (purportedly) stellar stint as mayor of Makati, very well looked like a man comfortably cruising towards the office of presidency. 

As allegations of corruption piled up, however, he lost the lead to a relative newcomer, Senator Grace Poe, who has banked on the popularity of her late father (Fernando Poe Jr) and her own squeaky-clean image. It didn’t take long, however, for Poe to confront a barrage of disqualification cases regarding her citizenship status (whether she is a natural-born or naturalized Filipino) and residency requirements. 

After narrowly escaping a disqualification (from political office) case at the Senate Electoral Tribunal (SET), where all three members of the judiciary voted against her, she faced disqualification in two divisions of the Commission on Elections (Comelec) vis-à-vis her candidacy for presidency in 2016. While Poe battled against what her supporters see as politically-motivated disqualification cases, with some legal experts even questioning the competency of Comelec to make such decisions, a new seemingly runaway winner has gradually emerged. 

Surveys by the country’s two leading polling agencies, Pulse Asia and Social Weather Stations (SWS), show that Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of the southern city of Davao, is now the candidate to beat. According to Pulse Asia, the tough-talking mayor is the leading choice (34%) of residents of Metro Manila. As for the SWS, a privately-commissioned survey suggests that he is the leading choice (38%) of likely voters nationwide, astonishingly standing as the overwhelming choice (62%) of the top three richest (and presumably most educated) classes in the country. 

Nothing is impossible 

Duterte’s meteoric rise is even more mind-boggling when one considers the ease by which he has dispensed with political correctness, ranging from his frequent use of foul language to his boasting of purportedly killing (suspected) criminals without any compunction. In an intimate interview with Maria Ressa, he reportedly even pondered the imposition of a dictatorship.  

“When I said I’ll stop criminality, I’ll stop criminality. If I have to kill you, I’ll kill you. Personally,” he reportedly shared during the interview. Banking on Davao’s reputation as a city of safety and discipline, he promised to extend this model nationwide: “I would stop corruption, stop criminality, and fix government.” 

For his legions of supporters, they see an authentic, uncompromising leader, who will piece together a broken country. His critics see nothing but a direct challenge to the democratic foundations of Philippine politics. How to make sense of such wild swings in electoral preference of likely voters? Why tough-talking (even when it shatters political taboo) seems to work so well? 

To begin with, some experts have raised doubts as to the reliability of the latest SWS survey. And we may see another wild swing in the surveys in the coming months. But one can’t still deny the fact that Duterte is now considered as a highly competitive candidate, and that his message is finding growing traction among the electorate, especially those in the industrialized capital region. 

Meanwhile, the incumbent president Benigno Aquino’s anointed successor, Manuel "Mar" Roxas II, is still continuing to struggle in the polls, with one survey suggesting that Aquino’s endorsement is more of a liability, standing at -26 percent in Metro Manila. If Roxas wants to stand any chance of winning the presidency, he has to make sure that his candidacy is not viewed as primarily a referendum on the incumbent, whose popularity ratings are on the downhill. Roxas will have to put fresh, inspiring and bold ideas on the table, and be authentic in his own ways. 

The new benchmark

One way to understand the recent trends in surveys is to appreciate the sheer depth of popular frustration with the existing system. Behavioral economics shows that individuals’ preferences are “reference-dependent,” and such references can change overtime. In his first few years in office, Aquino was welcomed by majority of the population as a breath of fresh air after a ‘lost decade’ under the previous administration. The economy stabilized, anti-corruption initiatives were activated (albeit partially) and the global community took notice of the country. 

Overtime, however, rising expectations have given birth to an explosion in discontent over a range of issues. In places like Metro Manila, the residents are suffering from arguably the world’s worst traffic jam on earth. The traffic conundrum is threatening to chip away at the collective sanity of residents, who see the problem as a manifestation of governance failure. 

More than good governance (Daan Matuwid), people are beginning to seek effective governance. And they are willing to vote for anyone who promises (no matter how credible or not) a solution to the governance deficit in the country. The challenge for democrats today, whether in Manila or Washington D.C., is to end dysfunctional forms of decision-making that are giving a bad name to democracy – the greatest gift of modernity. 

More than political freedom, people also demand effective governance. But we should also guard against the dangers of “trash-talking” politics. As Pankaj Mishra warns, polarizing rhetoric carries the danger of “destroying the middle ground where compromise – the mainstay of democracy – is found.” This is why we need serious policy-focused debates, rather than soundbites and bravado, more than ever. Elections should bring us together, rather than dividing us into permanent poles of opposition. More importantly, elections should bring out the best in our leaders, so that they can inspire the nation and mobilize a broad coalition of reform. –


The author teaches political science, and is the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London). This article was partly based on an earlier piece for The Huffington Post