Away from speeches crammed with cusswords and the questionable soapbox of social media, we analyze the factors that fueled the winning votes in this year of political self-sabotage
Deconstructing the messy political landscape of 2016
There’s an old game in grade school in which we’d ask each other if we’d rather be dropped down a deep well of cockroaches or swim across a pool with urine, carrying a midget on our backs. Asking if America is better off with Donald Trump than we are with Rodrigo Duterte is a bit like that game, except perhaps with a monkey instead of a midget.
Both men rose to power riding on waves of a populist vote, defying pollsters and surveys in the same way: not playing by the rules of politics. What had changed in 2016 that the world suddenly seemed so intent on self-sabotage? Here, splitting the vote among too many contenders allowed an obscure provincial politician with no visible machinery to win against two very able but very traditional contenders. In America, it was the insane electoral college system and the low voter turnout.
There are three main factors involved: globalization, capitalism, and the internet. Globalization involves ideas such as free trade, the free movement of people, and a free flow of ideas. Globalization is not, as its critics claim, inimical to nationalism. But as the US and the UK had discovered, a Polish or a Pakistani migrant would be willing to do the same job for half the pay and work twice as hard, the same way a less qualified Brit might be hired to do the same job in a Philippine-based company at thrice the pay and with expatriate benefits, only because he is perceived to be more competent. Opening up the market brings racial and ethnic prejudices and resentments to the surface.
At the moment, China is reaping the consequences of its one-child policy and heady economic growth: the sweatshop of the world is running short of cheap labor. Countries like Vietnam are getting the jobs while the Philippines, unfortunately, is exporting more fruit. However, our labor is prized for domestic tasks abroad, so it is our low-skilled migrants who are most in-demand as maids and nannies and cashiers, but to be fair, certain respected métiers are also our domain: seamen, nurses, and entertainers. Capitalism is what allows the rich to pay P20,000 for a steak while the poor literally eat garbage. This isn’t new. What changed is that due to factors ranging from a failing educational system to the lack of faith in government in the post-Marcos era, the middle class and the promise of social mobility are shrinking. People with honest jobs remain stagnant on the social scale. What gets you ahead are going abroad, marrying upwards, and breaking the law. Our country’s mixture of Wild West capitalism, corruption and cronyism, and interaction with the global marketplace make for a volatile combination. There’s no venue more suited to venting this frustration at the “system”— there’s actually no system, but a status quo—than the internet, where memes are cheap and anonymity is guaranteed. Trump won because of the internet; Duterte won because of free Facebook. Its very design has the free flow of information as one of its basic principles, and that power—like capitalism’s power to change lives for the better—was perverted and abused during the elections. Take the Marcos dictatorship, for example. Things that we believed to be fixed as history, are now suddenly up for debate. This is how powerful false information is. This leaves us in a quandary. As liberals, people like me continue to believe that migration and being part of the global economy are better than isolationism; that capitalism can be brutal and cruel but its alternatives are worse; and that the internet should not be subject to censorship. Few would argue that democracy is a bad thing, but how many of our democratic institutions have been turned into instruments of subjugation? The economic progress of China and the prosperity of Singapore have given the world a bad idea: that there might be such a thing as “benevolent dictatorship,” or that there’s such a thing as “too much” democracy. Democracy has joined other lofty ideals as an idea that needs to be re-examined. The political and economic repercussions of 2016 will last for years to come, but its implications for what we believe in will haunt us on an individual and human level.