Hindsight No. 11: A Political Playbook

Hindsight for Monday, March 28, 2022

I WAS rearranging the books and periodicals in my library the other day when I came across a copy of a journal from more than 60 years ago—the 3rd quarter, 1958 issue of Comment, self-described as “a quarterly of Philippine affairs… conceived in the observation that absence of thought has resulted from a prevailing atmosphere of conformity and dread of ideas.” 

It was quite an assertion to make, but the journal’s mainstays were up to livening things up in the Cold War chill that had turned many Filipinos—both in government and academia—into rabid anti-communists. On Comment’s editorial board were F. Sionil Jose, Onofre D. Corpuz, and G. Burce Bunao (on leave for their studies abroad were Alejandrino Hufana and Elmer Ordoñez). Then only in their early thirties or even younger, these men would count among the most prominent intellectuals and writers of their time. 

What particularly caught my attention was an article written by Corpuz on “Filipino Political Parties and Politics.” O.D., as he would be known, had just recently returned with his PhD in Political Economy and Government from Harvard, on the verge of a long and prominent—though sometimes contentious—career in public administration that would see him serve as Secretary and then Minister of Education, founder and president of the Development Academy of the Philippines, member of the Batasang Pambansa, and president of the University of the Philippines. 

Another political scientist and UP president, Jose V. Abueva, gave due praise to Corpuz upon the latter’s passing in 2013, citing his landmark scholarship in economic history. But Abueva also pointedly noted that O.D. was “soft in his judgment of Marcos’ authoritarian rule.” (Interestingly, Corpuz had described martial law as “an anti-democratic but constitutional coup” and EDSA as “a democratic but unconstitutional coup.”)

I was curious about what O.D. Corpuz observed of Philippine politics in the 1950s and if those observations would still hold today. Let me share a few choice quotations from the article, and you tell me if they don’t remind you on some level of what we’ve been seeing lately.

First, he notes the political centrality of the family and the elite:

“The importance and strength of the family and of its manifold of values, interests, ethics, and behaviors is one of the basic facts in the cultural context of politics and government in this country…. Close association between party and family was natural from the outset. 

“The first elections in this country in this century were municipal elections. This meant that, as a general rule, during the critical time when the foundations of political leadership were to be established in this country, those foundations had to be local…. The organization of national politics that later came after 1907 was essentially a superstructure resting on local foundations, in which the locally dominant families were the primary factor.”

I knew that only men could vote until 1937, but I didn’t know until I read Corpuz that, early on, you also had to own “real property worth at least five hundred pesos or paid at least thirty pesos of the established taxes annually” and read, write, or speak English or Spanish.

These requirements of maleness, wealth, and literacy lodged if not locked political power within the elite. Citing the French political scientist Maurice Duverger, Corpuz then goes on to classify political parties into “cadre” and “mass” parties, with practically everyone falling into the former category (the communists being the notable exception), comprising individuals bound by common interests and goals. These groupings were temporary, opportunistic, and shared the mindset of the elite from where their members came. These members also freely defected from one party to the other as circumstances required or suggested:

“The frequency of defections is a unique and interesting characteristic of Philippine politics. No party system abroad seems to breed that adventurous individual in whom ours abounds, who changes his party affiliation almost every season…. Defectors do not defect by themselves. They have personal and independent followings that go with them wherever they go, and it is these, as much as the defectors themselves, that are coveted by the parties.”

All parties needed money, and they knew where to get it:

“Cash contributions come in the form of large donations. M. Duverger calls this the system of capitalist financing…. The majority party would enjoy a positional advantage over the minority in the matter of contributions, forced or voluntary, from business firms. It is similarly favored when it comes to per capita levies from aliens, especially the overstaying Chinese, who render their donations unto Caesar during the Christmas and political seasons.” 

Corpuz predicts, presciently, that the old landed aristocracy would at some point be matched or supplanted by new wealth coming out of commerce and industry, which would then control the political levers. Ultimately, family trumps party and ideology; its survival and prosperity are what matter most:

“A somewhat more important factor is the existence of private and family interests that are not subordinated to the demands of administration unity or party discipline. Some families affiliate themselves to a party only as a tactical maneuver, with the basic aim of acquiring a means for aggrandizing family interests.”

Finally, Corpuz observes the existence of a significant “floating electorate”—today’s “undecided” or “convertible” voters—and how to win them over:

“In the Philippines, to a degree rarely matched elsewhere, the slogans of the parties belong to the corpus of political myths…. The lack of ideological meaning in the party platforms is often lamented… (arising from) the fact that the attitude of the floating voter is unpredictable…. As a minimum condition, they must not alienate the floating vote. In this case, therefore, the safest course of action for the campaign planners is to declare the party’s unswerving dedication to generalities.”

I’ll leave it to your imagination what those “generalities” might be today. But I have to say that for a minute back there, I thought I was reading a political playbook for the 2020s.