I attended a Philippine-US relations forum in Makati last week. During one Q&A, the discussion drifted on the rise of so-called “authoritarian” regimes worldwide, particularly Asia.
The usual tropes were mentioned: the rise of populism, the return of nationalism, and xenophobia.
Bottomline, of course, what most wanted to say was: blame Trump (or Duterte).
But that’s being overly academic.
First of all, what is wrong with populism? Properly defined, a populist is “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people” (see Merriam-Webster).
That pretty much sounds like a person in favor of a democratic form of government. One tweeter notably declared: “everyone is populist to some degree because elections are a popularity contest.”
Indeed. Hence, the popular (but ultimately vapid) slogan of Barack Obama: “Yes, we can.” Also his equally narcissistic: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Which CNN later on adopted by employing Gandhi’s “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” The leftists have their own particular chant built on people power: “The people, united, will never be defeated.”
So, deferring to “the people” didn’t seem to be a bad idea, even for the Left. Noynoy even referred to the Filipino as “his boss.”
So what changed?
Why is it that policy makers and academics that seem so enamored with the idea of “people empowerment” are now all of a sudden so against populism?
Trump and Duterte happened.
And with them policies crafted not from the halls of government or academia but from the grassroots: peace and order, jobs, income.
Executed by people who are not considered policy or academic experts but people with lives outside politics: businessmen, soldiers, and other various professionals.
With that, the elite political class, the class that thinks they know all the answers, were sidelined.
And now populism is suddenly a dirty word, associated with demagoguery (when a few years ago, Noynoy and Obama actually substituted oratory for governance) and intellectual mediocrity (considering that it is now that inflation is manageable, jobs are back, and — as far as the US is concerned — global security seems to be on the right track).
Yet what is being ignored in all this is that our constitutional system is based on populism. Our Constitution was authored by “the sovereign Filipino people.” A constitutional system described as “of the people, by the people, for the people.” And a citizenry, mind you, that loves invoking the phrase: vox populi vox dei.
And, as the Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen puts it, conservatives have long been populists “because we believe that millions of individuals can make better decisions about their own lives than a cadre of elite central planners ever could. As the founder of the modern conservative movement, William F. Buckley, Jr. famously declared, ‘I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the… faculty members of Harvard University’.”
In any event, with the rising distaste for populism comes the aversion to nationalism.
Again, people hate the word because Trump once said: “I am a nationalist.”
But if one — particularly a president — cannot love his country then what’s he to do?
For some, the answer be a “patriot.”
But this ridiculous word game is something only the most vain of globalists can say with the straightest of faces.
Merriam-Webster again: Nationalism: “loyalty and devotion to a nation”; Patriotism: “love for or devotion to one’s country.”
There is nothing wrong with being a nationalist, at least in our own particular Philippine system: it is recognizing that we are bound together not by blood, tribal loyalty, race, or even faith. We are not a country founded on religion. We are a secular country, respecting each other’s beliefs and differences, with a reliance on the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.
This nationalism is further bound to a territory, of fixed identifiable borders. As Roger Scruton puts it, our fellow citizens are our “neighbors,” who we identify with and share common beliefs, history, and tradition.
Which thus leads to this point: perhaps countries have not shifted to authoritarianism. Perhaps leaders have not become more dictatorial. Perhaps instead what happened is that policy makers, media, the academe, shifted so far to the Left, along with it their entire intellectual framework, that what was commonsensical yesterday is now considered Right or hard-Right. Hence, almost everyone they disagree with is authoritarianism.
Effectively, yesterday’s “defenders of democracy” are todays “authoritarian strong men.”
Rubbish, considering the displaced members of the chattering political class are actually free anytime and anywhere to happily accuse their governments of being authoritarian.
What citizens should do is make their voices even louder. Be heard. Ignore the derogatory labeling of policy makers and academics.
Be confident in knowing that the people are often more right than the experts will ever be.
Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence.