In her column last Wednesday, my friend Tess Abesamis attempts to understand why we seem to “elect so many undesirables.” She is no psychologist, having taken only the basic three units in college, according to her, but she came across Abraham Maslow’s paper on the Hierarchy of Needs. Tess finds in Maslow’s theory the explanation for the “atrocious kind of leaders we have today.”
Maslow proposed that human beings are motivated by a hierarchy of needs the basic of which are physiological, or the needs for survival like water and food. Only when the needs for survival have been satisfied does one graduate to the next level of needs. Tess surmises that since the great majority of Filipinos belong to the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need for survival is what causes voters to sell their votes.
I have also attempted to understand why Filipino voters elect to high office people not qualified for the positions they aspire for. I am no psychologist either, although as a graduate of La Salle’s Commerce-Liberal Arts program and as a former enrollee in Ateneo’s Graduate School of Psychology, I have much better grounding in Psychology than Tess. (I was with the market research firm Robot Statistics in 1960. As the firm planned to go into Motivation Research, it enrolled me in Ateneo’s graduate program in Psychology.)
I did come across Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in college and was exposed to a more expounded discussion of it in graduate school — not in Ateneo although I had a full semester of Physiological Psychology under Fr. Francis Parisi — but in the Graduate School of Business of the University of San Francisco. But I found in a paper written by Fr. Jaime Bulatao a better explanation of why Filipinos elect so many misfits to high office. No, it was not among the reading materials he distributed in his course Rorschach’s Test, rather it was an article titled “Value Orientations of the Filipino Consumer” that he wrote in 1964 for the inaugural issue of Marketing Horizons.
The piece was meant to offer the readers of the magazine practical applications to marketing of some of the insights into the Filipino psyche. He placed the Filipino consumer’s characteristics under three headings: personalism, authoritarianism, and small-group centeredness.
He described personalism as the predominance of the subject over the subject. The focus is not so much on what a person does as on who he is, not so much on what a person knows as whom he knows and on who knows him. Authoritarianism is the high value placed on a person in authority, on the boss or the expert. The individual, usually suffering from an inferiority complex, clings to some socially acknowledged authority to reassure him of the correctness of his acts.
Small-group centeredness means the unit of thought and action is not so much the individual or the big group but the small, primary group. The individual prefers not to declare his independence from it but rather to conform to its attitudes, tastes, and its moral and social norms.
I went to see Fr. Bulatao during the presidential election period in 1992 to ask him if what he wrote about the Filipino consumer is as true about the Filipino voter. He said the value orientations of the Filipino are as relevant in politics as in marketing. In the many years I have observed Philippine elections, I have seen Fr. Bulatao’s treatise proven over and over again.
I liken a political campaign to a marketing operation where the electorate is the market, the voter the consumer, and the candidate the product. The astute candidate appeals to the personalistic trait of the voter as the voter’s focus is not so much on what the candidate knows but if the voter knows the candidate. The candidate visits as many neighborhoods, joins as many huddles, hugs as many bodies, bumps as many fists, and kisses as many willing women as possible to establish a personal relationship with them. He shuns debates with other candidates as debates distance him from the voter.
But a candidate cannot have personal contact with every voter. That is why the celebrity, like a movie/television star or a sports hero, enjoys tremendous advantage over a candidate with much better credentials for the position aspired for. Because of the show biz star’s or sports hero’s frequent exposure in mass media, millions of voters get to know him and eventually feel a relationship with him.
In 1987 a man named Jose Bautista ran for the Senate. He lost ignominiously — as he should have as the man did not have the least qualification to be a senator. The same man ran again in 1992. He had not racked up a record of achievements in the intervening years to improve his political stock. In fact, he had not done anything different from what he had been doing for much of his adult life, which was acting in movies. The man ran as “Ramon Revilla” the second time around. He placed No. 2 in the senatorial race that year.
Also elected in 1992 were TV slapstick comedian Tito Sotto (he was the topnotcher) and basketball player and TV sitcom actor Freddie Webb. Because of their frequent exposure on television and because they made people laugh, voters related to them. They felt a vicarious relationship with the two entertainers.
Health Secretary Alran Bengzon, Trade and Industry Secretary Joe Concepcion, Jr., and Solicitor General Frank Chavez also ran for the Senate that year. While their professional credentials, their good performance as Cabinet members, and their role in the dismantling of the Marcos dictatorship well qualified them for the Senate, they were distant from the ordinary folk. The voters didn’t feel a “personal” relationship with them. They lost.
That is the same reason why intellectuals like Yale master of Law and former Comelec commissioner Haydee Yorac and Wharton master of Arts in Economics and former director-general of the National Economic and Development Authority Solita “Winnie” Monsod failed in their bid for the Senate, while movie action stars Lito Lapid and Bong Revilla get elected to the Senate again and again despite their having been accused of graft and corruption.
The personalistic trait of the Filipino voter accounts for the election as president of Joseph Estrada, the champion of the masa (masses) even if only in movies. In 2004, personalism would have also sent to the presidency Fernando Poe, Jr., a college dropout with zero experience in governance but a hero of the lowly and the downtrodden in movies if, according to his wife Susan Roces, then incumbent President Gloria Arroyo had not cheated him.
Space limitation prevents me from discussing at length the relevance in political elections of the two other traits of the Filipino voter. Let me just say that authoritarianism was a factor in the election of Presidential assistant Bong Go and the deep-selection Chief of Police Bato de la Rosa to the Senate. Without the endorsement of the President himself, a mere aide and a cry-baby of a police chief would not have been elected to the Senate.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.