Can a President be too popular?

Last week, I participated in a dust-up at Get Real Postthat resulted in my eviction from the site. This is a continuation of that discussion in a place where I won’t get thrown out for having a different view  than the editor.
The subject was the popularity of the Aquino/Cojuangco family. GRP writer Arche articulated an argument that the family’s popularity is dangerous. I argued that there is not much difference between the Aquino family and the other families: Arroyo, Estrada, Gordon, Marcos, Magsaysay and others, from Barangay to City to Governor to Senator to Presidential aspirant. Here is the statement from Arche that presents his view in a nutshell:
  • This is my major point. What sets Noynoy and his lot apart from other dynasties is that they more or less won the hearts of the people for so long. Even now, Ninoy and Cory remain untouchable, because they are paragons of democracy… supposedly.
Blogger and journalist manuelbuencamino articulated the opposing view in a comment made here the other day:
  • Well yes, to their credit Noynoy and his lot have done just that. And what’s wrong with achieving that, isn’t democracy about winning and keeping the hearts of the people for as long as possible? Besides you don’t win hearts by being undemocratic. You can win grudging obedience through tyranny but you cannot win hearts. Is arche faulting Noynoy or the people or both for the romance? Is he also criticizing democracy?
Under what conditions would too much popularity undermine democracy?
It would if the popular President rode unchecked over the checks and balances built into the democratic model. That is, if he rode the Chief Justice out of town and in doing so emasculated the court system. Or if he browbeat the Legislature into acquiescence on all his initiatives. Or if he used his popularity as an overwhelming force of personal ambition to enrich himself and his family and friends. Or if he used his power and influence to get his family a broader, deeper ownership of Philippine businesses and properties, and everlasting influence in politics.
That, I think, is Arche’s point.  The Aquino/Cojuangco family is so steeped in adoration that they can escape the healthy checks of a balanced government or its business and civic institutions. I would add that the mystique is not just from mother and son, but from father to son. It is not all yellow ribbons and a halo of goodness. The sacrifice the father paid for speaking out was ultimate. This is not games, people know deep down. This is not superficial.
I return to the argument that EVERY Filipino name family has the same power. It is the glory of the name, and its popularity among constituents, that allows all of the perpetual political families to build and hold power. Families keep their esteemed positions for generations.
Ex-President Arroyo had overwhelming popularity in Pampanga and she leveraged it as President to try an end run around the Constitution to secure a permanent desk at the Palace. Fortunately, she failed.
And in the Arroyo failure, we see a hint as to why we need not worry about Aquino/Cojuangco popularity.
Without question, the Philippine President has enormous power and his family has secured one of the  top spots in the Philippine social hierarchy.
But the forces holding the President in check are even more enormous. And therein lies the central point of the argument. How much confidence does Arche, or MB, or any citizen have that the greater checks and balances can keep a President from running amok or his family from buying into too much power?
The forces I speak of are outside of government. They are represented today in the press, the internet and its social and information networks, and the citizens: a well educated people with opinion leaders in educational institutions, business organizations, churches and civic action groups. Or competing families.  Watching, thinking, speaking.
Without doubt, many Philippine families have acquired considerable power through the trading of favors and exertion of influence, whether through vote buying or intimidation or leveraging friendships. The nation is run by powerful families. Not citizen interest groups or even political parties.
The fact that there are so many powerful families is itself a form of “check and balance”. They trade allegiances and band together, or like Aquino vs. Arroyo, or Arroyo vs. Estrada, work diligently to diminish one other.
I think the matter comes down to confidence, and I have greater confidence in the Philippine political and social mechanisms than does Arche.
The President’s great popularity leaves him extraordinarily vulnerable. Like a man standing on the peak of a snow-capped mountain, but not knowing if the snow he is on is solid or prone to avalanche. It is a long, quick, disastrous fall if he walks the wrong direction.
A popular president who abuses the trust given him by the people does so at his own peril. As long as the Philippines does not install North Korean type controls on press and internet freedoms, the nation is unlikely to again stray to one-man rule. The press in the Philippines – especially newspapers – are robust and free. The internet community is growing in power. If the President is perceived as lazy on the job, a huge wave of hilarious “Noynoying” breaks out. His laziness is checked.
“Big Brother” has reversed the video cams and government is in the sights.
Civic engagement is active in the Philippines, if still on the weak side. But the kernel of a new force is evident in rallies supporting specific issues: the HR Bill, gasoline prices, wages, illegal logging, US hegemony, and others.  All that is missing is the litigious element found in U.S. social scene, civil law suits that take damages to the sharp, fair, efficient, and speedy judgments of the courts for remedy.
Those are the final checks and balances. Arche is a part of that power.
Any democracy goes through cycles. Liberals in, conservatives out. Then the opposite. Disasters and bitterly contested elections, wars, wading through economic cycles and commodity shortages (rice or gasoline). Democracy is not static. It swings and circles about a center-line, and is always brought back to center if it drifts too far astray. 
That is the beauty of the machine.
From within, on some days, it seems a mess of dysfunction and cheating and power and struggle. I’m sure, from Arche’s view, the Aquino family power machine is threatening. Bludgeoning through the generals and the ex-president and the courts and legislative budgets to root out conniving motives and personal enrichment. Still riding on the glow of this mother’s good heart.
Bus massacre. Noynoying. Mindanao power shortage. Poverty and a heavy-handed attempt to mask it for visiting dignitaries. Flash floods ripping through major cities. Slowing economic growth. What a pile of problems. A bitter struggle between the Administration and former President Arroyo. The Corona impeachment, bungled by House prosecutors.
We are afraid the President’s popularity will mask these problems?
They are out front, every day, in the headlines and photos and opinion columns. Surveys suggest his popularity may be slipping a bit.
Indeed, I think, looked at from the smoothing prism of time and distance, it is all quite elegant, what is happening. These are the normal frictions, the tensions, of democracy in action. It is exactly because the are NOT HIDDEN that we can be confident that the Aquino/Cojuangco popularity will mean absolutely nothing, in the final judgment.
If we wait and work, articulate our checks and balances as strongly and wisely as we can, then in four more years, the Aquino “popularity threat” is history. On to the next iteration, and the next wobble around the center line. Whilst waiting, we can occupy ourselves improving education in the Philippines, and building even a stronger framework for democracy.
When Baby James is ready for election, we can worry about those Aquinos again.
8 Responses to “Can a President be too popular?”
  1. brianitus says:

    Joe, I always thought that popularity is the candy coating of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. It's the Presidential get out of jail card.Kinda like in the corporate world, if a manager kinda overdoes it with Powerpoint and feel good videos. I remember an old employee of ours who we had to let go of after we discovered that all he was good for was singing to our customers. No results. Good entertainer, lousy closer.Why can't a popular Philippine president launch a program that can unify his people? If you were around during the time of Erap, he also attacked Ramos. PNoy did the same — attack GMA. I'm not saying PNoy should let the previous admin get away without a fight. Personally, I find these activities a WASTE of LIMITED TIME in Malacanang since he appears to be the one personally undertaking them. How many years do they really have — 4 effective, 1 honeymoon, 1 lameduck? What about the other issues? I want the president to talk more about the ECONOMY. That's our biggest problem. I'm not talking about PNoy lecturing the country about GDP, it has to be about solutions.As for the mafia families of the Philippines, I certainly hope they get their just deserts.

  2. Ahhh, now that is a counter-argument with bite, and one that I can respect. From that standpoint, yes, the Aquino/Cojuangco popularity is wasted. And from that standpoint, I agree, President Aquino is not using his popularity as well as he might. He is not a threat to the institution of democracy. He is a threat to the notion that public servants ought to be working hard for the betterment of the Philippines. Not snoozing for four years and resting on his yellow ribbons.But I also return to an observation that there are precious few "executives" around, and he is a product of a culture that simply does not generate much "drive" for progress. If there are exceptions, then someone ought to be getting them ready for 2016 already.

  3. brianitus says:

    You can take it as an eventual effectLack of results = povertyMore poverty = instabilityInstability = Death of democracyMaybe he ISN'T an active threat. But it doesn't mean he CAN'T be one.

  4. Well, sure, just as all the presidents before failed to correct poverty OR corruption and have contributed to the possible death of democracy in the Philippines. He at least is working to change the values of the nation, an essential component to working on poverty. His spouse is not out angling for (alleged) kickbacks on a scale so large as to boggle the mind, sucking the very life out of Philippine economic candor. Where candor means honest competition for the means to create honest wealth.

  5. brianitus says:

    (alleged) = LOL. Safe!Um, I'll just put it this way. PNoy hasn't convinced me yet. I'm just one in a sea of millions of Pinoys. I don't matter, anyway.Is he really changing the values of the nation? That one, I've got to see. As long as he tolerates his people doing the things he isn't doing, I won't see him as "working to change values of the nation." Look at those TESDA billboards. Those are good examples. I'm not sure if the face of the director is as equally as important as the work of TESDA — skills training. The billboards are not even informative. As long as Barangay Captains can put their faces on business permits, I won't agree that this country is intent on changing its values because the president said there is no more utak wang-wang.Changing values? Like putting walls up to hide squatters?

  6. andrew lim says:

    Excellent piece, Joe. Wish I had the time and patience to sift through articles like these many times a week. I'm not into polemics; and I abhor long winded arguments that mostly go nowhere; although I do not begrudge others who are into these things. Which brings to mind the kind of blog you have vs the GRP site: which one's the diatribe, the screed, the Unabomber manifesto, and the real critical, but well balanced piece? 🙂

  7. I allegedly grew up in the United States which is allegedly very litigious, and I learned CYA (cover your ass) in the army.Yes, that wall. My opinion is documented in a separate blog. I also nabbed the following from a news article, Reuters or somesuch, today. There is good being done, as well, it would appear. Seems like. Maybe. Allegedly."Much of the credit for the good feeling should go to Aquino and his efforts to tackle corruption and improve the country’s infrastructure. His administration has worked to make the bidding process for public works more transparent. For instance, the government announces winners immediately, which prevents others from quietly and quickly paying officials to change horses."

  8. Why, thanks, Andrew. I tend to think people are attracted to what they, themselves, would create if they had the time and inclination. So people don't read here to find gore and self-esteem, but to think about things. That's my hope, at least.

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