Democracy dilemma: Reflections during routine and quarantine

Edmund Tayao

Posted at Apr 06 2020 09:14 PM

Everyday in this age of quarantine, you always have to ask yourself what’s in store for you today. Friends and colleagues often ask me what I have been doing to keep me sane. Last Saturday night, a gym mate called and asked me how I was and I said I’m good and saying, still the same. Except for the regular coffee shop and going around the mall, at times having dinner and watching a movie, of course my work that entails meetings after meetings and discussion after discussions, I told him nothing’s changed. Actually, nothing’s changed, including work, as now, as it is I think in similar cases or professions, the work continues albeit without the physical presence. In fact, even drinking sessions have become virtual nowadays.

And then there’s politics, a regular fare as always of course. What makes it different this time is that those you usually engage in politics, that is, have an exchange of political views and/or preferences, is no longer with the same limited group of people. Because everyone now is at home and, without a doubt, a majority has more time than before, everyone now has reason to read more, reflect on the news and political views and, of course, in the process, argue with those who don’t share their views. Discussions one used to have with colleagues whose work involves engaging in politics and policymaking and opposing groups, now includes friends and even family members. And this is where the complication is.

I couldn't help but be reminded by my professor before who asked us to think of a way to introduce or explain politics to a vendor. At that time, during the proverbial period when one was young and stupid, I didn't see the point of being asked to think about introducing politics to a vendor. I thought, and perhaps looking back, you can’t avoid but be elitist at some point. Why would I think or care about talking to the vendor about politics? The immediate reaction was simply that the vendor wouldn't be able to understand.

The point of the vendor is not to suggest it is a lowly job but to suggest that common folks have their own thoughts about politics. It’s not a question whether their idea of politics is inferior to yours; it’s more a question of having an entirely different vantage point as yours. So the point really is to understand what their idea of politics is, of their opinions on prevailing issues at any given time. This will allow you to realize that you yourself have your own vantage point, which is as incomplete as the vendor’s.

This explains why there is such a thing as populism. There is such a thing as populist because there really is popular opinion. It is not necessarily the right opinion, but it is the opinion that most people have as most likely, the same many people share the same vantage point, that is, share the same context or conditions in life. The same kind of information reaches them and the same amount of opportunity or time to process the information, if at all some processing happens or that whether that information is adopted as it is. This is what can be called a “democracy dilemma”.

Even without a universal definition, democracy simply is taken to mean “rule of the people” as it can only operate via the principle of the “rule of the majority”. This principle brings us back to the consideration of vantage points. One’s view is not complete, may be more complete or incomplete than the other views but partial nonetheless. Assuming that one view is “the right” view, there is still a need to get the majority see, understand and adopt this one view. And this is the more difficult part. You compete not only with the often-conflicting views and the obstinacy of many people. Especially in today’s world where it is easy to access and disseminate information, one also has to compete now with so much false information and therefore against those intentionally spreading false information.

Sadly, this is true regardless of political affiliation. Information has really become the modern currency of power and numbers. Spreading wrong information and misleading the majority have become an enterprise. It will always be a challenge for policymakers to get the support of the majority as they constantly compete for understanding in this environment.

Some early studies on this age of information suggest that this is a welcome development and that it will surely result to a more informed public. This premise led a democratic theorist to revive the idea of direct democracy and promote more and expanded popular participation. Somehow this is true but only to a limited extent. There are communities now where the people do policymaking directly. Emphases on “the community,” on the other hand, as precisely direct participation is possible only on a small scale. You can argue that technology has now negated scale, but the use of a third party also negates the idea of direct participation. But that’s another issue entirely.

The capacity of every individual to absorb, process and put information to good use is limited. It’s not only a question of intelligence but also more a question of time and opportunity. At the end of the day, each individual will be more absorbed with his or her own work. He or she will most likely read, watch or hear about the news, but is not expected to vet its reliability and qualify news as a “fact” or “information”. Then again, news and/or information will always involve politics and politics will always be common to everyone. That again is a dilemma in democracy.

One gets to grasp the significance of all of these more in this time of quarantine. As mentioned at the outset, discussions with colleagues or others who are involved in politics and policymaking directly are but normal that the mindset is that it is part of the equation. When you’re in a discussion with someone you know more as a person, on the other hand, is different. The expectation is different that the disappointment is more palpable.

(The author is the Executive Director of the Local Government Development Foundation and a professor of Modern Local Governance at the Ateneo School of Government.)

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.