HORIZONS By: Richard Heydarian
When the Soviet Empire collapsed, much of the free world was wrapped in ecstatic celebration. The mood was particularly triumphant across the West, with Francis Fukuyama, then a budding political thinker, famously declaring the “end of history.”
Of course, Fukuyama didn’t mean it literally: Conflicts and the unfolding of everyday struggles will continue so long as there is more than one human being left on earth.
But, the millennium-old ideological battle over which system of governance was best suited for the fulfillment of our most fundamental needs and desires was now finally over, he argued.
For Fukuyama, the cocktail of liberal democratic capitalism was the ideological terminus toward which all politics would be judged henceforth. It was only the combination of capitalism and liberal democracy, he argued, that could best satisfy our innate yearning for freedom, equality, material goods, and the pursuit of happiness.
As one of the harbingers of the so-called “people power revolutions,” the Philippines was not immune to such triumphalist declarations. Over the next two decades, Filipinos took the spread and endurance of liberal democracy and capitalism for granted, as if these were not articles of faith, but instead self-evident manifestations of the basic laws of physics.
We simply couldn’t imagine any alternative mode of social organization. “Never again” became the standard belief of many thinkers and ordinary citizens alike. No to socialism. No to dictatorships. No to all these seemingly anachronistic forms of governance.
There was no point of return. History simply became a matter of how much collective freedom and prosperity we could achieve in the new century. The upshot, however, was a devout form of liberal catechism and,
accordingly, dangerous complacency.
In recent years, what we’ve seen is an explosion of “democratic fatigue,” as a growing number of individuals, across both mature and fledgling democracies, give in to what I call the “strongman syndrome”: the simplistic belief that a single, decisive individual is capable of providing overnight solutions to complex 21st-century problems.
As institutions fray and fracture under the pressure of globalization and rapid change, charismatic leaders, often with an authoritarian streak, have captured the imagination of the people. Nowadays, people believe more in individuals rather
than institutions. People tend to embrace promises of overnight salvation (no matter how improbable) rather than reformist-gradualist politics (no matter how sensible).
Whether it’s Narendra Modi of India or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, unconventional and often authoritarian leaders have managed to tighten their grip on Asia’s oldest democracies.
This is the new zeitgeist, and it’s precisely why appealing to traditional values of liberal democracy no longer gain traction as in the past. The “liberal moment”—a historical exception—is now over.
Nowadays, what people seek are inclusive development, order and decisive leaders, precisely the values that were deemed missing in preceding liberal-reformist statesmen who advocated business confidence, political freedom and gradual reform. Today, the new “never again” is: “No more to feckless liberals in office!”
Yet, the lesson of the past decade is that authoritarian populists will reign supreme, almost regardless of their actual performance in office (think of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela), so long as there is no robust opposition with a convincing political narrative.
And this brings us to Leni Robredo. As the de facto leader of the opposition, the Vice President should step up to the plate by forwarding a new narrative that would transcend the frailties of liberal democrats as well as the pitfalls of authoritarian populists.
Simply criticizing the contradictions of populist authoritarianism won’t do it. Hers should be a positive vision that recognizes our atavistic tendencies while appealing to the better angels of our soul. Hers should be a narrative that shows how order can only come through the rule of law, that inclusive development can go hand in hand with business confidence, and that deliberate decision-making trumps erratic decisiveness.
What’s at stake is the soul of Philippine democracy.
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