The damage done

Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash.

The storming of the US Capitol building came as a shock to most Americans. But to many Filipinos the political tumult seemed familiar. In the thirty-four years since the ouster of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippines has witnessed a dozen coup attempts, dozens of corruption scandals, three impeachment tries and one impeachment trial, the ouster of one president by mass protest, and the near ouster of the succeeding one by an even more massive protest. What was shocking was that the revolt happened in the United States and was instigated by an American president. 

Democracy in the Philippines was instituted under American colonial rule, and for a long time Filipinos have looked to the US as a model of what democracy is supposed to look like. Older generations especially saw an image not only of political order but of the social order undergirding it, an order distinguished, it appeared, by Aristotelian civic virtue: a sense of common cause and of the priority of the public good. Filipinos imagined this order to be transformative. They would tell stories of their brother or cousin being reformed in America. A drunken layabout in the Philippines, he would go to the States and within months have kicked the habit, found a job, settled down, and go to church on Sundays. He would even put money in the collection basket. This picture, idealized though it may have been, served to provide a yardstick against which Philippine democracy was measured and found wanting. People resigned themselves to the idea that their politics needed time to mature. As people became richer and more educated, the hope was that they too would acquire the virtues distinguishing democracy in America. 

This picture has been fading for some time now, but the Trump administration really drew back the veil, undermining, perhaps irreversibly, the status of the United States as a symbol of liberal democracy. Filipinos saw that US politics could be as unruly, uncivil, and ugly as politics in the Philippines. They watched Trump bring family members into office, mix private and presidential dealings, and attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election, at first through fraud and then by inciting rebellion. This was a politics completely drained of civic virtue. To see the tissue of civility, nearly two and a half centuries in the making, shamelessly waved aside—it’s been a kind of epiphany. 

The Trump administration may have accelerated disenchantment with American democracy, but in truth the process had already set in well before he took office. Filipinos’ frustration with democracy has been mounting over the years. Other models, closer at hand, are increasingly being seen as viable: China and especially Singapore, which combines elections with single party dominance. People have been shaking free of the “US or bust” attitude towards democracy and reimagining their political future. Survey data show that support for democracy is largely conditional, and that many people remain open to the possibility of authoritarian forms of government.

In the course of my own ethnographic research, people spoke of the need to “discipline” democracy. They imagined this would take the form of a strong leader imposing order from above. My findings from 2010 prefigured the election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. Tellingly, Filipinos’ satisfaction with democracy hit an all-time high following Duterte’s election—86% in 2016 compared to an average of 51% between 1991 and 2015. This is ironic given that Duterte has been the country’s most anti-democratic president since Marcos, but it’s also revealing. It suggests a vision of democracy that is different from the liberal one we have come to expect. This vision may not even be one we recognize as democracy at all.  

Liberal democracy defined itself against fascism in the 1930s and 40s and against Communism during the Cold War. In the last thirty years or so, the goal of many developing countries has been to consolidate their democracies. To many Filipinos, this meant making their democracy look more like US democracy. The American standard was something to aspire to but also cause for self-flagellation as repeated efforts at democratic reform floundered. My sense is that the stars have shifted yet again, their realignment crystallizing over the course of the Trump administration. The line is not between democracy and authoritarianism, as some have drawn it, but cuts across democracy, distinguishing liberal from illiberal variants. I think we can expect to see greater contention over the terms of democracy in the decades to come. 

Marco Z. Garrido is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. He recently published The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila (2019), a study of the relationship between the urban poor and middle class as located in Manila‘s slums and residential enclaves. His current research (published in Social Forces and International Sociology and forthcoming in Qualitative Sociology) is on democratic backsliding in the Philippines and elsewhere in the developing world.


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