On poor people's 'poor judgment'
The recently concluded midterm election has drawn attention to contrasting views on how to interpret the electorate’s political behavior.
Some tend to characterize Filipino voters as an unenlightened lot, an unsophisticated majority that elected “a 20-year-old OJT as Senator,” as one satirical piece puts it. Others challenge this view and instead put the blame on the middle class’ condescension and inability to understand the context of “the masa’s” political rationality.
Recently, a colleague and dear friend presented an alternative position. He made a distinction between dismissing voters as stupid and acknowledging the lack of political education necessary for voters to make informed decisions. He interrogates the moral relativism implicit in arguments romanticizing the masa vote. As he puts it, “the poor, though they have explainable and valid reasons, can make disastrous choices – in the same way the elite or anybody in society can.” While it is unfair to call voters stupid, it remains important to call out wrong decisions. “Not stupid,” he qualifies, “just wrong.”
Correct vote as reform vote
I find this position thought-provoking, because it raises a first order question of whether there is such thing as a correct vote.
The concept of correctness, as with all concepts that entail value-judgments, is always political. It shows a particular perspective shaped by one’s experience, social background and biographical context. Hence, it is important to unpack what the discourse of “correct” or intelligent voting refers to.
What perspective is privileged when a vote is described as correct? What views are silenced or devalued as a consequence?
At a time when good governance and transparency have become popular discourses, it has been common to associate intelligent votes with reform-oriented votes. It can be observed from past elections that there has been an increasing emphasis on voting based on track record, platform and integrity.
An “intelligent voter” is framed as someone who considers what the candidate has done, what one intends to do and how one gets things done. Voter education campaigns are premised on the idea that if people have access to information, they will stop selling their votes and electing candidates based on popularity, political branding and patronage. While voter education drives do not generally endorse candidates, they endorse a particular decision-making framework that enables citizens to arrive at well-considered, if not “correct” decisions.
Privileging the standpoint of good governance and reform, however, leaves some casualties. Based on his study on electoral reform in the Philippines, Frederic Charles Schaffer closely examines the consequences of using the reform discourse in understanding the nature of so-called dirty electoral practices or, simply put, “wrong votes” associated with the poor. He labels the dominance of such a view as a “disciplinary project” where ethical standards of electoral conduct are imposed on citizens who do not share the same moral calculus.
One manifestation of this is the relegation of the personalistic vote as an uninformed vote.
Based on extensive interviews and ethnography, Schaffer maps the ethical universe of voters who choose candidates perceived as kind, caring and helpful. It has been convenient to dismiss this political behavior as a relic of traditional politics, a derivative of poverty and lack of education which makes political subjects vulnerable to abuses of opportunistic politicians.
Yet there is something profound – not romanticized – about the poor’s preference for voting candidates who embody particular traits. Compassion, care and kindness are elements of what Schaffer calls a politics of personal dignity in which the poor is treated as their kapwa or fellow human beings worthy of attention and recognition.
Accepting “dole-outs” is based on a socially embedded ethical framework where it is acceptable to receive gifts from politicians who are “simply showing consideration, paying attention, offering a helping hand.” Redistributing largesse, shaking people’s hands and sharing a meal with the community can be interpreted as acts of solidarity with the poor – an ethical calculus that the Binay campaign has fully embraced.
But what about corrupt politicians, one may ask. Schaffer interviewed Joseph Estrada supporters from Barangay Commonwealth and asked about the deposed President’s thievery. A housewife answered, “I can’t do anything about them if they are true. But for me, he is still a kind person.” In this woman’s moral calculus, what counts is Estrada’s compassion.
This example is illustrative of the clash of multiple moralities.
If a correct vote for some is a vote for clean politics, for others, it is about compassion and dignity. What to some is a “new politics” that prioritizes issues rather than personalities is for others “‘bad’ politics of callousness and insult” due to the elite’s class ridicule and claims of moral superiority toward the so-called underclass.
Schaffer observed that his respondents felt contempt over advertisements against vote buying, which tend to trivialize the poor as people ready to vote blindly for a handful of coins instead of recognizing this practice as more complex than a simple transaction of votes in exchange of goods.
I suggest – albeit cautiously – that it is the poor’s moral rationality that is silenced when the concept of the “correct vote” is talked about in the current context.
An issue of power
To say that the notion of the correct vote privileges a particular perspective is not to devalue efforts at electoral reform.
Instead, I argue for the recognition that the meaning of a “correct vote” is an issue of power – who controls the means of knowledge production and who serves as arbiters of contrasting perspectives.
Challenging the concept of a correct vote is also not a slide towards moral relativism but an attempt at political reflection – thinking about privileged perspectives, silenced standpoints and the implications for our civic life.
My concern is that the emphasis on a particular value set might estrange rather than engage the subjugated moral calculus of the poor. As another colleague puts it, we must “express caution in the reproduction of injustice by silencing masa moralities.”
Perhaps we need to complement voter education campaigns with voter conversation drives – the type that sets up an inter-class dialogue about voting ethics, not a univocal perspective on correct voting. Some groups have already taken this direction and I am keen on testing the prospects of this approach.
Part of our responsibility as democratic citizens is not only to engage in public discourse but also be modest in our claims and acknowledge the partiality of our political truths. There is no benefit to democracy when the meaning of political literacy is held hostage by a moral elite. - Rappler.com
Nicole Curato, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Sociology in the University of the Philippines-Diliman. She was recently awarded a post-doctoral research fellowship at the Center for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the Australian National University.