Monday, January 21, 2008

Plebiscitary democracy, muckraking and 'conspiracy theories'

(This piece is my reaction to mlq3's comment in his blog on “conspiracy theories”)

Establishing the connection between “plebiscitary democracy” as a mechanism to “refresh” an electoral mandate or to have such mandate “constantly revalidated” or “perpetually proved” and “conspiracy theory” could be easier if we don’t lose sight of certain democracy fundamentals.

People elect officials both on self-regarding and other-regarding concerns. The former serve the individual’s interests and wishes, the latter the common good. The elected officials have incentives to fulfill both concerns because they want to get elected again (if re-election is allowed) or, otherwise, keep in power the political organization or party they are identified with (with the expectation that even when out of office their interests will continue to be protected by allies).

When public office is tenured, the exercise by the people of their power to hold public officials immediately accountable is held in abeyance until the next election. During the inter-election period, aside from the fact that the individual electorates would go about attending to their personal needs such as earning a living, their voices are effectively muted unless they combine to coordinate their efforts or form “interest groups.” By contrast, under our constitutional system, for example, the president has full discretion to fire any member of her cabinet who has lost her trust and confidence; that same discretion, by the fact of auto-limitation, may not be exercised by the people as regards the president who may have breached her electoral promises or is not performing according to their expectation. Reckoning will have to wait for the next election.

Historically, the “office” that had filled the gap was the newspaper (of the “mucrakers” who leaked the truth - before, of course, the media took on the corporate form) through which the people expressed their individual concerns and frustrations during the inter-election period. (This is the reason Fr. Bernas’s commentary following the Manila Pen incident to the effect that when it comes to freedom of expression the media have no more special rights than any citizen is entitled to is unfortunately a bit naïve, although coming from one “from whom most sensible people take their cue on the correct approach to exploring constitutional questions” in the Philippines [see mlq3’s PDI column of 12/06/2008]).

My thesis is this: Impeachment (which I also call the un–election process), initiative, recall, or “the way datus were chosen and replaced” as well as “muckracking” is of kindred mechanism with plebiscitary democracy that refreshes, revalidates or proves mandates in the interim.

Indeed, substantive democracy (or people power per se), as opposed to procedural democracy, predominates if popular sovereignty (or the power of the people to have effective control over leaders) is maintained throughout.

I had the occasion to distinguish however between the journalists, the brave and principled ones, and the Fourth Estate “Who really runs the world,” when President Arroyo issued Proclamation 1017 declaring a “State of National Emergency,” in this manner:
. . . the individual journalists, like the one who shaved their heads in protest against President Arroyo’s Proclamation 1017, are easily vulnerable to intimidation (in the Philippines, the risk among journalist is statistically higher in the provinces with or without 1017); but certainly not the unsinkable Fourth Estate . . . (which) . . . “governs” in the way it creates events and frames issues on its own terms. Conditions in our midst that are not considered critical by the media or social problems that affect mainly ordinary people could be passed up for important public debate. Agenda-setting is power, an awe-inspiring one, in fact. Politicians avoid picking a fight with the media precisely because of this power and its capacity to lionize allies and demonize foes.

What’s of graver alarm however is when media power becomes a potent adjunct to other powers already possessed by the powers that be. Do we wonder why, post-martial law, business concerns controlled by some taipans have started to swallow up the ownership of major dailies in the Philippines? In an old commentary, I observed that “As new media owners, they saw the utility of the newly found power to defend their business interests from the government or rival elites while creating public awareness of matters favorable to those interests and ignoring others.” And again, even this is not as harmful as when the public mind is encroached upon in silence, for then there will be no opportunity to shave our heads and wear black armbands in protest. In a regime of liberty, we can challenge the legality of a government fiat like Proclamation 1017 or the presence of a policeman in a newsroom; but when in the name of the same liberty the assault is insidious and surreptitious like in the form of the “tight shots” of the crowd of supporters for FPJ during the presidential campaign that his wife Susan Roces has complained about (presumably to suggest a smaller assembly), often there’s no recourse.

That the “profession (of journalism) has very limited power” is open to debate. But now, do we still doubt the awesome potency of the sound bytes and the power of suggestion?

In the Philippines, the unofficial power structures behind “conspiracy theories” are well-nigh invisible (except maybe when they feel celebratory about their achievements as in Gokongwei’s rags-to-riches speech) and they are of course not voted to office by the people; but their decision or motive matters whether the Hello Garci tapes, the ZTE deal, the Glorietta blasts and similar scandals or controversies will be obscured or given prominence or will have ultimate closure or not (until perhaps the “new office” of blogging becomes a form of universal discourse).