Why Did the Philippines — Including Some Friends — Elect the Dictator’s Son?

It turns out my country isn’t what I thought it was.

In May of 2022, my countrymen elected Bongbong Marcos as president. BBM’s father, Ferdinand Marcos, was the villain of the world I grew up in. And now the son of the dictator is the choice of the people.

This is very perplexing to many of us.

I had conversations with BBM supporters, including some friends. The most common explanation — that they were victims of disinformation — just didn’t sound complete. It felt like there was something deeper going on.

I sought answers by writing this essay. I used the concept of “egregores” (explained in Part I) to uncover our deepest dividing line. That, along with a lecture by Manuel Quezon III and a framework by a scholar named Mina Roces, felt like a better explanation for the recent elections.

Whether we like it or not, we need to live with BBM supporters. They are our colleagues, our relatives, our neighbors. And if we want more people to share our ideals for this country, the first step is to understand the ideals of those who elected Marcos.

Here’s a quick overview of this journey:

I. The Egregore of EDSA, where we make our journey easier by treating ideas as persons, or better yet, gods and demons. Then we check on the egregore that nurtured many of us in our youth: EDSA. This helped me understand why this election felt like a battle between good and evil to me and to many supporters of BBM’s rival, Leni Robredo.

II. The Ancient Egregore, where we get to know the egregore behind BBM’s supporters, and where we try to walk in their shoes. I found this model to fit better with my conversations with those who back BBM.

III. Sociopath Power Players Through the Eyes of Our Egregores, where we look at political power players through the lens of our two egregores, and see how different they look to each side.

IV. “The Real World”, where we question why the righteous message from our side could sound holier than thou to the other.

V. Why I had to write this.

I. The Egregore of EDSA

Imagine that ideas are beings who desire to survive and grow. These ideas live through the minds of people. The more people believe in the idea, the stronger and bigger it becomes. Many of these big ideas are in conflict with each other. They need to fight for space in people’s minds. As Carl Jung said, “people don’t have ideas, ideas have people.” These clashing titans are egregores.

With this viewpoint, history can be read as an ultimate fighting championship of egregores. For instance, around the Mediterranean, Paganism was overthrown by Monotheism. Later on Christianity and Islam battled it out. Christianity won in the West, and Islam won in the Middle East.

For our purposes, it does not matter whether these egregores are actually real (it depends how you define “real”). What matters is that it allows us to ask this question: what egregores have been battling in the Philippines?

The best answer I’ve found to this question is a lecture that Manuel L. Quezon III gave to people who study Philippine politics for a living, and tucked three hours deep in a Facebook video recording.

In the lecture, Quezon recounts the moves and countermoves of two egregores, and the communities of Filipinos they possess (without using the concept of egregores). In one corner is the egregore that animates the grassroots movement behind Leni Robredo. Quezon traces this egregore to the 1950s’, when President Magsaysay built a “middle-class republic” founded on Church, clubs and schools.

https://www.facebook.com/UPLBDSS/videos/346465793876366

The rival egregore got the upperhand through the leadership of Ferdinand Marcos. According to Quezon, the key maneuver was Marcos’ domination of the 1971–1973 constitutional convention. This eventually led to the decade-long reign of the dictator.

https://www.facebook.com/UPLBDSS/videos/346465793876366

In that decade, the people of the defeated egregore saw growing impunity and corruption. Righteousness strengthens this egregore. It was finally roused to action after the 1983 assassination of Ninoy Aquino, Marcos’s rival. This culminated in the peaceful revolution of EDSA. The foundations established by Magsaysay in the 50s’ — Church, clubs and schools — led massive rallies in the streets. Marcos was deposed and eventually died in exile. Ninoy’s wife, Cory, was elected as president.

https://www.facebook.com/UPLBDSS/videos/346465793876366

This was the creation story of the Philippines I grew up in. I have an uncle who was there in EDSA, and once in a while, in some of our family get-togethers, he would retell the story of People Power to the kids in family.

If this were a film, we would see a transition from a black-and-white memory to the present day in full color, and little kids morphing into adults.

It is hard to believe that 36 years has passed since EDSA. Life happened in the meantime. Like many of my peers, I was too busy with my own pursuits and problems to notice the country changing. In May of 2022, we woke up to a different nation. It turns out that for many, EDSA was no longer the focal point of history, and its ideals no longer the axis of our country’s unity.

What happened? In the same lecture, Quezon explains the decline and fall of our egregore.

In 1998, the country elected Erap Estrada as president. To the the EDSA crowd he was just a womanizing former actor. We even invented a genre of jokes for him, our equivalent to the dumb blonde jokes of the US. When asked to comment about the Monica Lewinsky affair, he said that both he and Clinton have sex scandals, but he gets all the sex while Clinton gets all the scandals.

In 2001, the old trio of Church, clubs and schools had enough after learning about his corruption, and once again came together for EDSA, part II. It was another victory for People Power (pyrrhic, it turned out). The vice president then, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was sworn into office at the monument that commemorates the original EDSA, a gigantic image of the Blessed Virgin in between the highway of EDSA, a huge mall and a gated community for the rich.

https://xiaochua.net/2021/01/26/my-edsa-dos-and-tres-diaries/

Four months later, the supporters of Erap staged their own People Power, which they call EDSA Tres. Mainstream media called them “The Great Unwashed.” The EDSA II folks quipped that while the battle cry of EDSA I and II was “free the country from a thief!”, the battle cry of EDSA Tres was “free sandwiches, free juice and free meth.” One broadsheet commentator wrote, “Isn’t it amazing that in this day and age there still exist undiscovered islands in our archipelago? In early May we discovered one such island: a colony of smelly, boisterous and angry people. They are the poor among us.”

https://xiaochua.net/2021/01/26/my-edsa-dos-and-tres-diaries/

Quezon says that these two latter EDSAs broke the unity brought about by the first one. The poor felt betrayed by the removal of the president they elected. The rich of Manila freaked out after seeing their worst nightmare come to life: an urban insurrection that threatened their properties.

It seemed like the egregore of EDSA still had a lot of life in it with the election of Noynoy Aquino in 2010. Noynoy is the son of Cory and Ninoy. Cory died shortly before the elections. Commentators opined that sympathy for the grieving son helped bring him to the presidency. His term appears to be the last chapter of the EDSA era. The final blow to our egregore happened during his presidency.

In 2015, 44 officers from the police’s elite group, Special Action Force (SAF), were killed in an operation against an Islamic rebel group. When the remains of the officers arrived in Manila, Noynoy was not there to receive them (he was in an inauguration of a car manufacturing plant). This, to Quezon, led to what he calls “The Great Divorce.” According to him, the sentiment of the people was something like this: “we accompanied you as you mourned for your father in ’86 and as you mourned for your mother in ’09. Yet you cannot not make time for us in our mourning.” (The Tagalog “nakikiramay” captures it much better.) Egregores live and die with powerful symbols like this.

https://www.philstar.com/headlines/2019/01/25/1888083/4-years-later-palace-urges-ombudsman-resolve-saf-44-case

In 2016, the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency. He was the opposite of the ideals of Church, clubs and schools. He called both Pope Francis and US President Barrack Obama SOBs. He made rape jokes. He was condemned by the UN for human rights violations. Yet by the end of his term he had the highest approval rating of outgoing Philippine presidents. His daughter, Sara, dominated the vice presidential election of 2022. Her partnership with BBM helped the latter win the presidential elections.

What the hell is going on? Let’s see if we could get answers by getting better acquainted with the egregore in the opposite corner of the ring.

II. The Ancient Egregore

Scholars have noticed these egregores and the battle they have been waging in Philippine history. For instance, below are some excerpts from Kinship Politics In Postwar Philippines: The Lopez Family 1946–2000 by Mina Roces (via Quezon’s Tumblr). Since it is taboo for academics to talk about egregores, she calls this epic battle of titans “a framework.”

This book proposes a framework for such an analysis. It argues that a contest between two competing discourses — traditional social idioms embedded in kinship politics or politica de famila and Western values (here interchangeably used with the term “modern”) inculcated in the colonial period — accounts for these political oscillations.

Roces calls the egregore behind EDSA “Western,” because it came from the West. But that’s like saying Marxism is German or that Buddhism is Indian.

The colonial period introduced a number of Western idioms (the term Western idioms or Western institutions is used for lack of a better term to refer to non-indigenous influences introduced externally into the society from the West from the 16th century onwards) which were eventually incorporated into the cultural milieu and thus of political behavior.

Roces then gives three examples of these idioms or institutions we got from the West.

First, a new set of ethics and morals, introduced in the Spanish period through the vehicle of Catholicism, provided a novel standard with which to conduct and judge behavior, often intruding into the established methods of comport.

Secondly, bureaucratic professionalism inculcated in the American colonial period emphasized a different method of participating in politics and business — that of utilizing impersonal norms, the assessment of people on the basis of achievement, and maintaining objectivity in major decisions involving personalities.

Finally, the concept of loyalty to a nation-state, an entity far surpassing the specific confines of the family or village, began to emerge as nationalist ideas spread throughout the archipelago from about the second half of the 19th century to the movement for independence in the 20th century…

If you have reached this point of the essay, you’re most likely Westernized, in the sense that you take these three ideas for granted. You think slavery is bad; you vote for a public servant, not a ruler; and you believe that these 7,000 islands of dozens of languages is one nation.

If your reaction to these examples is “duh, of course,” let me share this parable by American writer David Foster Wallace.

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

One way to recognize this water that has enveloped us all our lives is to ask how we came to believe these ideas. I’m able to write these thousands of words and you’re able to read them because we were brought up in an English-speaking world. We were reared with Sesame Street or Nickelodeon, our formal education was mostly in English, and our favorite books and films are mostly created by Europeans and Americans. Knowing a language means viewing the world through its lens.

Now, imagine a world enveloped by a different kind of water. Imagine if you did not receive the education you have, if you had parents with a different set of values, if you never heard of the story of EDSA, if you had no access to the books and films of the West. What will your world look like?

To Roces, this is the world of the other egregore.

Traditional, or pre-European, political organization is seen as being based on the politica de familia or kinship politics. This concept is used here to mean political process wherein kinship groups operate for their own interests interacting with other kinship groups as rivals or allies. Politica de famila thrives in a setting where elite family groups and their supporters compete with each other for political power. Once political power is gained by one family alliance, it is used relentlessly to accumulate family wealth and prominence, pragmatically bending the rules of the law to gain access to special privileges.

If we imagine undoing the Western influence in our country, how would the relationship between those in power and ordinary folk look like? We have our history to look at, as well as the pre-Western, pre-democratic, and pre-modern peoples around the world. On top would be the datu and his immediate family. Next in the hierarchy would be his allies and their families. Then their dependents and slaves. Roces is describing the dynamics of power in modern Philippines, but she might as well have described politics in these islands before 1521. If it’s any consolation, the West had the same structure before the Enlightenment. This egregore is very old.

Disinformation is a convenient scapegoat. But it cannot explain why the senator with the most votes in 2022 is Robin Padilla, a former action star universally disdained by the educated. It cannot explain the popularity of Duterte and of Erap. Many of our countrymen are choosing a datu, a king, not a public servant.

What about those who had the same upbringing and education as we had and who still supported BBM? They see the ideals we hold (some of them held them in the past), but they have rejected it — not only because of the failed promises of EDSA, but also because of a pragmatism stemming from experience of “the real world.” We explore this in part IV, but to do that, we need to first need to enter the dark world of power players.

III. Sociopath Power Players Through the Eyes of Our Egregores

Professional mixed martial artists need to turn off a part of their brain to do well in their sport. Most of us have an innate hesitation in beating the hell out of someone. That hesitation is an obstacle to reaching the highest pinnacle of the fight game.

It’s the same with doctors. You can’t let squeamishness prevent you from doing surgery, or prudishness from examining genitals.

It turns out it is also like that in politics. I grew up in a bubble of middle-class decency, so my first encounter with the real world power was through books. “An Anarchy of Families” would be my top recommendation. I have a couple of posts about this world:

To thrive in the world of power, politicians need to turn off parts of their brain when playing their game. Since you are competing with other power players, there tends to be an arms race of leverages. In modern Philippines, the main leverage is popularity and the ability to create alliances with other datus. Some turn off the parts of their brains to access more kinds of leverage. If you are unhindered by morality or by the law, you have more weapons in your arsenal.

These sociopathic power players look very different from the two worldviews we looked at. For those of us who look towards the liberal democracies of the West as models, they are evil parasites. For those who seek a datu to lead this tribe called Pilipinas, the leader’s sociopathy is seen as a necessity for operating in a world of power players. If our authoritarian neighbors, like China, have slightly evil leaders, it will be a disadvantage if ours plays by the rules.

From the former viewpoint, Ferdinand Marcos was a thief, a cheat, a monster. From the latter viewpoint, not only was he not a villain. He was Apo Lakay, the supreme datu who outplayed all other datus. To quote Mina Roces again:

In this framework, the Marcos regime (1972–1986) represents the epitome of pure kinship politics as one family alliance alone had monopoly of political power and owning most of the country’s major corporations…

The wise man, Randy David, recommends a pragmatic approach to dealing with power players. Not all of them are sinister. For instance, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela also fit our definition of a sociopath. Heck, the martyr of EDSA, Ninoy, willingly walked into his assassination. You’ve got to turn off parts of your brain to do that.

Randy David thinks the movement led by Leni can continue with its ideological high road—as a movement. But it needs a separate political party that can operate toward a single goal: to win elections. You need sociopaths to play this game. There needs to be space for ambitious, cunning, power players in our side.

IV. “The Real World”

I’ve heard both BBM and Leni supporters divide themselves through class lines: BBM supporters tend to fall in the lower income brackets, while Leni supporters in the higher brackets. However, all available surveys do not reflect this delineation.

This is what I see among the people I know. Tell me if you see this pattern as well.

My Leni friends tend to come from professions with little contact to sociopaths in power. For instance, doctors, teachers or managers in multinational corporations. My BBM friends, on the other hand, work with power players everyday: public works and military, or entrepreneurs who need to work with the government.

My Leni friends tend to be ones who succeed in life by playing by the book. To them, Leni’s immaculate righteousness is a key reason for their support. She is the light amid the darkness.

But life is not always black and white. Let’s walk in the shoes of those who live in the grey. My BBM friends tend to be ones who had to hustle — diskarte — to survive and move up in the world. They also have kids to feed and to send to school. They also have dreams of a better life. And they have grown up with this game.

It is debatable whether their game is actually dirty or just unavoidably symbiotic with dirty sociopaths. Imagine that this is the real world to you. If these sanctimonious idealists succeed, the rules of the game will be tilted to their favor, at our cost. Why would you want to do that?

V. Why I had to write this

After the elections, I found out that I was living in an echo chamber: most of my friends were and are Leni supporters. To discover that we are actually the minority was a bewildering surprise. I had to write to understand what was going on.

I looked back at my conversations with BBM supporters, including those with friends. I read and watched analyses by scholars like Manuel Quezon III. And I used the concept of egregores to make sense of what I’ve heard and seen.

Even with the length of this essay, there’s no way it can represent all motivations of all supporters of BBM. Yet writing it gave me a model much better than assuming they are all ignorant or corrupt.

If you are a BBM supporter, I hope this effort to make visible the water that surround us helps you understand where we, the daughters and sons of EDSA, are coming from.

And to Leni supporters: it may be true that EDSA has run its course. Yet you have shown that its ideals continue to live on, especially in the youth.

This is bigger than EDSA and bigger than Leni. We have a shared vision for this country. Since part of that vision is democracy, our only choice is to spread that vision to those who don’t share it yet. I honestly have no idea how to do this in the scale of millions. However, at least for my friends, I know what the first step is: to see the world through their eyes.

Thanks to Jay Fajardo and everyone who read and gave feedback to earlier versions of this essay.

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