Of false memories and false hopes

During his final State of the Nation Address, Pres. Aquino framed the upcoming election of 2016 as a referendum on his administration, under the rubric of Daang Matuwid or the Straight Path. He subsequently anointed Sec. Mar Roxas to be the torchbearer of his party’s cause.

The latest preferential polls show him running fourth in a field of five to succeed Mr Aquino. In the vice presidential race, Sen. Bongbong Marcos has caught up with the erstwhile frontrunner Chiz Escudero and holds a strong position among young and older voters.

Many reasons are given for the appeal of Mr Marcos. Among them is the sense of nostalgia for a ‘golden age’ under the autocratic rule of his father. Whether this is a case of false remembering of a time that never was or of historical revisionism affecting impressionable minds is kind of a moot point.

History is supposed to be written by the victors. The vanquished Marcoses can rightly claim that after thirty years of collective storytelling, it would be quite difficult to counter the characterization of them as villains, unless there was something inherently wrong with the plot. The obvious flaw is the not-so-happily-ever-after ending.

Three decades after EDSA, the continuing struggle of a large section of our populace to feed, clothe, educate, and house themselves was not meant to be how the fairy tale ended. EDSA was where people from the broad spectrum of society came together. Thirty years later, the economic spoils continue to skew to those at the top. The cognitive dissonance between the promised and actual course of events is what makes a counter-narrative by the Marcoses viable.

The inherent weakness of the state as evidenced by its feeble response to natural disasters, internal and external threats to security, and the challenge of something as basic as running an efficient train system, is what has made many people hanker for a return to strong and effective leadership. Rightly or wrongly, they equate that with the Martial Law regime.

The 2010 elections were billed as a redux of the EDSA 1986 revolt, with the administration of then Pres Gloria Arroyo re-constituting the forces of darkness and the Liberal Party under then Sen. Benigno Aquino III embodying the children of the light. With such moralistic overtones (dubbed moralpolitik by one observer), the narrative arc could have only led to bitter disappointment.

Over the last six years, expectations were dashed as events unfolded proving Aquino’s administration all too human and fallible contrary to the romantic notions fostered back in 2010. Although his satisfaction ratings remain high, people continue to recognise that the problems of poverty and corruption remain under his government. It is this sense of disappointment and failure that is fuelling the search for an alternative.

False memories of political events

Empirical evidence suggests that people can be manipulated into believing in fabricated political events. One study found that events are more easily implanted in the memory when they are congruent with a person’s preexisting attitudes and evaluations. This happens in part because attitude-congruent false events promote feelings of recognition and familiarity. I suppose the older the event, the harder it becomes to distinguish true from false memories, making it easier to be manipulated into believing something that didn’t occur.

This is what makes historical revision possible. The most famous case is the denial of the Holocaust of the Jews in Europe during the second world war. This view became more popular in recent years with the rise in youth unemployment hitting the Eurozone coinciding with a large wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Far-right parties in the UK, France, Germany and Denmark have succeeded in tapping into the general mood of the electorate to push for anti-immigration policies.

The same could be happening in the Philippines, with economic growth largely being felt by oligarchs at the top of the income ladder and millions still suffering from hunger and poverty. Our urban centers are increasingly becoming ‘uninhabitable’ due to a lack of public infrastructure spending. Our national security is being threatened by a rising superpower. Our workers are still forced to become economic migrants due to a lack of opportunity at home.

This has bred disaffection with the pro-EDSA forces that have been at the helm (with a short interlude of the Erap Estrada years) since the collapse of the Marcos regime, and have been there a decade longer than the late dictator. This sense of disillusionment has in turn made many, particularly the young, susceptible to the revisionism being peddled by those on the right, namely the Marcoses and their allies.

The suggestion is that we would have been better off had we stuck with the Marcoses. That developmental policy, namely population control, urban planning, transport, energy and infrastructure investment, was more attuned to long-term thinking and conducted in a more rational manner than today’s topsy-turvy system (there is in fact some truth to this), and that had we stuck it out with the Marcoses, the Philippines might have achieved first world status by now.

It is a counterfactual argument based on a hypothetical situation, that is hard to prove or disprove, but highly seductive to someone greatly dissatisfied with the current dispensation with no first hand knowledge of the harshness of the state under martial rule. Add to that the achievements of Ferdinand “Bonbong” Marcos, Jr as governor of the now progressive Ilocos Norte and the government’s slow response in Tacloban, hometown of his mother’s clan at the height of Typhoon Yolanda, and you have a believable story.

Beyond Good and Evil

It is this counter-narrative that now threatens the very survival of the current pro-EDSA ‘86 regime. The three current front-runners in the presidential race are pledging to take the country down a different path, with one offering to become a “unifying president” who will take us past the Marcos-Aquino divide, or beyond the narrative of good and evil. Bongbong Marcos, for his part, is promising a non-vindictive style of leadership, to let bygones be bygones.

Even Mar Roxas has veered away from the narrative of Light vs. Darkness that characterised his 2010 campaign with Aquino. His platform is anchored on three freedoms, which focus on providing material improvements to people’s lives, instead of the moralistic tone of the past, that he concedes in his recent ads fell short of expectations.

Having been forced to wage his campaign on hip pocket issues, the home turf of his opponents, Mr Roxas’ poll numbers continue to underwhelm, as his rivals, particularly Messrs. Binay and Duterte already own the stage which he seeks to encroach on. Having abandoned the moral high ground, the Liberal Party is simply banking on the advantages of incumbency to retain their hold on power.

The problem is that the narrative woven by the opposition of an inept, insensitive government has already taken root. The electorate could be suffering from a “grass is always greener on the other side” syndrome. It will take a lot of reassurances to convince them that the nation and its economy are best left to the safe and stable hands of Mr Roxas. It will be difficult given the nostalgia trip that is gripping a large part of the electorate.

Those who live by the sword, die by the sword I guess. In 2010, Pres Aquino rode a wave of nostalgia all the way to Malacanang Palace. Perhaps in 2016 another wave of nostalgia will usher him and his ilk out of its gates, leaving them only to contemplate what might or might not have been.