Democracy’s ups and downs (Part II)


The people’s assembly

What accounts for the ups and downs of popular support for democracy? One would think that if a country has a strong democratic culture then preference toward democracy would at least be stable and consistent. Just for comparison, the Social Weather Stations pointed out that in Europe “except between late 2012 and 2013, satisfaction with the way democracy works has been 50 percent and above since May 1999.”
The first thing I would like to point out is that there is a huge difference between being satisfied with the way democracy works and one’s preference toward democracy compared to any other system of government. The former seems to be tied to the volatile public opinion about how the sitting administration is performing its job. This actually makes a lot of sense. To many people, democracy is an abstraction that is difficult to pin down. This is reflected in the question some people ask, “Demokrasya? Nakakain ba ‘yan?” The question of whether democracy is working well is inevitably tied to the question of whether the current regime is doing its job.

At the end of the day, our people need to “feel” that democracy is working “for them.” It is not unreasonable to demand that a government under a democratic set up must deliver to its people their needs and aspirations. You will also see this sentiment when you look at the second question on whether they prefer democracy over other forms of government. While 60 percent said that they prefer democracy compared “to any other kind of government," about 40 percent have conditional support or does not care at all. It would seem to me that the more people become dissatisfied with how their government is working (or not working for their needs) the more likely they will support non-democratic political arrangements.

The second point is this—why do we need to measure, and pay attention to public support toward democracy? The answer is really simple: democracy requires it. As a form of government that places the people at the center of government and power, it has to be sensitive to, and answerable to public opinion. To put it another way, the increase in the willingness of people to consider non-democratic forms of government reveals cracks in the public’s commitment to democracy.

A 2017 Pew Research Center study provided a clearer global picture. In their global poll, they found very strong support (49 percent) for the “rule by experts” or a system in which “a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts.” Even more troubling is that a median of 24 percent said “a system in which the military rules the country” would be a very or somewhat good system.
I believe that this significant “non-democratic” attitudes are driven, to a large extent, by people’s frustrations over how governments are functioning. Conversely, when people are satisfied with the way their government is doing its job then they have a very positive attitude toward democracy. So, the 89 percent rating is a good reflection on the administration of President Bongbong. It means that people have a good grasp of what his administration is doing to address problems that make life more difficult.

What is the lesson we need to learn from these? Democracy is not an abstraction or a concept immune to the existential realities of the people it claims to serve. Democracy is tangible. It is reflected in the daily commute of a worker who spends five hours per day commuting from his house to work and vice versa. It is manifested in the inability of Filipino families to own houses for their families. It can be seen in the struggles of Filipino mothers who perform miracles daily as they stretch their budget to feed and clothe their kids. Yes, it is about freedoms and rights, but to an ordinary Filipino, the real measure of whether democracy is working is whether it can help him achieve a better life for his family and a brighter future for his children.

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