The coronavirus pandemic is said to be the biggest disruption of life and society since the Second World War. Naturally, such an existential disruption requires a demonstration of solidarity and a boost in national morale. It is therefore not a surprise that a number of democratic leaders have risen to the occasion to do just that.
The British queen, for instance, addressed her subjects to emphasize fortitude and the need to look to the future rather than the past. The grace with which she delivered her speech demonstrated the mandate of the modern monarchy: to personify the innate dignity that underpins the essence of the nation. The last time the world saw this demonstrated was during the terrible tsunami and earthquakes in Japan in 2011, when the Emperor stood in solidarity with his stoic people.
But it does not take a monarchy to do this. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has always been a technocratic leader who shunned emotive appeals. Yet once the pandemic reached Germany she immediately went on television to deliver an unprecedented address to her nation. Her immediate goal was to urge Germans to take the situation seriously, but she also took the opportunity to articulate a crucial exegesis on the tensions between liberty and public safety within a democracy. She has since been acclaimed globally as the new leader of the free world.
In stark contrast, however, the President of the United States has been behaving in an extremely unorthodox fashion. Instead of performing his expected function as his country’s consoler-in-chief, Donald Trump shunned any transcendent and emotive appeal for unity — perhaps by design, perhaps out of his innate temperament.
Rather than seeking to unite Americans, the President appears to be retreating to his base, a sub-nation within American society that remains incredibly at odds with the evolving mainstream culture. If Franklin D. Roosevelt was a pastoral president during the Second World War, Trump remains a parochial one even at this time of global pandemic.
But to be fair, nothing in the American constitution requires President Trump to emulate what Queen Elizabeth and Chancellor Merkel have done. In fact, the Founding Fathers did not really countenance a national leader that would personify the union. They placed ultimate authority in Congress, which as its initial name suggests — “the United States in Congress assembled” — was originally intended to be the fount of the states’ pooled sovereignties. Yet by sheer necessity, the executive had to be created as a co-equal branch of the legislative, and the President had to assume the role of head of state.
It was in this context that the modern conception of what American political scientists refer to as the “pastoral presidency” evolved. In order to glue the nation together, the President took the normative role of pastor to the people. At crucial junctures in the nation’s life, presidents took it upon themselves to boost morale by acknowledging the people’s feelings, and then sustaining their spirit. Abraham Lincoln did this during the Civil War, as did Roosevelt during the Great Depression and the Second World War. Every president since then have rallied the people, critics and supporters alike, whenever the nation faced trauma. Even rabid Democrats stood in ovation for George W. Bush when he addressed a joint session of Congress in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
The logic behind the pastoral presidency is the same rationale that compelled the British queen and the German chancellor to console and exhort. At times of crisis, people naturally look to their leaders to attach meaning to their suffering, and to articulate a common vision that would help them overcome their collective challenge. This is a role that distinguishes heads of state from heads of government. The head of government is responsible for the practical exigencies of day-to-day governance, but the head of state personify the social contract that underpins public faith in such an abstract concept as political authority. Without this faith, authority collapses.
Technically, the German chancellor is not the head of state. That role is fulfilled by an obscure federal president that ordinary Germans like to refer to as “the signing uncle.” Merkel, however, has built a steady and reliable image through the years. Germans have since acclaimed her as the national mutti, or mother. More than the President of Germany, therefore, it was the Chancellor who had enough gravitas to personify German resilience and thus boost German morale at such a critical time.
Within Germany, a few progressives could not resist pointing out that Merkel, guarantor of the E.U. for the past decade, did not mention European solidarity in her speech. This does not represent any personal reversal to nationalism — far from it. The Chancellor’s focus on the national spirit is simply a nod to a basic reality: Germany is the social contract.
Despite humanity’s evolution towards internationalism, the state remains the primary socio-political organization. It is therefore the only institution that could effectively protect people from immediate threats. But for the state to be effective, the people should believe in it. Such belief leads to a measure of unity that spawns even further faith. In the absence of such faith, it would be difficult for the state to fulfill its mandate. The absence of such faith could explain, for instance, why state governments across America are struggling to convince many of their citizens to stay home today.
This logic does not only apply to existential crises. Sometimes, it is also crucial to sustaining the soul of an existing political order. We have seen this in recent years, for example, in Asia’s oldest democracy, the Philippines.
The Philippine experience
In 1986, Filipinos established a progressive constitution that emphasizes good governance, inclusivity, and human rights. This charter spawned a political order known to historians as “the Fifth Republic,” and to political scientists as “the EDSA regime.” Since then, all Filipino presidents have pledged fidelity to the values that underpin this regime, even if their actual faithfulness to this pledge varied. Over time, Filipinos eventually grew disillusioned with their democratic rambunctions, which camouflaged the slow but steady economic development that their democracy jumpstarted. Still, they generally remained faithful to the progressive values of the political order.
The previous president, Benigno S. Aquino III, oversaw an unprecedented economic boom from 2010 to 2016. He was also overwhelmingly popular for the first five years of his term. Yet despite the success of his administration, he tragically misunderstood his role in the context of the EDSA regime. Choosing to be more technocratic rather than emotive, he failed to play the role a pastoral president to a sufficient degree. This was fatal not only to the legitimacy of his presidency, but also to that of the progressive political order that his parents built in the late 1980s.
The values of the EDSA regime emanate from a social contract forged through extraordinary circumstances involving President Aquino’s parents, Ninoy and Cory, at a time when Philippine society was unraveling from the incompetence of a corrupt and abusive dictatorship. When Ninoy was assassinated upon his return from American exile in 1983, about a million Filipinos defied the dictator’s threat and accompanied him to his grave. His funeral is said to have been bigger than Gandhi’s. The mixed feeling of national grief and anger that ensued was then channeled into unity around the widowed Cory, who exhibited dignity, grace, and moral integrity.
Like a modern-day Joan of Arc, Cory led a peaceful people power movement known today as the EDSA Revolution. As president from 1986 to 1992, she facilitated the drafting of the current constitution and defended the new democracy from putschists from the right and rebels from the left. Around the world, the housewife-turned-president was feted as a symbol of democracy. Francois Mitterrand had her as the French people’s invité d’honneur during the bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989.
Cory died in 2009 at a time of political dysfunction, and the ensuing public grief over her demise eventually turned into national nostalgia for the values she represented. Her funeral was like that of her husband’s. Around a million Filipinos escorted her to her grave, and in so doing renewed the mandate of the progressive political order that she created. It was in this context that his son became president in 2010.
Benigno Aquino was therefore elected not only as an economic builder, but as a national symbol. The public felt a subliminal regard to the legacy of his parents. To many, the Aquino family personified modern Filipino democracy. Of course, this is a simplistic narrative that has never entirely squared with reality. But social contracts are forged through myth making. People’s faith in common values is often predicated on their belief in the stories that underpin them. Alas, President Aquino lacked the necessary emotion to harness the residual gravitas of his family’s legacy, or even to protect it.
At times of crises and disasters during his tenure, Filipinos often searched in vain for a modicum of empathy from their president. Their failure led to the crucial unraveling of the Aquino myth in recent years. A former Aquino official once told me that he believes the final straw came in the President’s failure to appear at the funeral of police officers who were killed in a botched anti-terrorist commando operation in the south in 2015. The Filipino nation had bravely stood with the Aquino family when Ninoy and Cory died, yet their son could not even muster enough empathy condole with the nation as it mourn its martyrs. The subliminal link was therefore broken.
President Aquino remained moderately popular after that, but he ceased to be seen as heir to democratic symbols. Instead, he became simply a passing politician. As a result, public opinion started to hold Aquino personally accountable for his administration’s failure, including those as petty as the inefficiency of Manila’s metro. These perceived ineptitude were exploited by those seeking to discredit the EDSA regime. They amplified a message that may not have been accurate but nonetheless resonated: thirty years of democracy have spawned nothing but callous incompetence.
There are many factors that led to the recent unraveling of the national consensus behind the progressive and liberal values that heretofore governed the parameters of mainstream Filipino politics for the past three decades, but I suspect that the demystification of the Aquino brand hastened it. Within a year since Aquino’s inability to condole with a grieving nation shocked by the martyrdom of its heroes, an outsider propelled himself into the national stage by openly mocking the values of the existing political order. In its stead he proposed a new social contract that would do away with technocratic intricacies and provide simple solutions to complex problems. That outsider is now President of the Philippines.