A crisis is a lot of things.
It is a time of distress that disrupts routine, a crucial circumstance that could change the future. It is a test of minds, grit, and will. It is a uniting moment—a situation that often needs alliances to solve the matter at hand. It is all of us bracing ourselves for whatever impact. It is a crossroad in essence and a history in the making.
For politicians, however, it is a cornucopia of exploitative opportunities.
In a play of emotions between fear, uncertainty, and restlessness, citizens cling to the only constant and visible source of power—the government. We saw this in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when then-United States (US) President George W. Bush’s approval rating shot up from 51 percent to 86 percent, even growing to become 90 percent the following week. In 2004, then-United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair’s popularity suffered a low 30 percent due to his military support for the US in the Iraq War; following the panic because of the July 2005 bombings, however, it grew to 45 percent. President Rodrigo Duterte was also able to enjoy this sudden constituent credence when his approval ratings last year grew to 91 percent, up from the already-controversial 87 percent less than a year prior.
All of these leaders did relatively nothing but be visible and pay lip service. Despite their floundering reputations, they were able to gather public support for government acts no matter how questionable. Bush, for one, took a slow approach to responding to the attacks, only taking action after his rating went up. Blair, meanwhile, even with his infamy, merely condemned terrorism in a speech. And in Duterte’s case, his statements of nonchalance toward the virus early into the outbreak and the weekly public addresses he has been holding apparently earned the appreciation of many.
This kind of enduring support for the leadership in such difficult moments may be attributed to the “rally around the flag” effect, which is a phenomenon that arises when a nation faces a common threat. This has been thought to be caused by patriotism, as in people sticking to the communities they feel they belong to, or by opinion leadership, which happens through the absence of criticisms and opposition to the government and its policies and consequently a wider adherence to these powers.
Duterte’s still-high approval rating is an indication of this phenomenon: that figure was not a commissioned falsity; it was the true pulse of the people. A rather costly trust from Filipinos gave our politicians a false sense of self-esteem. Politicians building up their reputations with superficial deeds, especially during the pandemic, is nothing new and it is an unfortunate fact that it works and that their acts reassure people.
The virus has become a catalyst for more politicking. Even with the delayed response—in both preventing further spread of the virus and procuring equipment and vaccines to overcome the pandemic—the soaring number of cases, and a negatively growing economy, the support has been nothing but firm.
Public officials, meanwhile, have been unapologetic in their failures—even putting the blame on others—and while many scrutinize the misaction, there appear to be significantly more who are content with what they think is happening.
We have to recognize that we are all in our own bubble of criticism and disapproval. But in the parts of society that we miss to engage is where the manipulation happens. That is enough to mobilize any politician’s desires, as we saw in the support and passing of the Anti-Terrorism Law, the praise for and continuous funding of the dolomite beach in Manila Bay, and the public’s justification for the government’s missing or insufficient aid—all aged but still crucial matters.
Our politicians took the empty streets and stomachs as a playground for more of their empty campaigns and promises. But it is something. And when people have nothing, they will get as much of anything that they can. They know this. And they take no shame in taking advantage of the near-desperate vulnerability of their constituents for a chance to win them again—a shot at a hold of power for more disservice.
We have to see through this.
We can rally around the flag, have the desire to protect the welfare of our fellow countrymen, but we must be careful not to become gullible and complaisant. In our misfortunes, we ought to stand together and listen to each other, aware of what we need and deserve, and resisting incompetent authorities. While we all scramble for a better way out, they enjoy the opportunity to be popular bogus phony figures.
Our tragedies are nothing but their fortune. Beware.