Liberalism in the Philippines, with Lisandro Claudio

Apr 2, 2018

Populist leader President Duterte has killed thousands in his "war on drugs," idolizes Putin, and openly uses fake news and excessive nationalism to consolidate his power. And it's working: he has an 82 percent popularity rating right now. What happened to the nation's liberal democratic heritage? Author and historian Lisandro Claudio discusses the situation and how he is using Youtube videos, articles, and a new book to fight back.

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here in New York City, and today I am speaking with Lisandro Claudio. He is based at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines. We are going to talk about the Philippines and liberalism in the Philippines and the fate of liberalism and maybe a little bit about YouTube as well.

Lisandro, great to have you here.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Thanks for having me, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: You are also author of Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines, which I want to mention right upfront. We'll get to that in a second, but first I want to talk about YouTube.

We don't get a chance to talk to many YouTubers or YouTube celebrities. I have checked out your Taglish.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Yes, which is my native language. Filipinos really speak Taglish. We don't speak Tagalog, we don't speak English. It's always a mix of the two.

DEVIN STEWART: What are you trying to do with that project?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: That one is run out of Rappler, which as some of your listeners might know is the online media outfit that is being targeted by the Duterte administration. I think they are trying to shut it down, frankly.

What I am trying to do is just take the lessons I teach in my history classroom and distill them into ten or seven minutes and make them accessible to the public. But sometimes I also address issues that are really important in the context of the Philippines. For instance, I have an issue that was topical because it was about how to decipher fake news.


LISANDRO CLAUDIO: We are seeing a lot of fake news in the Philippines now. I think I might have an episode on when nationalism becomes excessive, because if Duterte has taught us anything it is that Philippine nationalism can be mobilized and weaponized in order to shut down dissent because everything can be dismissed as a kind of foreign intervention. That is what they're doing to human rights groups right now.

Some of these are topical, but I would like to think—I'll admit it here—that a lot of them are underhanded, very soft-sell criticisms of what is happening right now under the Duterte administration. Sometimes I don't mention him, but if I'm talking about something like fake news or excessive nationalism, Duterte is always in the background.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's talk about both of those things. Those are very interesting topics, especially for Americans, I think, because we're dealing with our own fake news problem.

So when you're on YouTube you're explaining maybe how to detect what is fake and what is not fake? I think many listeners will probably be aware that Duterte has gotten onboard with the use and employment of fake news as a way to sway public opinion. What is your advice to your listeners? What do you tell them?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: I think we should still defend mainstream media. What I tell my listeners is that, yes, mainstream media in the Philippines has been very corrupt at times, but I would rather trust a trained journalist than a social media star.

The problem right now is that many Filipinos have started to trust social media stars more than trained journalists, and that is very disconcerting for me. Part of this struggle against fake news is about restoring faith in institutions, which include of course the media.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the analysis of the type of government that you have in the Philippines right now? I understand one of your episodes analyzes whether Duterte is a dictator or whether he is an authoritarian or just a populist.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Yes, or whether he is a fascist. I got a lot of blowback for this—


LISANDRO CLAUDIO: —because the Philippine left, the Maoist left in the Philippines, are convinced that everyone they dislike is fascist, so they have called Duterte a fascist, which is ironic given that the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines was in a practical allegiance with Duterte for the majority of his first year in office. But once the peace talks broke down, suddenly overnight Duterte is a fascist. I was just reminded about what George Orwell said in one essay where he said, "For the left, anyone they don't like is a fascist." So it was kind of polemical in that sense. I also just wanted to unpack what this guy really is because people can't agree on what he is.

I don't personally think he is a fascist. I think he is kind of authoritarian. I think he is definitely a populist because he separates the world into the elite and the normal Joe that is betrayed by that elite because the elite abets the drug pushers. I thought fascist was a term that really needed unpacking, and people were not doing that because a lot of politics in the Philippines, similar to the United States, is knee-jerk, especially the politics from the far left.

DEVIN STEWART: The question you asked yourself, where did you come down? Were you basically calling Duterte a populist?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Yes. I think populism is a useful label for Duterte. [John Judis' book] The Populist Explosion separates populism into two strains, left-wing populism, which is simple elites versus normal Joes, and right-wing populism, which is elites versus normal Joes and the third party that abets the corruption of the elites. In Europe, right-wing populism has a triangulation wherein the abetters of the elites are the immigrants. [Editor's note: For more on The Populist Explosion, check out Judis' 2017 Carnegie Council interview.]

In the Philippines, of course, the abetters are the drug pushers, and that becomes a target of Duterte's populism. So I think it is very helpful in the context of the Philippines.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the charge that he is a dictator? That is another label that you dealt with.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: He is trying to be a dictator, definitely, but there are institutions that are preventing him from exercising complete dictatorial control. One institution is the Philippine military, which has been professionalized since the Marcos period because after 1986, when Marcos fell, the reformists felt that the reason Marcos was able to stay in power for so long was because he had a corrupt, unprofessional military. A lot of civil society organizations spent a lot of time investing in security sector reform, and we are reaping the benefit of that. One of the reasons why Duterte can't get his way is because we have a lot of professional soldiers there.

One admirable figure in the Philippines is the secretary of defense, Delfin Lorenzana. For American listeners, he is best compared to—I'm not going to call him "Mad Dog"—Secretary Mattis.

DEVIN STEWART: Very virtuous, very upstanding.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Yes. Basically the adult in a room of children, and he is the guy who is reining Duterte in.

DEVIN STEWART: But at the same time he has a lot of support from the military.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: He has a lot of support from the military, but he will do things. There was one time that I think Duterte was threatening the imposition of a revolutionary government, whatever that is, and the secretary of defense told the vice president, who is an opposition figure—she is from the Liberal Party—that "We will not accept a revolutionary government." That was a public repudiation of the president.

Why this guy hasn't been fired yet, I don't know. There are rumors that the State Department wants him to stay or that the State Department is leaning on Duterte to keep him, that the Defense Department of the United States is leaning to keep him in. But whatever the case, ironically for many people, it is the institution of the military that is keeping Philippine democracy afloat right now.

DEVIN STEWART: So he has a mixed relationship with the military. It sounds a little bit like Trump. Trump respects the military, but the military is also seen as containing him in some fashion.

You also mentioned to me before the recording some of Duterte's own rhetorical links to American liberalism and American democratic institutions, which is quite interesting.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: This is funny. One of the reasons I wrote the book was because I wanted to show that the liberal democratic tradition in the Philippines ran deep. The best evidence of that is the most illiberal president, Duterte, in his inaugural address cites only two people. He doesn't cite any Filipino; he cites Lincoln, and he cites FDR.

DEVIN STEWART: What does he say about them?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: He quotes them. These were anodyne quotes probably, but the fact is even the most dictatorial of Philippine presidents is constrained by the rhetoric of liberal democracy, which is part of the Philippine-American heritage. This is something we haven't looked at because a lot of Philippine historians have been nationalist in the sense that everything from America has contaminated the Philippines.

What I have decided to do is actually examine the relationship of the Philippines and America outside of simple empire. That is passé for me. We all know the nasty things that the American military did to the Philippines, although it bears repeating from time to time. But it wasn't all negative. There was this tradition of liberal democracy that a lot of intellectuals imbibed because they studied in places like the Columbia Teachers College. For instance, there is one figure I discuss in the book, Camilo Osías. He studied under John Dewey at Columbia Teachers College.

It was a wonderful setting there. He was studying with Mexicans, he was studying with Chinese, he was studying with Africans. It was kind of like a liberal pedagogical international because they all went back to their countries and built their educational systems based on Deweyan internationalist lines. Those were the kinds of histories I wanted to trace in my book.

DEVIN STEWART: Getting back to your book Liberalism in the Postcolony, you also mentioned earlier that you had a fairly optimistic conclusion to the book, but you had to rewrite it when Duterte got elected. What was that like?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: I was writing it in Japan on a two-year postdoc from 2014 to 2016, so I finished it roughly toward the end of—

DEVIN STEWART: Where in Japan?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Kyoto University Center for Southeast Asian Studies. So I finished it at the end of 2015, and I was quite optimistic, not because I am a fan of the Philippine Liberal Party. I'm a fan of the Philippine re-democratization movement. I thought that the things that happened after 1986, we were on a jagged road to liberal democracy, but we were inching closer and closer to that. At least, that's what I thought at the end of 2015. So it is not a prescient book at all. If anything, it's a naïve book because in 2016, as we all know, the most illiberal candidate won, Rodrigo Duterte.

He is really eroding, I think, the liberal democratic heritage of the Philippines. There are indicators that can prove this. For example, ever since he got elected president, the percentage of Filipinos who believe that only martial law can solve the ills of the country has increased, not by a lot, say, from around 15-20 percent to 30-32 percent, but that is still telling because it says that this guy has tremendous signaling power.

There are other indicators you can look at. For example, there are now more Filipino fans of Russia as a result of Duterte because he gives speeches like Trump, glorifying Putin. I don't know what Putin has on him, maybe not a pee-pee tape, but he likes Putin, for example.

DEVIN STEWART: Duterte does?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Duterte likes Putin, yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think that it is possible that Putin has dirt on Duterte?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: No, no. I don't think he has a pee-pee tape.

DEVIN STEWART: You don't think there's anything whatsoever?


DEVIN STEWART: Do they get along?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: He said on media that Putin is his idol.

DEVIN STEWART: Did he explain what he meant by that?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: They asked him, "What do you mean by that, sir?"

He just laughs. He just says, "He is my idol."

DEVIN STEWART: But it resonates with some Filipino people.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: It resonates with some people, and you can track it because admiration for Russia has increased according to the polls. Of course, admiration for China has increased as well. The other person Duterte obviously likes is Xi Jinping. He says this all the time.

DEVIN STEWART: Did he explain his liking for Xi Jinping?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: This one is a bit more explainable because in the Philippines now you can see development aid from China increasing. It is disconcerting because a lot of the Chinese companies that are going to come in and work on development projects are companies that may have been blacklisted in countries like Africa for corruption.

Of course, we have had our own troubles with bad Chinese deals, because during the Arroyo administration we had this broadband deal that went south because of corruption on the parts not just of the Chinese company but also of course of the Arroyo administration. So we he have been burnt by Chinese aid and Chinese loans, and yet Duterte is going down that path.

The interesting thing, of course, is that the Japanese are offering loans as well. But we have been a lot kinder to the Chinese, which is disconcerting, even during those times when the interest rate from the Japanese is actually more favorable than the Chinese interest rate.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned another way in which Duterte might be infringing on liberal institutions earlier in the conversation here, which is going after the media. Not only is he putting out fake news of his own—for example, there is a recent report about his team saying that human rights people around the world are just shills for the drug dealers.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Are there restrictions about language on this podcast?

DEVIN STEWART: I don't think so, no.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Because I want to quote Duterte.

DEVIN STEWART: Please do. If it's a quote, then go ahead.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: The guy is very pithy. He said, "If it concerns human rights, I don't give a shit." This is so ironic. I think he said this in the context of the United Nations Human Rights Council wanting to investigate human rights violations through his drug war in the Philippines. This was I think a year ago.

After he said that, his spokesperson at the time said that the United Nations was trying to impose liberal Western values on the Philippines. The irony there, of course, is that when I was researching my book I discovered this intellectual named Salvador P. Lopez, and he was the chairman of the UN Commission on Human Rights for most of the 1960s. John Humphrey, who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in fact said that "Salvador Lopez is a better chair of the Commission on Human Rights than even Eleanor Roosevelt."

The reason why John Humphrey said that was because Lopez at that time as chair was designing the monitoring architecture of the Commission on Human Rights, which is now the Human Rights Council. So the irony of Duterte's and his spokesperson's statements is that they were dismissing it as foreign, but actually it was Lopez's design, a Filipino, boomeranging back to proverbially bite them in the ass.

DEVIN STEWART: I just want to also get a sense of what you think is going to happen with news outlets like Rappler. I know that Duterte is upset with them and is trying to attack them in various ways. What do you think is going to come from that?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: They are being attacked on all fronts.

DEVIN STEWART: Rhetorically, legally?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Rhetorically and legally, multiple fronts. A few months ago, the first case, they tried to get their license from the Securities and Exchange Commission revoked because of foreign ownership rules. That was the opening salvo. Then I think last month they slapped a tax evasion charge on these guys. So it is just one attack after another.

There are minor attacks. For instance, Malacañang, which is the presidential palace, their Malacañang correspondent has been banned from entering the premises, so she can't do reporting there anymore. This is intimidation for sure. I'm not a lawyer so I don't know how tight the legal case is against them, but as a citizen if they are being attacked on so many fronts, you know something is up.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a lot to take in.

Your book, which is a real deep dive into the liberal tradition in the Philippines—it is not that shallow; it's deep—what do you think of where things stand right now, and what do you think is going to happen next? Basically do you think that the liberal institutions can resist and maintain some semblance of liberalism?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Yes, I think because it runs deep so there are institutions there that I think will last. For instance, Duterte obviously wants to get rid of the Commission on Human Rights, but unless he is able to change the constitution he is not going to be able to do that, and I don't think—knock on wood—they are either skilled or intelligent enough to be able to ram through the public a new constitution in time for the midterm. By the time it hits the midterm, everybody is going to be busy, so they're not going to be able to do that.

But I think the damage has been done because certain taboos have been violated.

DEVIN STEWART: Can't be repaired?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: I am not sure. If you are going to repair it, it's going to take a long time to repair because Duterte is at 82 percent popularity right now.

DEVIN STEWART: Because he's a law-and-order guy.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: He's a law-and-order guy. But that's not the most important statistic. The other statistic I show is that the survey companies in the Philippines have a survey which asks: "Did you do better this year than last year? Do you think you're going to do better next year than this year?" With that basically you can tell if Filipinos are gainers or losers, optimists or pessimists. Filipinos for most of the post-Marcos period have been optimists but losers. But toward the end of 2016, toward the tail end of the Aquino administration, they became both gainers and optimists, and that trend went into overdrive under the Duterte administration, so they are now hyper-optimistic, and they feel like they are gaining as well.

That is the scariest statistic I have seen because that just goes to show that the faith in this administration is so high. Of course, some people say that is a double-edged sword because if they are so optimistic, if they are so hopeful about this administration, then there is nowhere else to go but down.

But I think that is going to take a while because we have never seen a president this popular. Even Aquino, who was very popular, is not as popular as Duterte.

DEVIN STEWART: Is there a risk of a sort of "cult of personality" disorder happening here?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: It is not a risk, it's there. What do his followers call him? They call him Padre Digong, or Father Digong. That's his nickname, Digong. So definitely.

If you look at the pro-Duterte Facebook groups, they are like "Duterte Forever Solid Fans," it is as if he is kind of a TV personality.


LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Yes, deity or celebrity idol turned into politics, and that I think explains a lot of the hardheadedness of his supporters around him, at least online.

DEVIN STEWART: Back to your YouTube page. We were talking about this earlier. This is really interesting. One of the complaints from I guess the trolls is that you are just a propagandist for Rappler.

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Or even worse, the Liberal Party.

DEVIN STEWART: Oh, boy. Especially since you wrote the book, right? What do you make of the feedback and the reactions you've been getting from your videos, and how do you interpret them? Are those criticisms coming from legitimate places, or are they bots or trolls or some other thing?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: It's a mixed bag, I'm pretty sure. The one thing I want to say about trolling is that I have it good, and I have it good for one reason: I am a man. Most of this trolling is directed against women.

One of the best photographers of the Duterte drug war is Raffy Lerma, and he took the amazing photograph—we call it the Pieta.

DEVIN STEWART: The one in The New York Times?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: This was in The Philippine Daily Inquirer. It is a woman cradling the body of her dead husband or boyfriend, I think.


LISANDRO CLAUDIO: That was a very powerful picture, and Raffy always gets asked, "Do you get trolled?"

He says, "Yes, but nothing compared to the trolling that my female colleagues receive."

This needs to be pointed out about the trolling in the Philippines but also I think in the United States. Who was trolled last week in the United States? It was the woman who gave a speech at the gun rally, the student. [Editor's note: Claudio is referring to Stoneman Douglas High School student and gun control activist Emma González.]

There was obviously a lot of misogyny around that trolling, and it is the same thing in the Philippines. It is the female journalists, the female photographers. They are the ones who get told by Duterte's supporters things like, "I hope you get raped" or "I hope your mother gets raped." This is awful, and it is misogyny.

DEVIN STEWART: The problem of violence in this sort of authoritarian or restrictive environment in the Philippines; is it still safe to visit, and what would you say to people who are coming? For example, I just got a question from a journalist whether it would be okay for her as an American journalist to visit Manila. What would you say to those people?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: Manila is a heavily class-stratified society, so you can go to Manila and pretend like you are living in a First World city because certain areas there like Bonafacio Global City, Rockwell, the Makati Central Business District (CBD), you wouldn't be able to distinguish these places from certain parts of Midtown Manhattan. There are no killings there. These are centers of capital, and because they are centers of capital they have to look good.

If you want to see dead bodies, you have to go to the slums. But you can spend weeks in Manila, months in Manila, without having to go through the slums. The universities are all gated, so you enter the universities, and they look like universities here in the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: How about the government's antagonism with people like international journalists or human rights types?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: I am not entirely sure. You might have to ask the journalists. But violence? No cases of violence yet.

I think that is the smart thing about the Duterte administration because one of the reasons why support for the Marcos government eroded was because he was targeting prominent people. These were student activists who came from prominent families who were dying, whereas the people dying under the Duterte administration are nameless and faceless members of the urban poor. That is why people aren't as angry as they were during the Marcos administration.

DEVIN STEWART: Final thoughts, Lisandro, about what's next for the Philippines?

LISANDRO CLAUDIO: I don't know. My powers of prediction are shot because of Duterte, so I don't want to predict anymore, because the last time I predicted I messed things up. I said that this upstart from Davao would not be able to win the presidency; he was just too much of an outsider. I was, of course, proven wrong, so I hesitate to make predictions.

All I can say is that in the short term the guy is going to remain very popular despite corruption cases being levied against some of his allies or even his own son, who is accused of being a smuggler, despite the number of people dead. He is going to remain popular, and people are going to remain optimistic in the short run.

DEVIN STEWART: Lisandro Claudio is a scholar at De La Salle University, author of Liberalism and the Postcolony. Lisandro, great to see you.


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