Moral conflicts are the core of divisions in Philippine politics. This is the argument Wataru Kusaka offers in his latest book, Moral Politics in the Philippines: Inequality, Democracy and the Urban Poor.

Kusaka’s argument is based on three years of ethnographic research at an urban poor community in Pechayan, Quezon City. He makes a distinction between the dominant elitist narrative of the civic sphere, composed of the English-speaking elite and middle classes, who valorise education, liberalism and anti-corruption, and the mass sphere, or the lower classes dwelling in slums and streets and value compassionate populists and pro-poor policies.

The division takes root from socio-economic inequalities that has long plagued the Philippines. This argument extends the work of scholars like Frederic Charles Schaffer, Marco Garrido, Reynaldo Ileto, and Agustin Rodriguez, which demonstrate the experience of the poor as a source of alternative cultures and politics that conflict with the logic of the elite-captured state.

Morality or Ideology?

Kusaka’s work is indeed important, but his findings beg the question: Aren’t moral politics mere extensions of ideological conflicts?

Ideology, admittedly, is a complex concept, but it remains analytically useful today. John Gerring identifies its core as a stable set of ideas or worldviews that divide the political field into “us versus them.” Gerring’s notion of ideology mirrors Kusaka’s moral politics, which divides the nation to a good “we” and an immoral “them.” Is moral politics a shorthand for ideology or is it a distinct phenomenon that has taken ideology’s place in Philippine politics?

In American partisan politics, moral judgements have been linked with partisan alignments. George Lakoff, a cognitive psychologist, argues that conservative and liberal voters have different frameworks of morality. Conservatives believe in a “strict father” framework, prioritising self-discipline and order, while liberals espouse a nurturant parent model and taking care of the underprivileged.

In more recent work, Arnold Kling explains tribalism in American politics based on three dominant ideologies that divide the world into tribes according to their respective moral dichotomy axis. Liberals support the oppressed against oppressor axis, conservatives support civilisation against barbarism axis, while libertarians support liberty against coercion.

These works demonstrate that morality is hinged on political ideology. One could not help but wonder whether these insights could be extended to the Philippines.

The decline of ideology in Philippine studies?

Studying ideology seems to have fallen out of fashion in Philippine political science. There seems to be no counterpart to thinkers like Jose Maria Sison, who articulates the Nationalist and Communist agenda, and Walden Bello, who theorised the extent to which neoliberal ideologies have shaped the Philippine development trajectory.

After the EDSA movement, these leftist ideological analyses, and perhaps the study of ideology in general, remain marginal compared to conventional political frameworks and practices.

Replacing ideology at the centre of academic conversations is the concession that there are no ideologies in the Philippines because there are no political parties. Most existing parties fail to be bearers of ideologies because they are based on fragile, arbitrary and temporary alliances. Yuko Kasuya’s work The Presidential Bandwagon demonstrates the frailty of parties, with political butterflies who switch allegiances to the president’s party after every election.

As a result, political science has favoured causal mechanisms and frameworks that reflect the volatility and inefficacy of the current system, such as patronclientelism, bossism, Cacique/elite democracy, cronyism and patrimonialism.

While accepting the failures of existing democratic institutions, Kusaka digs deeper into society and articulates the frustrations of lower classes and upper classes alike. Yet, sectors of society within the civic and mass sphere direct their frustrations not only at the lacklustre democracy but at the opposite class.

Kusaka reveals a class-based conflict more emotionally raw than Marxist conceptions of class conflict. More than economic or labour relations, their respective moral narratives cast the other as an irredeemable enemy of the nation. Ideology may be nearly absent in partisan politics but may be found in the factions of society’s respective resentments toward the government and the opposite sphere.

Much like ideology, this class resentment can be transformed to political action, as evidenced in Kusaka’s narration of the civic sphere’s EDSA 2, which deposed populist president Joseph Estrada through street demonstrations, and EDSA 3, which sought to protect the deposed president from arrest due to plunder charges. These people’s movements demonstrate the potential impact of moral politics and may provide the materials for a more stable ideology.

Duterte’s Moral politics and the political divide

Currently, the country is, in large part, polarised into two main political camps with respective derogatory labels, the Yellowtards, or the Liberal Party opposition, and Dutertards, the supporters of the Duterte administration. The prevalent name-calling that make political engagements toxic is the latest variation of Kusaka’s moral politics.

In an article published at the Philippine Sociological Review, Kusaka extends his argument on moral politics to make sense of Duterte. He argues that Duterte puts forward a moral narrative based on the image of a social bandit, who uses patriarchal justice and violence for the poor outside the law.

His nuancing of Duterte is valuable on two accounts. First, Duterte’s bandit imagery hearkens back to cultural notions of heroism from folktales of anti-colonial tulisans or rebels, which is embedded in Filipino conscience unlike the values from the civic sphere or the urban mass sphere.

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Second, Duterte’s bandit narrative carved segments from both civic and mass sphere. Through his war on drugs, he divided the mass sphere into a moral poor and an immoral poor or the irredeemable drug addicts. In spite of his vulgarity, he also managed to convince the new middle class and elite frustrated from the EDSA narrative into this side.

By now, the People Power narrative, the democratic imaginary of Philippine liberal democracy, has been reduced to a dead horse by its subsequent class-based iterations and Duterte.

Kusaka’s work also speaks to Lisandro Claudio’s work, Liberalism and the Post-colony, which narrates the beginnings of a postcolonial liberalism through four key post-independence intellectuals. Though Claudio admits their failure, the reasons on why and how they failed is left unexplored. Kusaka’s lens may view their positions in the civic sphere as highly-educated elites rendered them detached from the experiences of everyday Filipino. The Liberal Party, the successors of the postcolonial liberals, experiences this same difficulty when fielding the elite-scion candidate Manuel (Mar) Roxas. However, even the pro-poor candidate and de facto populist opponent from the mass sphere, Jejomar (Jojo) Binay, did not have any decisive advantage over the liberals.

Could it be that Duterte’s appeal emerged from this very stalemate of ideological political factions, similar to how Mussolini and Hitler’s fascist ideological regimes in their respective countries before World War II?

While Duterte and his followers moralise and justify the war on drugs, his challenge to liberal democracy is ideological in nature. This stems from the weakness of the EDSA narrative as its core. The chapters published in the Duterte Reader recognise patterns that can potentially be considered part of his ideology or Dutertismo but have yet to explicitly call it an ideology. One may argue the Duterte phenomenon is merely a personality cult rather than an ideology since the ideas that guide his supporters may not outlast his person.  The Duterte Reader not only identifies distinct characteristics of his core modus operandi but also tries to pin him down with classical ideological labels such as Maoist and nationalist, fascist, and populist. This multiplicity of labels still indicates a lack of conceptual clarity as well as the need to nuance and update concepts.

Thus, moral politics may be considered as a new variation of ideological formation. While more classical ideologies are formulated through a “science of ideas” or political party platforms, moral politics emerges from a theatre of raw public emotion. Strong personalities like Duterte may be able to harness class-based moral resentment as ideology. However, the result may be less controllable than classical ideologies, making it more dangerous to the unity of a country. At the same time, perhaps moral politics may be a tool in consolidating interests and values into clear partisan divisions. Whether moral divisions today can be used as currencies for democratic deepening remains to be seen.

Matthew Ordoñez is a PhD candidate in Public Administration at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. His research interests include urban development in South East Asia, Sino-ASEAN relations, and Asian political thought. His research can be found at ResearchGate and