Interrogating ‘bobotante’

By Artchil B. Fernandez

In the light of the outcome of the 2022 election, “bobotantes” or stupid voters are in vogue once again. The results of the 2022 election reveal political dynasties have further strengthened and even expanded their stranglehold in the political landscape both at the national and local levels.

A cartel of political dynasties dominated the national posts – president, vice president and senators. In local politics, political dynasties not only solidified their hold on their turf, but they also expanded it by capturing and annexing the stronghold of their rivals. Minus the modern context, Philippine politics resembles that of the medieval world where warring warlords fought over territories.

The tragic outcome of the 2022 elections where traditional politicians, political dynasties, actors, talk show hosts and similar personalities predominate has been primarily attributed to ‘bobotantes’ or stupid voters by advocates for reform. These ‘bobotantes’ either out of ignorance, lack of moral mooring, greed, or a combination of these voted clowns into office lament those who advocate good governance.

How do we make sense of the conclusion of the 2022 election? Should ‘bobotantes’ take the blame for its appalling outcome? Are the majority of Filipino voters “bobotantes?’ Are there “bobotantes’ or stupid voters in the first place?

One helpful lens to understand the turnout of the 2022 election is Wataru Kusaka’s concept of ‘moral politics’ in the Philippines. He argued for the existence of dual public spheres in the country – the civic public sphere of the middle class and the mass public sphere of the lower class. It created a cleavage in moral politics. This implies that the middle class and the lower class have different ways of looking at politics.

The civic sphere of the middle-class views politics as a means for institutional reform and emphasizes “rational policy debates” and “moral values” as bases for choosing public officials. The mass public sphere of the lower class on the other hand looks at politics as a way to gain employment and affirm their dignity. This difference produced a “moral division” resulting in moral antagonism and a clash of perspectives between the middle class and lower class.

One outcome of the difference in political outlook of the two groups is the conflict of moral codes. Frederic Charles Schaffer observed that the middle class who advocate clean and honest elections look with disdain on the lower class for selling their votes and electing “dirty or incompetent politicians.” The moral calculus of the lower class is dissimilar to that of the middle class. They choose candidates “whom they perceive to be caring, kind, and helpful; candidates who respect their kapwa—their fellow human beings, especially those who are poor.”  Schaffer noted in his study that “It is not that issues and policies are irrelevant to poor voters, but even abstract concerns often get translated into a language of personalized care.”

Schaffer’s ethnography revealed that middle and lower classes are coming from different standpoints when voting. For the lower class, “‘bad’ politics is a politics of callousness and insult, while ‘good’ politics is a politics of consideration and kindness. In contrast, Schaffer found that many in the upper and middle classes tend to view ‘bad’ politics as dirty politics of patronage and corruption, while they see ‘good’ politics as a clean politics of issues, accountability, and transparency.”

Based on the perspectives of Kusaka and Schaffer, voting is not a simplistic process. There is rationality in voting behavior and there is no such thing as ‘bobotante.’ Those from the lower class are not “stupid voters” just because their way of looking at politics is not similar to the way the upper and middle classes view politics. Voting is affected by the intersectionality of many factors.

Why in politics “good governance” is paramount to the middle class while for the lower class it is “simply showing consideration, paying attention, offering a helping hand?” What accounts for the disparity?

The middle class with their stable job, regular income, savings, and other privileges afford them the luxury of tracking and analyzing current events and social problems. Those from the lower class with their hand-to-mouth existence have a different concern – survival. To be in opposition to the status quo is a privilege in itself, one that those from the margins do not enjoy.

The lower class may make the wrong decisions during elections but it does not mean they are “bobotantes” or stupid voters. It is erroneous for those not in their position to judge or worse condemn them. The unjust social structure denied them access to better education, health, and other opportunities to develop themselves. They are victims of the highly asymmetrical social system that consign them to a miserable existence. To call them “bobotantes” or mock their political decision is to further victimize them.

The challenge to the privileged middle class is to understand the rationality of the voting preference of the lower class. Ridiculing their perspective will only widen the political divide and intensify the current moral antagonism. This situation will only benefit the ruling elite particularly the cartel of dynasties.

A new path must be traversed if the cartel of dynasties is to be defeated. For a start, there should be a genuine conversation between the middle class and the lower class. The middle class must discard their sense of exceptionalism and moral superiority and reach out to the lower class.

Schaffer noted that “a major problem with Philippine democracy is that the poor are not shown kindness or respect, that those with power and money act in ways that are rude, hurtful, or unlawful.” The middle class can begin curing this defect by stopping calling those from the lower class “bobotantes.”