May 21, 2019
USE his life as our national object of reflection for political failure.
The last time Mar Roxas won an election was in 2004. At the time, Roxas held so much promise. His stint as the trade and industry secretary during the Estrada and Arroyo administrations left such a good impression that he got the highest number of votes during the 2004 senatorial election, with a 4-million plus lead over the popular movie star Bong Revilla.
After that, Roxas never won an election again. He ran for vice president in 2010, only to lose to Jejomar Binay. During the 2016 presidential election, voters favored the foul-mouthed Rodrigo Duterte over his “disente” image. This year’s senatorial elections were equally harsh to him. He didn’t just not enter the Magic 12, he ranked 16th, despite spending hundreds of millions in his campaign.
What’s next for Roxas? I hope he takes a step back and take inspiration from leaders who failed in politics but gave us the most insightful literature on statecraft.
Some of the best — if not all — classical literature on statecraft were written by statesmen who tried but failed: Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponessian War, Cicero’s De Re Publica, Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourse on Livy, and Weber’s Politics as Vocation. Joining this list is Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics.
Before Justin Trudeau, Canada had Michael Ignatieff. They are both brilliant, but Trudeau had more charm and possessed a better standing than Ignatieff. Despite Ignatieff’s impressive background, something about him didn’t connect with the people.
Ignatieff is a Canadian citizen who has built an illustrious career as one of the finest liberal public intellectuals in the tradition of the great liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin. Though he has never renounced his citizenship, he lived for quite some time in the United States, where from 2000-2005 he served as a professor of practice and director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In 2014, Canada’s Liberal Party bigwigs persuaded Ignatieff to return to Canada because they felt that he had the makings of a fine prime minister. Ignatieff is learned, reasonable and eloquent.
Ignatieff’s short speech at a Liberal Party campaign meeting in Ontario in 2011 demonstrated all that. Find it on YouTube and listen how he brilliantly used the power of echo (one of the most potent oratorical devices). After repeating the stirring resonance of “So what?” he unleashed an electrifying deluge of “Rise Up!”
He first ran for a spot in the House of Commons in the 2006 elections. He defeated the Conservative candidate in Ontario’s federal district of Etobicoke-Lakeshore by a slim margin. He served as a member of parliament from 2006 to 2011. Ignatieff rose meteorically — in 2007 he became the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and then became elected as its head, without anyone opposing him. In May 2011, he lost to Bernard Trottier. This stunning defeat led to Ignatieff’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Party.
In 2013, Ignatieff wrote Fire and Ashes, his account of why he failed: his problematic standing. The Conservative party, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, vigorously attacked Ignatieff for being away from Canada for a long time — 34 years. The infamous anti-Ignatieff attack ad said that Ignatieff was just visiting.
“I have to hand it to the prime minister,” Ignatieff said. “He didn’t attack what I said. He attacked my right to say anything at all. He denied me standing in my own country.” Standing as a legal term means your right to have your day in court.
“Judges,” Ignatieff explains, “decide who gets standing. They regulate standing to control their courtrooms and maintain the boundary between law and politics.” As a political term, standing is “your authority to make your case and ensure a hearing.”
It’s not the same as the right to run for elections, which everyone who matches the constitutional requirements can do. “Standing is not a right,” Ignatieff continues. “It is a privilege earned from voters, one at a time. It is a non-transferable form of authority. Nothing about past rank, expertise, qualifications or previous success entitles you to it.”
In short, standing is political legitimacy, which is the necessary condition to have sufficient political power. You know you gained it when you can persuade people to follow you and eventually obey you because they believe that it is in their interest to transfer their power to you so you can make decisions that they could accept even if they find them uncomfortable.
Ignatieff’s residency problem might be closer to Grace Poe’s; but I think it’s Roxas who has the depth of political experience that suffering hones that could write Fire and Ashes.
But in order for Roxas to pull off something like Fire and Ashes, he should be able to be self-critical. He should have the courage to interrogate the sources of his weaknesses.
Our triumphs aren’t teachers but rewards after we’ve learned from our failures. Roxas should turn his failure into an opportunity; let it bleed as ink on paper, and impart to future politicians the bitter but necessary wisdom that could only come from a critical engagement with one’s self.
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