September 14, 2019

#TPonMB: Perception in politics is as important as Reality

Politics is a game of Perception where what’s really taking place may be different from what the public thinks is happening, and anyone who enters the political arena should know this by heart. A public official, whether elective or appointive, should not only be qualified (Reality) but also look qualified (Perception).

[NOTE: This piece was first published in the Manila Bulletin on 07 September 2019].

To illustrate, US domestic support for the 2003 war in Iraq was possible after the Bush administration managed to make the public believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (Perception), even if it didn’t (Reality), something that the no less than the Bush administration admitted years later… but not before the US had taken over Iraq, killed Sadam, taken control of the country’s massive oil resources, and in the process left hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.

Form (Perception) is more important than substance (Reality) in the game of political survival, at least in the short- to medium-term. The sad reality in politics is that Perception takes precedence over Reality, and it’s the job of every public official to minimize the gap between the two.

Case Study: PCOO Asec. Mocha Uson

Let’s consider the case of former Presidential Communications (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Margaux “Mocha” Uson.

With over five million followers, Uson was hands-down considered the most powerful politically inclined blogger. At an astronomically distant second was Thinking Pinoy of yours truly, which at the time had a measly 600,000 followers, or just about 12 percent of Uson’s.

Presumably in cognizance of her online supremacy, President Rodrigo Duterte made her PCOO assistant secretary for social media in May, 2017.

Even before her appointment, Uson was already a threat to mainstream media’s long-held supremacy over political discourse, and her appointment only managed to amplify the threat. Media outlets relentlessly attacked her, pressuring her Malacañang peers (who are scared stiff of mainstream media) to keep a disproportionately healthy distance from her.

To be fair, it’s not like media totally had no reason to do so — Uson did commit numerous gaffes that can be (and were) used as excellent fodder for mainstream media’s cannon, the cannon that was always aimed and ready to fire at her. For example, Uson’s “Mayon sa Naga,” “Pepe-dede-ralismo,” and sign language scandals did nothing but further alienate her from erstwhile staunch allies.

In fairness, Uson earnestly attempted to do her job well. Her uncanny ability to reach the masses (Reality), however, should’ve been supplemented by efforts to mitigate her negative image among her peers (Perception), especially those who have power over her. Her political success, after all, is contingent not only on her performance, but also on the cooperation she enjoys from other officials.

Uson eventually resigned from office to lodge a congressional bid, and it seems that her image as a political pariah in the Palace even spilled outside Malacañang’s walls.

For one, Uson’s staunchest allies – the Cayetanos of Taguig – didn’t even openly and actively support her unsuccessful congressional campaign in their home city, as evidenced by her AA Kasosyo snagging only 0.63 percent of the approximately 300,000 votes cast there. Did the Cayetanos exclude AA Kasosyo in their sample ballots because they see her inclusion as a net political liability?

Uson is undoubtedly very popular but AA Kasosyo was over 70,000 votes short of the cutoff after garnering only 120,000 votes nationwide, or less than 2% of her 5.8 million followers today.

The Case of Nicanor Faeldon and GCTA

Recently resigned Bureau of Corrections director Nicanor Faeldon is another example of the chasm between Perception and Reality.

The President recently fired Faeldon and said in a mix of English and Tagalog, “Faeldon has to go because Faeldon disobeyed my order… I was trying to provide the fire extinguisher to erase the people’s doubts. No releases. If he said that then, it should’ve been over. The problem is he came up the next day with his statement with his statement with his own computation.”

The President, an astute politician, was essentially trying to balance Reality with Perception.

The Reality is that the GCTA Law was enacted and implemented well before Duterte took office. In the absence of any amendment to the law or any court order, Faeldon had no choice but to help implement it in the same way Senator Leila de Lima did while still in DOJ.

The Duterte Administration is aware of this reality, as evidenced by Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra’s earlier statement that convicted murderer Mayor Antonio Sanchez may benefit from GCTA just like any other convict.

But the GCTA issue two faces: legal (Reality) and public opinion (Perception). Duterte as Chief Executive had to balance his responsibility to execute the law and as a politician had to keep the public satisfied, hence his decision to put GCTA on hold.

Faeldon, instead of recognizing this glaring political necessity, ignored the President’s orders and handled matters his own way… and his glaring lack of public relations skills made the situation even worse.

Faeldon focused too much Reality and failed to sufficiently address Perception… and that didn’t sit well with a President who recognizes, in this situation, that Perception is just as important as Reality.

Hence Faeldon’s termination.

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