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Marco Garrido on the Political Candidates of the Poor


In the United States, the Blue Staters don’t like the political candidates of the Red Staters. They think the Red Staters’ candidates are boorish and ignorant. They are terrified that the Red Staters will get more power and that the political candidates of the Red Staters will destroy everything Blue Staters believe in. Once upon a time, the uncouth candidate was George Wallace. Nowadays it is Donald Trump.


The fact that two regions live in ideological bubbles comes from the physical separation of Red Staters and Blue Staters. There are not many software programmers in Alabama. There are not many coal miners in San Francisco. The physical separation is not only between states but within cities. Liberals live in cities. Conservatives live in the suburbs or in rural areas. There is no residential closeness and no dialogue. The lack of communication makes leftists more left wing and rightists more right wing. Members of the other group are demonized, because one rarely has a chance to meet people from the other side and really talk.


But don’t sign up too fast for the “Let’s Mix the Two Groups Together and We’ll All Be One Big Happy Family” Club.


Marco Garrido has written an extraordinary book on political ideology in the Philippines entitled The Patchwork City. (University of Chicago Press, 2019). (Side Question: Why do we always give the publisher and the date when we cite a book? Are we really afraid there are twenty books called The Patchwork City and you might pick the wrong one by mistake?)


That said, if you really want to understand why so much of the world is divided from each other on political lines, you will find few more compelling explanations than those given in Patchwork City. He writes about the mutual antipathy of middle class people and slum dwellers in Manila. But I have observed exactly what he is talking about in Brazil. His model with some adjustments fits the United States as well.


In the Manila case, rich and poor are forced to rub elbows with each other. The ultra-rich middle class enclaves, the rich enclaves and the slums are all thrown together in a random fashion. A rich neighborhood might have slums right next door to the east, right next door to the south, right next door to the west, and a lower middle class neighborhood to the north. Rich residents go out on their balcony. They see a lot of slums.


Middle class people do not like slums. They are not pretty to look at. Middle class people associate slums with crime. They are afraid if they go out walking in the neighborhood where they live, they might get kidnapped or mugged. If some crook wanted to steal the valuables from their home, the crook could just walk seventy yards, jam open some back gate, rob them blind and then disappear back into thieves haven. Slums do not always have wonderful sewage systems. So the smells of human waste waft up past the middle class apartments. Plus the presence of a slum is always a frank signal. “You’ve made it. We have not.” It is a constant reminder of the fragility of economic life.


Note that all the stereotypes I gave above ignore the fact that the slums are filled with nice people who are trying to make it in life. Many of those people moved into the slum from an even poorer place because they are trying to make something of their lives. They are struggling to do so in the face of enormous handicaps that are not of their own making.


The rich give lip service to such sentiments. But the slums really spook them, and they wish the slums would go away. The rich do three things to deal with slums.

A. The rich support politicians who promise to tear down the slums and build something more upscale in their place. Slum dwellers live under precarious conditions. At any time the bulldozers can come, or the messengers come with papers from the lawyers that get you booted out of the neighborhood. Dispossession is a constant danger for slum dwellers.

B. The rich build physical barriers to reduce the actual contact between themselves and the slum dwellers. The poor see those barriers every day and are reminded every day that they are the type of people who are supposed to be kept away from the good people.

C. Slum residence itself is culturally stigmatized. Garrido gives lots of examples of poor people who receive worse treatment from officials, tradesmen or upper class people encountered socially when it is discovered that they come from a “bad” neighborhood. Much of the best material in Garrido’s book involves the micro-aggressions that slum dwellers encounter on a regular basis once the location of their residence becomes known. Garrido describes cross-class interaction in Manila as being a constant set of rituals of domination and submission, where the poor are expected to bow and scrape, and acknowledge their clear moral inferiority to their hard working educated betters. The poor do this because they have to. They don’t like it.

So what do the poor miss more than anything else?


Respect. Genuine Bona Fide Respect.


They respond with enthusiasm and gratitude to any social figure who treats them as equals – or better yet – as being morally superior to the scumbags elsewhere in society. Philippine politicians know that this is the way that you reach the poor. However, most politicians put on a bad act of pretending to be “salt of the earth” or “a regular guy like you” when they visit the slums in election years. Everyone knows they do not act like “salt of the earth” or “like a regular guy” when they do their normal business. A politician who takes off his jacket and tie, puts on a sports shirt and walks down through the slum pretending to be friendly is just putting on a show. Everyone sees right through it.


However, there are the rare individuals who really are “salt of the earth” and “regular guys” all the time. Garrido focuses on the former Philippine President, Joseph Estrada, who made a very real connection to slum dwellers throughout the nation – generating the kind of loyalty in the Philippines that Trump has today in the United States. Like Trump, he got his start in show business. He was a film actor who played both nasty villains and working class heroes of the people. His character in essence was a “disrespectable” person who was also strong, and could get things done. (Compare with Trump’s Apprentice. He was the tough business genius who breaks all the rules, and rides roughshod over people to get things done.)


Estrada was actually born to a wealthy family. However, once he got into the character of a working class rebel against immorality, he stayed in character permanently. He visited the slums frequently, during off-election years as well as on campaigns. He used crude language. He built up working people as the last defenders of decency in the nation as opposed to the corrupt bureaucrats and politicians who were robbing the Philippines blind. He maintained this posture around rich people too. This created complete antipathy towards Estrada in the upper classes – but the lower classes loved him. There are a lot more poor people than rich people in the Philippines – so his formula catapulted him to political success.


Garrido argues that the politics of the poor were based strictly on identity politics. Patron-client relationships and objective class interest were not the driving factors here. Politicians on the business-as-usual system would make sure that particular slum neighborhoods got their road repaving or their new hospital just in time for the election. This did not generate any particular loyalty. Patron-client politics are based on the logic of “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” There is no permanent loyalty here. Actual policies once Estrada entered office did not count for much. No one in the slums was looking at the progressiveness of government budget. No one was reading white paper analyses of the effectiveness of public health programs.  


What mattered to the slum dwellers was respect. The slum dwellers lived lives of being disrespected all the time. Having a powerful friend who was all about poor people being the “good people” and not the “bad people” met a real emotional need that was in the hearts of many, many slum dwellers. The constant acrimonious interaction between rich people and poor people in Manila made that lack of respect a huge driving concern. Getting roads paved was farther down the priority list.


The connection to the United States and Trump should be clear. In our country, the cleavage is not particularly between rich and poor. In the United States, rich and poor are widely separated from each other. The rich live in rich towns and rich neighborhoods. The poor live in poor towns and poor neighborhoods. Some border lands exist – such as gentrifying urban neighborhoods. Ironically, Marco Garrido, who is a professor at the University of Chicago, lives in one of the few parts of the United States where the two social classes make frequent contact – Chicago’s Hyde Park. In Austin, Texas, where I live, the very poor are shunted off to the Southeast part of town. I live in the all-Yuppie neighborhood of Rosedale. I need to go two miles east to find poverty neighborhoods. So, tension coming from high-friction cross-class physical propinquity is not a fundamental feature of American life.


In the United States, the dis-respectability line truly is red state/blue state. Blue staters disrespect the red staters for being religious. They also disrespect the red staters for being ignorant and stupid. (I went to Yale. At Yale, we really did believe we were smarter than the remaining 99.99% of the population; there were certainly no serious schools south of Johns Hopkins.) Red staters disrespect blue staters for loose moral values. They also question whether the policies suggested by liberals would actually make red staters better off.


Marco Garrido does not write much about actual labor exploitation in his book. But there is no doubt that the riches of the Filipino upper class do come in part from exploiting the labor of the lower class. It also comes from expropriating lower class land for use in new development projects. The advances of the information economy in Boston and San Francisco have if anything increased the rate of economic decline in the Rustbelt. So, some of both class hostility and red state blue state hostility comes from genuine conflicts of interest.


But the respectability issue is a gigantic factor here as well. When Trump talks up the intelligence and common sense of a blue collar crowd in West Virginia - and when he attacks the stupidity and corruption of bureaucrats and so-called experts, he is saying what some people are desperate to hear. Add to that the fact that he validates traditional religion. and he is the only person bringing water to the thirsty.


The beauty of social science is that one can learn a lot about one’s home by studying places that are thousands of miles away. Marco Garrido’s superb book on Manila will tell you more about America than will most of the books written about America.   

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