What is Obama’s mandate?

An excellent post by the Nutbox – “What kind of president would Obama be?” – got me thinking. Below is my reaction to his post.

I think Obama has to decide whether he will push back or continue to allow himself to be pushed. I’m sure he knows that extremist Republicans in Congress are not going to budge. Will he succeed in turning their intransigence against them like Clinton did to Gingrich after he got fed up with the obstructionism? Will he be thinking midterm elections or will he proceed as someone who believes he has a mandate to go all the way?

There is also a counterpart to Romney’s 47 percent. They are those Americans from the Red states who cannot see beyond color and their fundamentalist beliefs. They will always be against Obama. In the same way that Romney joked about having a better chance at election if his parents were born Mexican, Obama would have a better chance at success if he were born white. Should Obama try to turn those people around first or should he just tell them “you can get on the bus if you want to but if you don’t I’m not going to wait for you”?

The economy played a part in the election but it seems like American voters saw that the blame could not be laid exclusively on anyone. They saw a problem that was too big for anyone to solve in a short time and the only thing they could hope for at the present time is a step in the right direction. They thought Obama was it.

In the end it was social issues that spelled the difference – race, immigration, gender, health care. Voters chose the candidate who was most like them, the one who shared their beliefs. In other words, I think they felt neither candidate could solve the country’s economic and financial problems overnight so that sort of managerial skill was out of the equation. What was left was philosophy and world view and that was what spelled the difference. Maybe?

Hamlet or Oedipus

At a farewell party my office was throwing for an international intern who was returning to Milan, the topic of conversation turned to Filipinos overseas. Apparently, as a migrant group, pinoys in Italy seem to be one of the most law abiding people from abroad. This gave them the impression that criminality back in the Philippines was very low.

I had to, unfortunately, correct that impression by saying that whilst Filipinos follow the law and observe the rules when they are in a foreign country, back home they do the opposite – discard the rule book and go about their merry way. This is of course a familiar tale for Filipinos, but it came as a shock to my interlocutor. My Salvadoran colleague stepped in and said that the same thing is true for his compatriots. Back home, they tell time differently, they drive differently, and so on.

To explain this, we could look at how rules and institutions influence behaviour. The enforcement of laws depends a lot on local customs, norms and informal institutions. Where these run counter to the formal rules, being a law abiding citizen can be a self-defeating affair as the web of social interactions imposes a cost on those who step out of line from standard practice.

It applies to Filipinos living overseas because as aliens or immigrants in more advanced economies, we find that in these places where local customs, norms and informal institutions largely reinforce the formal codes, it pays to play by the rules, the formal ones, that is. Especially in Australia with its strong adherence to fairness, those who work hard are expected to reap the rewards in life.

In Italy, where rules are often meant to be broken, it seems odd that Filipinos would still be more earnest in sticking to them. Equally puzzling is why other immigrant groups do not generally find it in their interests to observe the rule of law in places where it is generally practiced.

To get to the heart of the issue, I believe, the answer ultimately lies in seeing it through the prism of identity. Newly arrived immigrants often find themselves faced with a decision – whether to adopt the collective identity of their host country by for instance speaking its language, integrating with its populace, assimilating into their culture. Those who chose to do so may retain some part of their old identity by speaking their native language at home, practicing their own religion, etc. An important step is figuring out how to balance competing identities.

When certain groups are marginalised and prevented from integrating to the wider community, as in the case of illegal immigrants, problems occur. Rather than contributing to their host country, these groups may engage in anti-social, destructive behaviour. The criminality that my colleague from Italy witnessed arises when disaffected people within such immigrant communities have no hope or expectation for improvement in life. They turn to the streets to find a sense of belonging and identity.

The power of giving these groups a new sense of destiny and empowerment through programs that provide them with an opportunity to find work is demonstrated by Homeboy Industries, LA (see video below), which for over twenty years has been helping homies get off the street, learn new skills and compete in the real world. Founded by Catholic priest, Fr Greg Boyle, it offers a secular version of what the New Testament preaches – a rejection of the old self and an affirmation of a new form of living.

The case of the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas who was settled illegally in the US while he was a young boy, who was educated, grew up and who, but for a piece of paper, saw himself as American, and sought to prove this by working hard, paying taxes and coming out in public to support the Dream Act, that would allow the estimated 2 million people like him to stay, work and serve the only country they have known, demonstrates why identity matters.

Of course identity itself is determined by context. A person can be multiple things at the same time. One can be a father, a brother, a son, a co-worker, a friend, and behave differently based on the situation. Filipinos when living and working abroad can play by the rules, but when they return to the Philippines can revert to their old habits and abandon the rules. It is all based on context. Why for instance do drivers in the Philippines behave differently when they enter Subic Freeport?

When faced with long-held attitudes, norms and expectations, it is much easier to go with the flow, to blend in and follow the crowd. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” so they say. Changing established modes of behaviour in a group or society is very difficult. But it is possible depending on how you view people.

If you think like Shakespeare who wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts,” then change is indeed possible. Elizabethan theatre was such that the audience didn’t know what the ending was. Human agency could produce a totally different resolution to what was expected. The protagonist could decide what his fate was, as in the case of Hamlet’s famous line, “To be, or not to be.”

If, on the other hand, you think like the ancient Greeks whose heroes and heroines could not change their destinies even when they tried, then working for change is indeed futile. The plot and ending of Greek tragedies were always known beforehand to the audience and had religious import. It was considered “hubris” to tempt the gods and try to thwart what they had pre-ordained as in the case of Oedipus.

After the LA riots in the late-80s, politicians often tried to look tough on crime by building new prisons to house street gang members. Their view was that these youths were a lost cause, trapped in a system, and that the there was no way out for them, given the culture of violence that they had and the peer pressure they were under. Fr Boyle’s approach looked at the same situation and posed a different solution, one based on human agency.

Translated into the Philippine context, when we see our country mired in corruption and criminality, it is so easy to just think that there is no hope for the Motherland, that all is lost, and that the best thing to do is just go with the flow. Unfortunately, too many of our countrymen think that way, like Greek tragics. When I watch a Filipino newscast, I often wonder whether I am being better informed or less so, by viewing it. Coverage of new syndicates, new scams often headline the news. The media can actually skew and distort our perception of reality through sensationalism.

It would be better to try and address these problems through a more constructive way, to try and find ways that reinforce the opposite of what we see. A line from Shakespeare is worth remembering: “Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Let us hope more of our countrymen start to think the same way.