March 10, 2017
206, Ingraham Hall
“Global Populism: Filipino Strongmen from Marcos to Duterte”
Alfred W. McCoy
Harrington Professor of History
In the last years of his martial law dictatorship, President Marcos sanctioned some 2,500 extrajudicial killings, and during his first months in power President Duterte has presided over 6,000 such killings. Are these simply senseless murders, or do they have some larger significance that can help us understand the sudden proliferation of populist leaders in nominally democratic nations around the globe?
The rise of Rodrigo Duterte as a populist strongman resonates deeply with his country’s political culture, but it also reflects broader global trends that make his blunt rhetoric and iconoclastic diplomacy seem unexceptional. Although seemingly universal in depicting the way populist demagogues generally rely on violent rhetoric, extant academic models omit a defining attribute of populism in the Philippines: that is, the way Filipino leaders can win exceptional power by combining the low politics of performative violence, with corpses written upon and read as texts, and the high politics of global diplomacy.
In the 80-year history of the modern Philippine state, just three presidents—Manuel Quezon, Ferdinand Marcos, and Rodrigo Duterte—have been adept enough to juxtapose geopolitical calculus with manipulations of local power to gain extraordinary authority. All three were skilled in manipulating the world powers of their day, using this international imprimatur to reinforce their domestic authority. Apart from a shared ability to navigate the great power politics of their eras, these successful Filipino strongmen succeeded by projecting strength and offering a promise of order that appealed to their country’s impoverished masses.