Burlington, Iowa: I am here in this quiet, clean and friendly Midwestern city to visit with my eldest daughter and her family and learn a little bit more about the famous Iowa primary, which for now forty years or so has provided the earliest indication of who would be nominated as the official presidential candidates in the national conventions of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Americans I have spoken to on this trip seem to have the same problems as Filipinos at home. They need all the help they can get in finding candidates to support in the 2016 elections. There seems to be a lack of material for national leadership everywhere. This is not helped by having all the candidates self-nominated without a screening process. Here, the primary precludes the possibility of 130 candidates filing for the presidency, but this is not to suggest it has eliminated all its problems.

The US primary as a screening process

Let’s review its past results.

In 1976, the Iowa Republicans chose Gerald Ford, while the Democrats were mostly uncommitted and only 28 percent chose Jimmy Carter. But Carter was nominated and elected. In 1980, the Iowa Democrats finally picked Carter while the Republicans picked George H. W. Bush, with Ronald Reagan coming in close. But Reagan was nominated and elected. In 1984, the Iowa Republicans chose Reagan unopposed, while the Democrats chose Walter Mondale. And Reagan was reelected.

In 1988, the Iowa Democrats picked Dick Gephardt with Mike Dukakis coming in second, but Dukakis was nominated. The Republicans picked Bob Dole, with George H. W. Bush coming in second, but Bush was nominated and elected. In 1992, the Iowa Republicans chose Bush unopposed, while the Democrats chose Tom Harkin with Bill Clinton getting a mere 3 percent. But Clinton was nominated and elected. In 1996, the Iowa Democrats finally gave Bill Clinton 98 percent, while the Republicans picked Bob Dole. And Clinton was reelected.

In 2000, the Iowa Democrats chose Al Gore, while the Republicans chose George W. Bush, who was elected. In 2004, the Iowa Democrats chose John Kerry, while the Republicans chose Bush unopposed. In 2008, the Iowa Democrats chose Barack Obama, while the Republicans chose Mike Huckabee with John McCain coming in second. But McCain was nominated, and Obama was elected. In 2012, the Iowa Democrats chose Obama unopposed, while the Republicans chose Rick Santorum, with Mitt Romney coming in second. But Romney was nominated, and Obama was reelected.

Both parties will have their primaries on Feb. 1, 2016, within the week that our presidential campaign period formally goes underway. This should lend greater clarity to the murky American political scene. The debates among those seeking the Republican and Democratic party nominations and the polls conducted after these debates will certainly have a large effect on the primaries, and ultimately on the national conventions themselves. But it may be extravagant to expect, or even to hope, that it would reshape the make-up or conduct of American presidential politics.

America’s make-believe democracy

Right now, it is one big mess. The current issue of Harper’s carries a big cover story on “America’s Make-Believe Democracy” by Lewis H. Lapham, the magazine’s editor emeritus and editor of the highly redoubtable Lapham Quarterly. Lapham is one of America’s most highly respected and accomplished essayists, and he writes essays in the classical norm, rather than reportorial pieces. His piece, “Bombast Bursting In Air” is, therefore, not easy to digest or to quote for the average newspaper reader. But he does not hesitate to say that between democracy and concentrated wealth, America has always preferred the latter to the former, and that the noble falsehood called democracy could be traced all the way back of Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address where he declared “that government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

“Nowhere in the history of mankind,” he writes, “does the record show a government so specified lasting longer than a few nasty, brutish, and short months, nor was such a government what the framers of the Constitution had in mind in Philadelphia in 1787. They envisioned a government in which a privileged few would arrange the distribution of law and property to and for the less fortunate many, an enlightened oligarchy that would nurture both the private and the public good, accommodating both the motions of the heart and the movements of a market. The balancing of the two sets of value they entrusted to a class of patrician overlords for whom, presumably, it was unnecessary to cheat and steal and lie, men like themselves, to whom Madison ascribed “most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society.” “But not enough wisdom and virtue to free the republic of its slaves…”

The TV debates and Donald Trump

In the current season, the Republican TV debates and the rising numbers of Donald J. Trump, real-estate mogul, star of a reality TV show, and self-glorifying Jack of Diamonds and Ace of Spades combined, catch Lapham’s critical eye. Thus these lines:

“Between the first debate and the second, on September 16 (under the wing of Ronald Reagan’s Air Force One in Simi Valley, California), Trump’s poll numbers continued to rise despite the fond hopes of the Republican Party’s spin doctors that his star would fade, wear out its welcome, pass and be forgotten with the rest. It didn’t happen as expected at the second debate despite the concerted efforts of CNN’s inspectors of souls to sink it below the horizon, and as of late September it hasn’t done so yet--for reasons that Trump, schooled in the savagery of reality TV, understands, and the moralizing punditry does not.

“The camera sees but does not think, makes no meaningful distinction between a bubble bath in Santa Monica staffed by pretty girls and a bloodbath on a beach in Libya staffed by headless corpses. The return on investment in both instances is the flow of bankable emotion, in unlimited and anonymous amounts, drawn from the dark and bottomless pools of human wish and dream. The cameras following Trump’s political campaign aren’t covering a set or a play of ideas; they are attracted, like flies to death and honey, to the sweet, decaying smell of big-game celebrity. It doesn’t matter what Trump says or doesn’t say, whether he is cute and pink or headless; what matters is that Trump is a profitable return on investment in idols of the marketplace, up there on stage with Princess Di, Silvio Berlusconi, and Ronald Reagan.

“Trump doesn’t do myth, because celebrity, of, in, and for itself, is noble falsehood. The camera doesn’t do democracy because democracy is the holding of one’s fellow citizens in respectful regard, not because they are beautiful or rich or famous but because they are one’s fellow citizens, and it is therefore worth knowing what they do and say. A camera addresses a valued customer, not a valuable citizen, substitutes for the rule of law the rule of men, men as images so graven in gold that, like the Phrygian king Midas, they lose the freedom of movement and thought.

“Politics as spectacle meets the plutocratic temper of the times. The electorate over the past forty years has been taught to believe that the future can be bought instead of made, and the active presence of the citizen has given way to the passive absence of the consumer. A debased electorate asks of their rulers what the rich ask of their servants--comfort us, tell us what to do. The wish to be cared for replaces the will to act, the spirit of freedom trumped by the faith invested in a dear leader. The camera doesn’t lend itself to democracy, but if it’s blind to muddy boots on common ground, it gazes adoringly at polished boots mounted on horseback.”

Is Ph situation any better?

The situation at home is not any better, maybe a little worse. It is also a big-money game. But unlike the American megadonor Paul Singer who does not mind being reported as backing Republican Senator Marco Rubio, the Filipino billionaires who want to own their candidate and ultimately the Philippine government, should their candidate win, have stayed completely undercover and underground, without openly revealing their identity. Their mega donations are never reported, despite the requirements of law.

Some of them do not mind supporting a presidential “candidate” whose constitutional eligibility is being questioned before the Commission on Elections for not being a natural-born Filipino and for lacking the ten-year residency immediately preceding the election. I refer to Sen. Grace Poe Llamanzares, who is also facing a disqualification suit before the Senate Electoral Tribunal on the same grounds of non-citizenship and insufficient residency. Her backers seem to believe that Mrs. Llamanzares, who was born of unknown parents and therefore stateless at birth but became an American citizen before she returned to the Philippines and managed to “reacquire” Philippine citizenship by claiming falsely that she was a former natural-born Filipino, born to the movie actors Fernando Poe Jr. and Susan Roces, could overcome her constitutional ineligibility through the intervention of some foreign powers, who would like to run her candidacy and presidency.

Although she has declared herself as an “independent” candidate, together with her running mate Francis Escudero, she has recently announced the formation of a “senatorial coalition” called Partido ng Galing at Puso. Most members of the coalition are declared candidates of other parties; it is one form of political piracy. The Comelec will have to decide whether this is permissible under the rules of the Comelec or the law. Assuming it is, there will be price to pay for those who have agreed to be part of this coalition, especially if she is disqualified by the SET and/or the Comelec.

Sen. Tito Sotto ( NPC), for one, as a member of the SET, will have to inhibit from voting on the disqualification suit before the Tribunal, which may be up for decision any day now. Sen. Dick Gordon, who stands to benefit from Mrs. Llamanzares’ disqualification, as the No. 13 candidate in the 2013 elections, will have to explain no end why he had agreed to be part of this so-called coalition. Sen. Ralp Recto, Miguel Zubiri, Rep Sherwin Gatchalian, NPC, Susan Ople, NP, Lorna Kapunan, Aksyon Demokratiko, Neri Colminares, Isko Moreno, Roman Romulo, Edu Manzano, and retired Gen. Samuel Pagdilao, most of whom are otherwise deserving candidates, will have to explain to the voters how they completely misread a basic provision of the Constitution, which is so clear even to the merest layman. What exactly did they get in return? Didn’t they see this as self-inflicted harm?

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