Populism as Witchcraft: notes from the Philippines
7 December 2020
In my green years after graduating college, I interned at several development NGOs in the Philippines mainly doing research on agrarian reform. In the course of this work, I lived for two months with a community of landless farmers in the province of Bulacan north of Manila. It was here that I encountered an exorcism. Cora was showing me around the village when we came upon a small crowd of people gathered around a young woman. She was seated on a chair, her body leaning forward, her face twisted into a grimace. She appeared to be growling under her breath. The older man seated beside her was busy arranging several vials on a table. He was the mangkukulam or witch doctor. He addressed the spirit said to be possessing the young woman.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“We are many,” the woman replied in a guttural voice.
“Name yourselves,” he commanded, and she proceeded to list the names of village deceased. She named 23 people.
The mangkukulam, in an effort to verify her claim, asked her to tell him how the people possessing her had died. She did, one by one. Mang Senen, heart attack. Mang Nestor, cirrhosis of the liver. Ate Irma, pneumonia.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Cora concluded. “She’s possessed.” The woman described how an infant had died. His death, until that moment, had been a mystery. His mother had left him for a few minutes only to return and find him already dead. He had not even been sick. The possessed woman said that a diwata or dryad had come across the baby unattended and whisked away its soul to its home inside the trees. The infant’s mother, who was present, burst into tears. The diwata revealed that it had possessed this woman because its home, an ancient balete tree at the edge of the village, had been cut down. It had nowhere else to go. The mangkukulam attempted to coax the diwata to vacate the woman’s body. He lifted her shirt at the back and began to massage her with scented oils from his various vials. All the while he uttered incantations I found incomprehensible. The woman let out a long croak every now and then. This lasted for several hours.
Cora and I eventually left to continue our tour of the village. As soon as we were some distance from the crowd, Cora turned to me and said, “You have to find somewhere else to stay.” I already had a place to stay, Edgar’s. He had the biggest house in the village and could offer me a room, not just floor space. Cora urged me to stay elsewhere. Edgar had been the one who cut down the balete tree. He was planning to build an addition to his house, and it stood in the way. Cora was afraid that I would be targeted by diwata. I laughed off her concerns and insisted that I would be fine. That night Edgar showed me my room. It was narrow and stacked with blankets made from a coarse material. The bed was a bamboo cot draped with blankets. I fell asleep immediately.
I woke up in the middle of the night with a distinct heaviness on my chest. Groggy and unable to breathe, my first thought was that a diwata was sitting on me. I made to push him off. I dispelled the thought almost as soon as it had formed and reasoned that the blankets had triggered my asthma. In any case, my chest felt unbearably tight and I couldn’t breathe. I stumbled out of the room, out of the house, and into the beginnings of the forest around Edgar’s house. I found a patch of fragrant plants (they smelled like eucalyptus) and sat down. Gradually, my breath returned. I went back to the room and, in moments, my chest constricted again. Again I had to seek relief in the eucalyptus patch. I tried once more and the same thing happened. Eventually, I settled in the patch and fell asleep. The next morning I told Cora what had happened, my fancy of being harassed by a malicious diwata, and I laughed at myself. She looked at me in horror and said, “You’re not sleeping there tonight.” I agreed.
Collective Belief as Generative
In A General Theory of Magic ( 1972), Marcel Mauss makes the argument that magic “works” because everyone within a particular social milieu believes that it does. They adhere as a group to the ideas and feelings associated with magic. Collective belief produces a “mental atmosphere” within which magical explanations are favored, contingencies assimilated as proofs, and contradictory evidence denied or discounted. Within this atmosphere, “magic is believed and not perceived” (p. 97). I would suggest that political belief is not unlike magical belief, and that we can learn something from my “catching,” fleetingly, villagers’ belief in pangkukulam (folk magic). In this essay, I will explore the notion of belief being located not so much in the heads of individuals as “in the air” of a particular social milieu and hence “contagious.” I believe this notion helps us understand why support for populist leaders can prove so durable and resistant to discrediting information. It helped me understand why the urban poor in Manila largely stood fast behind a leader who had done so little to improve their material situation.
Joseph “Erap” Estrada was president of the Philippines from 1998 to early 2001. The presidential term is ordinarily six years, but Estrada only lasted two and a half. He was ousted from office by a largely middle-class demonstration a million strong and lasting four days. The demonstrators objected to Estrada’s vulgar behavior while in office—his cronyism; brazen indulgence in drinking, gambling, and womanizing; and frequent late-night bacchanalia—and his apparent incompetence when it came to matters of government. In late 2000, Estrada was accused of receiving kickbacks from an illegal gambling game called jueteng and impeached. The trial’s miscarriage triggered the demonstrations, which came to be known as Edsa 2. Following his ouster, Estrada was arrested and eventually tried and convicted of plunder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but summarily pardoned by his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The urban poor in Manila continued to support Estrada throughout these events. When the government moved to arrest him, they gathered in front of his house in order to prevent it. When this failed, they took to the streets. The demonstration, proclaimed Edsa 3, was larger and lasted longer than the one that had deposed him, but it was ultimately dispersed by the combined forces of the police and military.
The urban poor’s support for Estrada is puzzling for several reasons. I mentioned that he had been ousted, arrested, and convicted of plunder. Further, traditional opinion leaders, including the Catholic Church, former presidents, and even many urban poor NGOs, opposed him vehemently. Finally, as president, the evidence suggests that Estrada had been bad for the poor with regard to their housing, health, and poverty outcomes. Despite these strikes against him, many of the slum residents I interviewed not only supported Estrada but felt bound to him personally.
In other work (Garrido 2017), I account for Estrada’s appeal among the poor in Manila by focusing on what they saw in him.
I argued that they supported Estrada because they perceived him to be sincere, someone who truly cared about them in a field of politicians who merely use them for electoral gain. They saw him as sincere not because of his patronage, his celebrity, his political machinery, or any particular populist tactic, but because of the quality of his political performance. What the poor recognized, specifically, was a pattern of conduct distinguished by the negation of stigma. This conduct resonated because it was seen as part of a coherent performance. I argued, finally, that belief in Estrada’s sincerity was articulated, strengthened, and spread through social interaction. I expand upon this last point here and reframe my data around an account of corroboration. I focus on the interactions among supporters rather than on their relationship to Estrada as a group. My concern is with the durability not the logic of populist support. I will argue that this durability is the product of the particular mental atmosphere of many slum areas in Manila – an atmosphere created, as I will show, by the dynamics of corroboration on the ground.
Dynamics of Corroboration
Corroboration. When I spoke with informants in groups, they tended to echo each other’s feelings about Estrada. They responded to their neighbors’ accounts of Estrada’s sincerity by affirming them and by reciting their own accounts. The effect of such corroboration was to make belief in Estrada’s sincerity a social fact. By invoking it, informants affirmed their solidarity as Estrada supporters.
I was visiting Wilma in a slum area along Zusuarrigue Street. She had prepared a meal for me (noodles and Coke). When she brought out the food, I joked that we should invite Estrada to join us. Wilma’s friend Annie, struck by the idea, interjected:
“Hoy, hoy, hoy, Erap used his hands. He just washed them; not with soap, just with water. Then he ate with his hands. I saw him do it in Lucban.”
“I saw him do the same thing in Romblon,” Wilma said excitedly. “He just washed with water.”
“It was seafood, and there was fresh fish. That’s why he used his hands.”
“He crushed the tomato like this [Wilma pretends to squeeze a tomato with her fingers] and put it all over the fish.”
“Like this,” I asked, squeezing my own imaginary tomato.
“He really ate with his hands,” Annie continued. “It’s true. That’s why I love him! My neighbors laughed at me. ‘What happened to your eyes?’ [they asked]. It’s because I felt sorry for Erap. They kicked him out of Malacañang. When I watched it on TV, I had to have a towel with me. I cried and cried.”
“Me too,” Wilma said dolefully. “All of us in Romblon.”
Annie and Wilma observed Estrada eat separately. They watched his ouster separately. By sharing accounts, however, something happened. Their feelings build up: something as mundane as Estrada eating with his hands had made an impression on someone else; Estrada’s ouster had made another person just as despondent. The discovery that their feelings extend beyond themselves and may be widely shared solidifies their adherence to a particular perception of Estrada.
This perception, being corroborated, becomes more real for them; that is, it appears objective. This type of interaction multiplied many times over forges a common sense about Estrada. His love for the poor comes to be taken for granted. While visiting Annie and Wilma, for instance, I met a man with a goiter, his neck swollen to the size of a melon. The man insisted that I take a picture of his face and deliver it to Estrada. He was absolutely certain that Estrada, once made aware of his condition, would help him; that, in the thick of a presidential campaign, with only a picture and the name of a slum, Estrada would find the man and help him.
Conversion. We might also speak of conversion as a collective process. As Mauss pointed out, people become witches in a milieu where witchcraft can be taken for granted. Similarly, the urban poor are predisposed to recognize Estrada’s sincerity in a context where it’s taken as given. For example, Gina’s friend, Lilian, had been going on about Estrada’s appeal when I looked to her for confirmation.
“I didn’t vote for Estrada,” she admitted. “But I saw for myself. I saw that even if he were high up he would lower himself. He would bring himself down to the lowest person.”
“When he visited?”
“Yes. He would reach down to the lowest person. That’s why we love him and why he has so many supporters.”
Gina claims that she didn’t support Estrada until “I saw for myself” that he was, in fact, devoted to the poor. This makes it sound as if her support were purely an individual choice, something she came to after evaluating the evidence. I would suggest that her “conversion” was mediated by her milieu. Being surrounded by believers, Gina was prone to believe. She may as well have said: I saw for myself that what everybody says about Estrada is true. We might understand this to mean: I saw it because everybody says it’s true.
Censure. This pressure is not always so subtle. It may be exerted overtly and unmistakably felt. For example, I was interviewing Noel and his boyfriend Gem in San Roque. We were seated on stools along one side of a common area. A man passing by overheard Noel describe Estrada as corrupt. The man, visibly upset, interrupted our conversation.
“Prove it! Prove it!” he demanded.
“Stop,” Noel said.
“Prove it! Prove it!”
We tried to ignore him and continue with the interview but he remained standing over us.
“Prove it! Can you prove that Estrada stole? You’re an idiot!”
“Erap stole!” Noel exploded. “There’s a case against him!”
“Not anymore,” Gem said quietly. It had come out in the interview that the couple disagreed on Estrada. Noel looked crestfallen.
“It’s because you’re crazy,” the man said. “Crazy!” He turned to me. “Don’t listen to him. He’s crazy. Ask anyone around here.” He turned around abruptly and walked away.
I tried to pick up where he left off, but before I could, the man, unable to help himself, came back.
“Don’t listen to that guy! You won’t get anything from him. Don’t hang around this mental case.” To Noel he yelled, as if shooing away a dog, “Hoy!”
Another passerby, attracted by the fuss, intervened. “You’re not the one being interviewed,” she reprimanded the man. “It’s those two.”
The man walked away. The woman muttered something under her breath and also left.
The man came back. “Erap was the best president we’ve ever had,” he said. “That’s who I’m voting for.”
“If he’s so great, why was he put in jail?” Noel retorted.
The man snorted and walked away, for good this time.
“If he was so great,” Noel repeated meekly, “he shouldn’t have been put in jail, right?”
Negative pressure ranging from mild disapproval to censure has the effect of disciplining opinion. These transactions make it known that dissent comes at a cost. It invites rebuke and may even threaten one’s belonging in the group.
This is not to say, of course, that people did not dissent from the “public opinion.” Of the 104 people I interviewed, nine did not support Estrada. (Another nine claimed not to bother with politics or felt unqualified to give an opinion.) Of the nine dissenting, some never liked Estrada, seeing him as having been unfit to become president in the first place. Others had grown disenchanted with him. They were persuaded by the evidence against him and had concluded that he was indeed corrupt. “Look, I’m poor,” Jonathan said. “But I saw that what he did was wrong. The money he took from jueteng, it didn’t come from the government. It came from the poor.” “They proved in court that he was corrupt,” Manuel reasoned, “and so the people who ousted him were right.” For these two, whatever authority Estrada once commanded had evaporated. He was no longer exceptional, the real thing among fakes, but just another politician. Given the extent of discrediting information on Estrada—money bags delivered to his house, mansions built for mistresses, secret bank accounts—the real question is why there was so little dissent within slum areas.
Part of the answer, I’ve argued, is that within these milieus support for Estrada has been consolidated. Dynamics of corroboration—not just the ones I’ve described but also others I’ve missed—have imbued belief in Estrada’s sincerity with authority. These dynamics figure in everyday conversations about Estrada. They convey pressure serving to bring individual opinions into line and to elevate the collective representation of Estrada as sincere to the status of social fact. Even though dissent may have a solid evidentiary basis, it lacks the same social support and encounters resistance at every turn.
Social interaction does not always corroborate belief. It may have the opposite effect. Take Evelyn’s case. She lives in the San Roque slum but attends a prayer group in the Santa Rita church located inside Phil-Am Homes, the middle-class subdivision across the street. She complained about how the Phil-Am members of the group would make fun of Estrada. They would discount the political opinion of San Roque’s residents as misinformed. “Our views were opposite,” she reported. Evelyn would take it upon herself to defend Estrada. She would argue with the other members so vehemently, she said, that she developed a reputation as siga, a tough guy. In this case, rather than bring about agreement, social interaction had the effect of entrenching disagreement. The difference between this case and the others is that the interaction here is occurring between people belonging to different social groups, the urban poor and middle class. These are groups whose typical spaces, the slum and gated subdivision, represent different social milieus and whose members often find themselves in contention over urban space.
Let me suggest that the dynamics of corroboration are predicated on social belonging. They presume a context where people are receptive to social pressure, a common ground of experience and interpretation. I’ve referred to this ground as a social milieu following Mauss and Durkheim. Social milieu doesn’t refer to a physical place so much as a social group in the classic sociological sense of the term, that is, as defined by interaction and possessed of a “we-feeling.” This concept, in some form, is indispensable to sociological analysis (see also lifeworld, commonsense world, and field). A milieu is placebound only insofar as groups tend to collect in space and spatial dynamics such as propinquity tend to aid in group formation. The inhabitants of a milieu can be said to share a social situation, stock of knowledge, and interpretive schemas.
For the most part, slum residents occupy a position of relative poverty, informality, and precarity. They regularly experience discrimination on the basis of their status as poor people and squatters. They feel exploited by political leaders. These conditions encourage a degree of cohesiveness among residents. They give rise to a particular logic of populist support. People outside this milieu don’t share or have difficulty understanding this logic. The ideas and feelings at stake lack force, and thus the representations involved prove weightless. They may float to mind—like my fancy of being sat upon by a vengeful diwata—before being discredited. Or they may strike outsiders as misbegotten to begin with, as in Evelyn’s case. Phil-Am residents summarily dismissed the notion of Estrada’s sincerity. It is easier for them to believe that the urban poor have been taken in by glamor and empty tactics than it is to imagine a reality in which Estrada’s appeals actually resonate.
Explanations of populist support generally focus on supporters reacting to leaders. Specifically, they emphasize the qualities of leaders that induce people to support them: divisive rhetoric, spectacular tactics, and personal attributes or affectations signaling social proximity. Belief is conceived to be an individual act and populist support, therefore, simply the sum of individuals assenting to a particular leader. In contrast, I have argued that belief is a collective act and that populist support is more than just a matter of people reacting individually to leaders. It is also, crucially, a matter of their interactions among themselves as a group. This interaction shapes populist support and gives it weight. It grows beyond individual and household opinion and takes on the proportion of a collective representation, that is, it becomes a social fact. As such, it appears objective and even imperative. Thus, despite myself, the thought that I was the object of witchcraft could impress itself upon me with the force of truth. I could feel my whole body seized by it. I have argued that this force is collectively generated and anchored in social milieus – in places, groups, and other networks of belonging.
I am not saying that dynamics of corroboration make support for Estrada utterly compulsive for everyone within the same social milieu. Even when substantial ground is shared, people are never socially identical. They belong to multiple, “intersecting” (that is, non-overlapping) groups, as Simmel argued. My informants don’t just belong to a particular slum area but a particular family, they come from a particular province, they participate in particular organizations, they’re engaged in a particular line of work, they have different sets of friends (many of whom come from outside the slum), they’re married to different people—all of which constitute sources of identity that pull them in different directions. Individual personality also plays a role. Total consensus is therefore unlikely.
Nevertheless, collective dynamics do make a difference. They endow belief with authority and steel it against threats to its credibility. By taking these dynamics into account, we are better able to understand how people, us included, can believe in witchcraft and other patent yet forceful fabrications – that the recently concluded presidential election was rigged and defrauded, for instance. These charges may be uncorroborated by evidence, but I would venture to say that they are strongly corroborated socially within certain milieus. The inhabitants of these milieus interact with one another physically and virtually, a mental atmosphere takes shape, and certain ways of looking at the world acquire facticity. We might also bear in mind that our own beliefs are subject to the same process; our truth, however self-evident to us, derives in part—perhaps in very large part—from the forces generated by social belonging.
Garrido, Marco. 2017. “Why the Poor Support Populism: The Politics of Sincerity in Metro Manila.” American Journal of Sociology. 123(3): 1-39.
Mauss, Marcel.  1972. A General Theory of Magic. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
 The evidence of Estrada’s corruption was widely reported and so the issue is not a lack of information.
Marco Garrido is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago. His work has appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, Qualitative Sociology, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research and he is the author of The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila (UChicago Press, 2019).