Populism and the Pill

In recent months, “populism” has become an international buzzword as the de-facto explanation for unanticipated political events. Used triumphantly or with resentment, the term is now thrown around with such frequency that its meaning — much like the terms “conservative” and “liberal” — is rarely reflected upon. Rather than being viewed as elastic terms whose exact implications and meanings change depending on context, these words are perceived as static identities, all to often thoughtlessly applied to arbitrary frameworks.

In its most direct usage, “populism” is defined as “representing the common people.” Ideally, a populist agenda voices the concerns of the majority, but what exactly the will of the people may be is dependent on the time and place in question. William Jennings Bryan’s populist platform in the 19th century was largely based on advocacy for silver coinage, a topic with little relation to modern populist agendas. Even so, observers have been quick to characterize the current global political climate as one of a populist resurgence, often using the term with hugely negative connotations: Britain’s decision to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s unanticipated ascent of the presidency, for example, are seen as indications that the West is crumbling at the hands of populism. Trump claimed to be the voice of the “silent majority,” directly attaching himself to the notion of representing widespread, secret desires — a platform decidedly not adopted by Hillary Clinton. In every such proposal to overhaul the status quo, the source of discontent is rooted in the idea that political and administrative control has been handed to the unknown. The 2017 brand of populism is decidedly right-wing, and its widespread manifestations are worrisome.

Despite the generalizations made about populism in the modern context — namely, about its roots in xenophobia and a desire for economic stability — an underlying religious fuel cannot be considered one of these foundational aspects of the populist movement writ large. Moreover, as evidenced by the policies of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte — who governs an especially devout nation — religion and women’s reproductive rights do not have to be antagonistic in the face of populism.

In the United States, one troubling manifestation of populism has been a revived attack on women’s reproductive rights — one that extends far beyond Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape. The Republican Party campaigned on the platform of defunding Planned Parenthood, which provides essential, affordable, and life-saving contraceptive care for women (including, but certainly not limited to abortion services). In reality, all federal money going to the Planned Parenthood health centers comes in the form of Medicaid reimbursements, not line-item budget designations. Additionally, none of this relatively small amount of money goes towards abortions, even though the Republican Party’s campaign against Planned Parenthood focused exclusively on its abortion services. Over the next four years, the GOP’s intended eradication of the Affordable Care Act would also likely see the disappearance of the contraceptive mandate while the likely confirmation of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court could weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, criminalizing abortion nationwide. Trump has already reinstituted the “Mexico City Policy,” which prohibits US funding from benefiting international health organizations that even discuss abortion as a family-planning option, an ominous prelude to what may follow.

The motivating factors behind this so-called “war on women” are largely religious in nature. Despite an alleged separation of church and state, Christian religious institutions continue to wield an enormous amount of influence in American politics, and many of these institutions hold the belief that contraception and abortion should be illegal. In short, right-wing, religious ideals have become deeply intertwined with the populist movement in the United States. But this relationship is hardly global.

When he ran for president of the Philippines in 2016, the media dubbed Duterte the “Donald Trump of Asia,” drawing strong comparisons between the leaders’ brash, strongman personas, populist agendas, unprecedented victories, and, interestingly enough, their shared affinity for beauty pageants. Both leaders have had rocky starts to their tenures: Trump’s contentious travel ban and Duterte’s highly controversial drug war, which has seen the systematic murder of over 6,000 individuals since June 2016, are two notable examples. However, on the issue of women’s health, the two diverge considerably.

The Philippines is an intensely religious nation. A whopping 65% of the population is Roman Catholic, almost 18% practice other forms of Christianity, and just over 5% is Muslim. Just as is the case with many Americans, these beliefs are hardly casual. While global teen pregnancy rates have drastically declined over the past 20 years (US teen pregnancy rates are now at a historic low due to increased access to contraceptives and better sex education), the Philippines have not followed this trend. For every ten girls between age 15 and 19, one is a mother — a staggeringly high statistic. Teen pregnancy — and its rapid increase — is nothing short of a national emergency in the Philippines. But personal anecdotes from Filipino women make this trend appear unsurprising. One 15-year old woman interviewed by the New York Times remarked that she did not know that sex resulted in pregnancy until she ultimately had her child — a revelation that highlights the dire lack of sex education in the Philippines. Opposition leaders have promised to halt the distribution of condoms in schools even while mothers — many incredibly young — readily concede that they cannot afford to provide for the children they currently have, let alone any more. Yet, because of their faith and the centrality of the Catholic Church in Filipino life, the same women are reluctant to turn to abortion. 

Enter Rodrigo Duterte, who, as any populist strongman vowing to eradicate all problems plaguing his nation would, immediately sought to confront teen pregnancy. He slid into tricky territory in January when he signed an executive order that would implement a 2012 law — one that the church had stifled for five years. This law mandates that the government provide free contraceptive care and reproductive health services to millions of low-income women. Although this law was passed half a decade ago, Duterte viewed his executive order as necessary in the face of the incredible power exhibited by religious lobbying groups, and a Supreme Court that was able to halt its implementation. The Philippine president claims that this is not just a move to eliminate teen pregnancy, but also one to rejuvenate the economy, spur development, and reduce poverty as well as lift up women and children. As the United States’s populist leader attempts to destroy Planned Parenthood, his Filipino counterpart is forcing the government to create the virtual equivalent. The irony is astounding.

Duterte’s reckless nature and the general tendency of populist leaders to intimidate antagonists have caused some to question the goodwill behind his actions. Duterte, who was raised Catholic but now does not identify with any particular religious group, has arguably built his career around countering the church and its influence. Perhaps this comes from his allegation that he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest during his childhood. Regardless, it is indisputable that Duterte has been at odds with the Philippine’s most established religion for most, if not all, of his career. Whether his efforts to expand access to contraceptives and women’s healthcare are truly well-intentioned or just the latest riff to anger the church is hotly debated. Prior to this particular executive action, Duterte had been heavily criticized by the church for his contentious and violent war on drugs as well as his history of demeaning bishops and the Catholic establishment with incredibly harsh language. In January, he referred to priests as “sons of b*tches,” “monkeys,” and “pedophiles” — nothing new for the man who, while mayor of Davao, described the Catholic Church as being “full of sh*t.”

As the United States’s populist leader attempts to destroy Planned Parenthood, his Filipino counterpart is forcing the government to create the virtual equivalent. The irony is astounding.

Duterte’s mayoral tenure is a testament to his revolutionary stance on women’s healthcare and diversion from the church. His nationwide war on drugs, which the church has decried as a “reign of terror,” is merely an expansion of a campaign he led in Davao that he claims was widely successful. From 1988 to 2015, his “Davao Death Squad” murdered over 1,400 criminals and children deemed threats to security and stability. Duterte, in short, is obsessed with law and order. His efforts to increase contraceptive access may just be his version of bringing order to a crisis defined by uncertainty and fear.

Donald Trump’s brand of populism appealed largely to the economically disenfranchised: those feeling neglected at the bottom of American society and blaming their misfortune on the more prosperous. In the context of women’s healthcare, this struggle took shape as a prosperous elite required struggling business owners to, for example, cover the costs of their employees’ birth control and abortion — the latter alleged cost being inaccurate. But Duterte’s support comes from a different demographic. His voter base is comprised largely of what is referred to as the “new middle class” — those who have become wealthier and attained a greater quality of life through a growing technological sector, among other factors. One article generalizes his voter base as the “Uber drivers.” With almost 16 million votes, however, it is safe to assume that some Lyft employees must have strayed across party lines to achieve this remarkable victory. This group of people, lacking the legacy of wealth and financial security that the more established middle class enjoys, sees the lower class and the impoverished, who often inhabit crime-ridden parts of cities that are the target of the war on drugs, as taking away from their success. Duterte’s uncensored, brash description of the poor and disenfranchised has energized and excited the new middle class. Expanding birth control access is a way of limiting the lower class’ influence and “trouble-making” through simple population control.

It seems Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte share few qualities besides their own personal character traits. While they are both considered populist leaders, the contrast in their voter bases also mirrors the divergence in their relationship to the church and women’s healthcare. The one policy area where the two do seem similar is combating drugs and street violence, but it is important to note a key difference: Trump blames these issues on the external (“illegals” or “bad hombres”) while Duterte focuses on the internal (his own Philippine citizens).

The question then becomes, why are these two rulers so often mentioned together when their politics are so fundamentally different? Thus, the underlying struggle of defining populism resurfaces. The Economist, in the wake of Trump’s election, published a piece entitled “What is Populism?” and found it difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Although populism is generally considered to be an anti-establishment movement, the policies it produces often don’t stray too far (or at all) from the status quo, as demonstrated by the institutional Republican Party’s embrace of Donald Trump

Populism is sheer rage. Politics is an angry field by virtue of attempting to grapple with problems plaguing society, but the anger of populism is different because it is expressed in an unfiltered manner. The actual message is largely irrelevant when classifying a movement as populist or not (though, admittedly, in 2017 many populists harbor the same sentiments due simply to common stimuli). It is, in the end, the presentation that matters. Populism should not be seen as a policy or platform; populism is merely a mode of expression with no strings attached that can bring a demagogue like Donald Trump to the American presidency, give power to Rodrigo Duterte as the Filipino counterpart, provide birth control to Filipino women, and be an excuse to deprive American women of reproductive health all at once.