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The Politician as a Doctor

An Image of the Credibility Crisis in Chile

The presidential election in Chile is coming, and the candidate leading the polls is the businessman and former president Sebastián Piñera. He preceded the second government of the current president, the doctor Michelle Bachelet. If Piñera is elected once more, two periods of center-left governance — presided over by a doctor (2006-2010 and 2014-2018) — and two periods of right-wing rule — led by an entrepreneur (2010-2014 and 2018-2022) — will have interleaved for 16 years. Within the multiple analyses that can be done on the above, one that proves tantalizing is visual interpretation: we could limn the images each project as political figures.

According to the recent survey of Centro de Estudios Públicos (CEP)[1], for Chileans the most important attributes in a president are: 1. Honesty and reliability; 2. Concern about the real problems of the country; 3. Leadership, and; 4. Ability to make difficult decisions. These qualities seem to faithfully incarnate in the figure of the doctor and, to a lesser extent, in the entrepreneur. Honesty and reliability, in fact, were for a long time the main virtues of Michelle Bachelet, until repeated political scandals, in which her son was involved, broke out in her government.

I will focus, primarily, on the figure of the doctor, considering that, in Chile, several doctors who have ventured into politics have successfully made the photo with apron and stethoscope their campaign image[2]. Without going any further, the president herself has pointed out that in politics wearing the medical apron is “grito y plata,” a phrase that translates as something like “make easy money”[3].

One might think that the image of Michelle Bachelet’s first presidential campaign is an allegory of the white apron, considering that only the white of her jacket is visible (see figure 2). However, she has also explicitly alluded to her status as a doctor, making the analogy: “I am a doctor, I know that wounds heal. I have seen it many times, perhaps that is why I was given the opportunity to prove that my vocation could reach more people.” It should be noted that before becoming president, Michelle Bachelet was Minister of Health, where, in her words, she took the mission to protect all the citizens of Chile from inside; and Minister of Defense, where in addition to protecting the citizens from outside, she collaborated in healing the deepest wound that divided the country, referring to the coup in 1973 (appealing, incidentally, to the historical memory of the country). In effect, she said “and as I saw Chile sick, I also saw it heal”[4]. Bachelet has also repeatedly used her medical apron in public health-related activities.

Beyond Bachelet, there are other medical-politicians, both at the municipal and parliamentary levels, who have made the apron and stethoscope a brand, oftentimes including the word “doctor” or “doctora” next to their names in the party propaganda (see images 3, 4 and 5).

Why appeal to this imaginary? Why make use of this image and not one of closeness to the people? What does it mean to be a doctor in Chile?

According to the Ministry of Education’s website mifuturo.cl, a medical career in Chile has a formal duration of 14 semesters, that is to say, 7 years. Additionally, tuition costs total more than 3.000.000 Chilean pesos per year (US$ 4,478) in all the universities where it is taught, and 48% of the students come from paid private schools. Also, one year after graduation, they earn, on average, almost 2.000.000 pesos per month before tax (US$ 2,985). Those who enter, and those who leave, the profession therefore constitute an elite in the country[5].

Medicine is one of the most longstanding disciplines, beginning its formal education two decades after the independence of Chile, and giving rise to the formation of the University of Chile, the first university of the country, in 1842[6].

Consequently, medicine is a traditional career, requires many years of study and is one of the best paid. It produces and maintains an economic elite, but also an epistemological elite. Unlike other well-paid careers, however, medicine is associated with vocation, helping others, serving, humanity, philanthropy and altruism. Therefore, people do not see doctors as distant, quite the opposite.

This recalls the three pure types of legitimacy of the authorities which Max Weber illuminates in his 1919 essay “Politics as a Vocation.” According to Weber, there are at least three reasons that give legitimacy to the domination of men over men: traditional legitimacy, based on custom, like patriarchs and patrimonial princes of yore; the authority of the charism, based on grace, heroism or other qualities of a leader, incarnated in demagogues and warlords; and legitimacy based on legality, founded on rationally created rules, such as those exercised by the modern “servant of the state.”

In this way, the doctors are capable of embodying the three pure types: they represent a figure of respect — “it has always been that way,” because of the kind of qualities that are associated with their vocation, their skills and knowledge. That is, the image of the doctor appeals to a respect that a mere “political” candidate probably would not inspire nowadays. The idea and the appearance of the person predominate in the political imagination: what matters is their identity as a doctor — not their policy, nor their identity as a politician.

In Chile, it is common to hear the phrase “como te ven te tratan” (translated as “people take you as you look”). It points to the importance of appearance as an index of value. For example, if you are in a suit, people will treat you better than if you are simply wearing jeans. This collective imaginary can be extrapolated to respect for people with a medical apron because they represent a whole body of values, signifiers of authority and credibility that become one with the people who wear them.

In the case of doctors in Chile this is especially striking, considering that it is usual to hear the word “Diostor,” a concept that combines the words Dios (God) and doctor, and alludes to the idea of the doctor as an almighty being (see images 6 and 7). Although the word pretends to be ironic, it makes clear that the doctor in Chile has, or is believed to have, superior status[7].

Doctors handle science (they handle the truth), the power to heal (they have the power to give solutions) and know the problems of the people (they can speak of suffering with authority). They are gods, of a kind, with their feet on the ground. As long as the credibility crisis in Chilean politics expands, the number of candidates in white aprons will grow; and they will be taken as they look.

Footnotes

[1] According to the sum of the first and second attributes prioritized by the respondents, available here.

[2] It is noteworthy that the image of Sebastián Piñera as an entrepreneur has also been exploited: known for the red jackets with which he dressed all his ministers. In his words, they would be a symbol of “government on the ground”. These jackets rather made them look like a team: they appealed to a group spirit, showing them to be more practical and resolute than the previous government. As the creator of the jackets pointed out: “Of course, the parka (jacket) gives you the feeling of work, of doing things, not sitting in an office” (see image 1), available here.

[3] Available here.

[4] Available here.

[5] Consider that the minimum wage in Chile barely exceeds 250.000 pesos (US$ 373). Data on the medical career are available here.

[6] Available here.

[7] Likewise, there was also a section of a humor program titled “The dostor” (with the word doctor intentionally incorrect), a doctor of dubious quality who responds to the questions of his patients to their diagnoses by appealing to his authority and asking: “Let’s see, who is the dostor?”, available here.

Beatriz Vega Elizondo

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