To understand Philippine democracy, one should go back to the original model upon which it was built. And that is America’s democracy. Philippine democracy is an imperfect replica of the deeply flawed 19th-century American political system.
The arc of anarchy, violence, and prejudice hovering above America is a sobering reminder of the fragile foundations of our democratic checks and balances. This is especially true in light of the passage of a series of consequential laws amid the ongoing lockdown across the country, from new restrictions on “fake news” to the new campaign against “terrorism.”
Even the best laws can produce dangerous unintended consequences in an atmosphere of democratic decay. If brazen abuse of power can take place in a country as wealthy and a democracy as old as America’s, then one wonders about the fragilities and vulnerabilities of its postcolonial heirs.
During his fateful visit to early-19th century America, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was enchanted by how he “saw more than America” but the very “image of democracy itself.” Traumatized by his homeland’s revolutionary terror, Tocqueville devoted the halcyon days of his youth to understanding the effervescence of American democracy.
In contrast to post-revolutionary France, he witnessed a country where “the great revolution” of democracy took place “without having experienced the revolution itself,” since the pursuit of liberty “has been the most peaceful and the most complete.” In one of his most famous passages, Tocqueville underscored how “nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions,” which determined both the “direction to public opinion” and the “tenor to the laws.”
In short, a vibrant American middle class and civil society was the greatest secret of democracy. But, far from succumbing to the naïve bathos of an uninitiated tourist, Tocqueville also warned of the “tyranny of majority” in a democracy. The young aristocrat feared how the “empire of democracy,” namely majority opinion based on unfounded prejudice, could lead to democratic oppression and arbitrary power.
Almost two centuries later, President Donald Trump’s worst instincts, and his exclusionary right-wing populist agenda, represent a form of “tyranny of plurality.”
The American populist rose to power, and has stayed his course, despite having among the lowest average approval ratings (barely hitting 50 percent) and winning millions of votes less than his 2016 competitor. And yet, he has translated a plurality-based democratic mandate into a majoritarian agenda at the expense of minorities.
What has given rise to and sustained Trump’s populism is the collapse of “general equality of conditions,” with leading economists such as Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty warning of 19th-century levels of inequality.
To be fair, Tocqueville hoped that America’s dark side, which culminated in a bloody civil war, could be checked by fair and independent courts. Though the judicial branch has little sway over “movements of the majority,” he argued, it can still “correct the aberrations of democracy” and “succeed in checking and directing them.”
Alas, we are now witnessing the rapid decay and brazen politicization of American judicial institutions, most poignant during Brett Kavanaugh’s fraught appointment to the country’s highest court.
Back home, populism won in 2016 also based on a plurality (barely 39 percent of the votes), thanks to a hopelessly divided liberal-
moderate opposition. But unlike America, we never had “general equality of conditions,” as persistent inequality poisoned the very foundations of our democracy.
And as for our judiciary, it has increasingly been packed by the President’s appointees. And, when it comes to Congress, one wonders how far our lawmakers are willing to go to check Mr. Duterte’s worst instincts, similar to Republicans in the US legislature.
What’s at stake are our democratic aspirations. Even a cursory look at the operationalization of the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, especially against “fake news,” raises questions about the unintended consequences of the new anti-terrorism bill on our fundamental freedoms. A major concern is the precariously broad definition of “terrorism,” which reportedly covers any attempt to “intimidate the general public” or “create an atmosphere to spread a message of fear.”
One wonders if our “democracy” was ever built for us, ordinary folk. As the late Benedict Anderson observed, our American colonizers “installed, by stages, a political regime, modelled on their own, which turned out, perhaps to their own surprise, to be perfectly adapted to the crystallizing oligarchy’s needs.”
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