What is democracy to us

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Jose M. Montelibano

I must admit that the political dynamics of the United States are fast approaching a crescendo. The impeachment inquiry of Congress aimed at President Donald Trump is hugging the international news scene and I cannot help but watch from afar. The present controversy is both none of our business and clearly our business as well. When the world’s superpower is caught in its own low-intensity conflict that seems to be at a critical stage, the rest of the world feels the tremors, too.

If we are observant enough, we are being treated to a live political and historical lesson, complete with the drama of personalities that rule the world. Everyone can be a student watching the giants play and learn from their performance. It used to be that secrecy was a major ingredient in the art of war, and should still be, but with a whole world as an audience, secrecy is, at best, transient. Technology greatly favors transparency although the arrogant powerful struggle to defy what is now a reality.

The Internet has wired the entire world and the few stragglers in isolation hardly matter. Mt. Everest has become like a tourist climbing experience and the world monitors how ice chunks melt in the Artics. Secrecy is no more as a standard military or political maneuver. Its rarity more truly makes it a most valuable and difficult art. And because technology is ultra snoopy and fast, what used to be the content of astute historians is now live news. The rest of the world may not be able to substantially intervene in the internal affairs of the great nations and their leaders, but these same great nations and their leaders are nevertheless actors in a public global stage.

Most of the world need not be taught about what authoritarianism is. That is the long history of all societies. It is a common experience of human DNA. What is new in human and societal consciousness is the shift from centralized authority to democracy. Yes, democracy is by now a common word used quite profusely, and loosely, but it is more theory than reality. From the beginning of a time of human communities and societies, governance has been authoritarian and only might, not right, made it persevere. It is hard to shake off that mindset, especially since human greed and lust for power are more common than human wisdom.

The few nations that began the sustained experiment of democracy as the bedrock of their societies’ fundamental value are the current teachers of the world of nations. But since they themselves are only in the experimental stage (they were the most recent colonizers of the rest of the world), they are not perfect examples, much less perfect teachers. Yet, the subject matter they teach has a powerful appeal to all societies. Indeed, freedom is its own appeal. The human spirit simply seeks it at a certain point.

The most wonderful thoughts are driven by almost spiritual phrases like “all men are created equal”, “liberty, equality, fraternity”, and “of the people, by the people, for the people”. These thoughts are so powerfully attractive that even despots use them to attract and build their army of supporters. Authoritarians do not go around telling their audiences that they want to rule absolutely and everyone must follow, like it or not. One does not sell dictatorships upfront. Would-be dictators sell the story that they and they alone can protect the people against the threats against them, that they alone care enough to fight and die to defend the aggrieved and deliver them from their urgent worries, and that they have the determination to lead the people to the promised land against whoever or whatever. You do not sell authoritarianism by explaining what it is. You cover it with a more acceptable façade or you just take power by superior force.

Unfortunately for Donald Trump, he cannot just become authoritarian like the other authoritarian leaders he has publicly admired like Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, or Kim Jong-un of North Korea. He cannot even use superior force because the military or police forces of the United States will most probably not follow him. He has to use other mechanisms of control as established in the government of his nation – which means Congress and the Judiciary. And even then, he cannot expect these other branches of government to be totally subservient as their equivalents in Russia, China, and North Korea. It does not mean that Trump does not have the interests of the United States in mind, it does not mean that his preferences will not translate to a more powerful America, but authoritarianism is already what Americans fought against their old monarchies in Europe and what the founding fathers of the new nation did not choose to be their vision of governance.

For over 200 hundred years, the United States has struggled to establish, maintain and enhance its democratic institutions. It does not mean that they did not go through bouts of authoritarianism locally and nationally in that short history, but they persevered rather than backslide. They went through world wars when their presidents and military had extraordinary powers, but they chose the time and again to pursue a new way called democracy. And it does not guarantee that they will not have hiccups and more temptations towards centralized authority. Still, the mainstream vision of their version of democracy is not challenged enough to change, not at least by Donald Trump, not by the way things are going today.

Will Trump be impeached and removed? I do not know. I am very interested to witness the contest, though, and learn from the whole process. What America does is not necessarily what others, including the Philippines, will follow, but it will be what others will watch and learn from. It is not for us to make judgments but, at the very least, provoke us to reexamine what kind of freedom and democracy we must pursue ourselves and the Filipino generations to come.

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