On Nov. 9, 2016 the eligible voters of the US went to the polls with high expectations that the electoral exercise would produce results conducive to the maintenance of good governance. After all, didn’t the great President Abraham Lincoln say, at Gettysburg, that a democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people? And didn’t the equally great Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill say that democracy, though a bad form of government, was better than all the other forms of government?
The winner of that election—by less than one-half of all the votes cast—Donald J. Trump, should have been accepted by the American people in true democratic fashion. Yet today the US is a deeply divided country, America’s policies are questioned and challenged at home and abroad and there is widespread characterization of President Trump as the worst individual ever to preside over the White House.
Looking at the US situation, students of political theory are talking today about the hijacking of US democracy. They say that the form of government that has prevailed in the US for over two centuries has been hijacked.
Can democracy be hijacked? The answer is Yes. Witness what is hijacking in the Land of the Free. And—9,000 miles on the other side of the Pacific—witness what is happening in this country. In the US and in this country one sees disruption, overturning and displacement in so many areas of the two countries’ lives—in official attitudes, in public conduct, in policies and in the pattern of relationships, among others.
Both in the US and in that country, longtime friends have been converted into enemies and longtime enemies are being welcomed as friends. The civilities and courtesies of yore have been replaced by insults, profanity and offensiveness. Bipartisanism and willingness to accommodate have given way to hubris and truculence.
In the musical play “The King and I,” Siam’s King Mongkut was driven to say, “Is a puzzlement.” Were he alive today in this country or in the US, he surely would have asked tastily, “What the hell is going on?” What, indeed?
How does democracy get hijacked? More specifically, how have American democracy and Philippine democracy been hijacked?
The answer lies in a three-word phrase: checks and balances. In a totalitarian society there are no checks and balances; only the will of a Hitler or a Stalin or a Kim Jong Un counts. But there is supposed to be a system of checks and balances in a democracy. The distribution of power among the branches of a democracy government are supposed to be more or less balanced, and each of the branches is supposed to provide a checking influence on any abusive tendencies of the other branches.
The hijacking of democracy occurs when the system of checks and balances malfunctions or completely ceases to function. When that happens, when balance becomes imbalance and checking becomes no-checking, corruption, oppression and inefficiency become the hallmarks of governmental conduct.
A malfunctioning or breakdown of the checks-and-balances system can occur in one of several ways. It can occur when the legislative branch becomes supine toward or subservient to the Executive branch (as in highly partisan Republican memberships of the two houses of the US Congress or in the “supermajority” of the present House of Representatives in this country). When President Duterte barks an order and the Speaker of the Lower House puts his tail between his legs, you know that Philippine democracy is in deep trouble.
A malfunctioning or breakdown of the checks-and-balances system can also occur when the branch charged with determining the constitutionality of laws—the judiciary—operated on the basis of fear or partisanship. This is particularly true of the apex of the judiciary, the Supreme Court. The excesses and abuses of the Executive and the legislature can be checked by a Supreme Court whose members do not make decisions on the basis of their having been appointed by a President of a particular party or ideology.
It can be argued that, whereas the Executive and Congress can conduct themselves abusively, it is the judiciary—the Supreme Court in particular—that in the end determines whether the rule of law continues to exist. The Supreme Court on the quo warranto complaint against former Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno has left doubt on the minds of Filipinos as to the independence of the nation’s highest tribunal. In the US, many people believe that President Trump’s recent appointment of Judge Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is in preparation for the numerous cases against him that are likely to be brought up to the Court.
Have Philippine democracy and American democracy been hijacked? They have. How should Filipinos and Americans deal with their situations? If the source of their common problem was the breakdown of the checks-and-balances system, the answer, logically, is the system’s restoration.