America’s democracy tested

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - January 10, 2021 - 12:00am

The world was stunned to see the chaos and violence that erupted when supporters of President Donald Trump laid siege to the Capitol Building while the US Congress was holding a joint session to count the Electoral College votes, to certify the presidential elections won by president-elect Joe Biden.

Watching the rioters clash with policemen in real-time as they broke through the barricades, smashing windows and climbing up the walls as they breached security and forced their way inside the building, was simply stunning. The protesters knocked over furniture, ransacked the offices and took selfies as they occupied the desks of senators and congressmen – who all had to be evacuated under armed escort and taken to a secure location.

A majority of Americans, and even us diplomats watching the chaos unfold, were all in disbelief because no one ever thought it could happen in America. The last time a siege on the US Capitol happened was over 200 years ago – in August 1814 in fact – when British soldiers burned the Capitol and other buildings including the White House, known then as the Executive Building. The lapse in security resulted in the immediate resignation of Capitol police chief Steven Sund, who said that the violent attack was unlike any he had ever seen in his three decades as a police officer in Washington.

For those of us in the diplomatic corps who are attending the inauguration of president-elect Joe Biden, we are certain security will be even tighter. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fulminated against the “massive failure of institutions, protocols and planning” so clearly, security operations will be even more stringent and meticulous to prevent any repeat of the Jan. 6 attack of the Capitol.

The United States is considered as the oldest democracy in the world, with the democratic system established in 1789 when the US Constitution came into effect. But the siege of the Capitol just goes to show that democracy – no matter how “mature” – is something that all democratic countries cannot take for granted. All kinds of threats – not necessarily from external forces but from within – can come at anytime.

People see the recent events as a wake-up call, with many American friends privately admitting to me that it really shook them to see this happening and thought this could only happen in unstable countries. As Time magazine photojournalist Christopher Lee described it, the chaos and the destruction that ensued demonstrated just how “delicate” American society and democracy is.

In a September 2011 article titled “The Real Birth of American Democracy” written by Joseph Stromberg for Smithsonian Magazine, he said that the lofty ideals of the US Constitution passed their first test in September 1796 when George Washington published his farewell address, “marking one of the first peaceful transfers of power in American history and cementing the country’s status as a stable, democratic state.”

Washington’s letter, published by newspapers across the United States, informed the American public of his intention to step down from office as he would not be seeking a third term as president – paving the way for the current two-term limit that has been enshrined in the Twenty-Second Amendment to the US Constitution.

“The symbolic importance of voluntarily leaving office,” Stromberg stressed, was “important in establishing the values of the quickly maturing American democracy.” National Museum of American History curator emeritus Harry Rubenstein also said that, “Stepping down is unique… It is a powerful statement about Washington and American democracy,” noting how crucial Washington’s decision not to seek a third term was in preserving democracy.

The recent events underscore the fact that even a country like the United States can also be put to the test, bringing to mind Richard Nixon’s farewell speech to the White House staff: “…The greatness comes when you’re really tested… Because only if you’ve been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.”

Indeed, one can only reach the highest of mountains by passing through a great test, in a manner of speaking. And this is also true for other countries like the Philippines, whose system is patterned after the United States.

Our democracy has also been tested in some instances, like the EDSA Two people power in 2001. As I have said on many occasions, EDSA One in 1986 was perhaps the only legitimate people power revolution, but we overdid it in 2001 when a duly-elected president, who garnered an overwhelming number of votes, was removed from office by an illegitimate people power movement.

Looking back, many Filipinos now see the folly of resorting to extra-constitutional measures when the impeachment proceeding against Joseph Estrada was cut short. This resulted in what has been described by Time magazine as “mob rule” – effectively undermining the rule of law because the impeachment process was not allowed to push through.

Clearly, we have to strengthen our institutions and make sure that the democratic system is able to stand up to the test, so to speak. While there may be some flaws in the system, we should let the process take its due course. The old saying is clear: Those who refuse to learn from the mistakes made in the past are bound to repeat them.

Majority of Filipino-Americans are among the most law-abiding citizens in this country and are much appreciated for their contribution, recognized for their hard work, especially our health workers. We take pride in the many Filipino-Americans and workers living here in the United States – because we are a good race.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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