“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.” -John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1689.
President Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope has been in my reading list for quite a time now. After reading Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue a few years ago, it is fitting to explore Obama’s thoughts about US politics; its dynamics, and evolution through the years. After all, these political figures’ fate intertwined in the 2008 US Presidential elections with Palin running as vice president for Senator John McCain for the Republican party against Obama for the Democratic party along with Sen. Joe Biden. While Palin’s book was an afterthought of the 2008 US Presidential elections, Obama’s was widely considered as a jumpstart to his campaign, with former Senator Gary Hart even calling it a ‘thesis submission for the US presidency.’
In Chapter 3 of his book, then-Senator Obama of Illinois provided insights about the US Constitution which can find parallel application to ours, or at the least will ignite substantial reflection, given that there is a rich history between the United States of America and the Philippines.
Obama slowly described the adjustments he needed to make as a neophyte senator. Like a freshman student, he solicited pieces of advice from his colleagues; some worthy of consideration, others were contradictory. However, if there’s a unanimous advice by the Democrats, it is to immediately pay a visit to Senator Robert Byrd. A long-time member of the Senate, Obama aptly described the Senator from West Virginia as an institution within an institution.
The courtesy visit was more than the usual meet and greet. It’s a significant event between two persons, though while belonging to the same political party, actually have opposing initial beliefs and upbringing which influenced their politics. In the US political spectrum, it is not uncommon to find opposition within party ranks. The differences are confined within, but they exist. Byrd was a prominent figure not only for the Democratic Party but for the Senate as well. His long tenure in chambers was hard to miss and his accomplishments were well documented. For years, his influence in the senate hall resounded. In the same vein, his personal life was scrutinized, dissected, and displayed for public consumption. While Obama thought that this has a limited effect on Byrd’s politics, it’s just but a noble attempt to dissuade an ingrained social philosophy. Be it in the United States or here in the Philippines, public figures’ personal lives are deeply connected to their social and political advocacies.
However, there is a noteworthy difference between the political division in the U.S and in the Philippines. In contrast to the Philippines’ multi-party system currently in place, the land of milk and honey has a very clear political division which many times have spelled the vast difference. The democrats and republicans are two of the oldest political organizations in the world, which for the most part of history were at the opposite spectrums, always trying to outmaneuver the other to gain the upper hand. Jumpshipping from one party to another is not a foreign concept but it’s rare to happen, unlike in the Philippines where political turncoating is automatic every time a new administration steps in.
The established political divide in America prevented the centralization of power to be vested in a polarizing figure; it maintains the balance between the different agencies of government and in effect and theory, prohibits authoritarianism, which Obama described as the common antagonist which the founding fathers wanted to defeat, no matter what political affiliation you are part of. In Obama’s words, ‘conservative or liberal, we are all constitutionalists.’
While it appeals good to the faculty, the great political divide is not all about goodness. To turn a blind eye against the realities of power struggle is to put too much trust and optimism in a system run by humans. Humans, who for all their goodness, are prone to establish biases and prejudices; humans, for all their potentials, also have their personal interests. Humans, for all their defiance, are frail to power and its accessories.
Whether the delay is really out of patriotic care or just purely for the political show, it cannot be ascertained with accuracy, but whatever the reason behind the impediment is, the ordinary people could care less. As bluntly put by President Obama, the people only see the results, not the process to attain it. At the end of the day, if there is a delay, the most affected are those who are the subject of debate, not the ones debating.
Still, at least in the structure of the United States, the established variance of voices in its politics is better. It is expected that the opposition will be present and the discourse will not be saturated by a single school of thought. Dissent should be prominent and no matter how unpopular it will be, contrary voices need to be heard.
It might be wishful thinking but I sincerely hope it can happen in the Philippines as well. Not necessarily to only have just two political parties like in the United States –because the Philippines had that before and it didn’t work the same way it worked for America– but what I wish for the Philippines is the respect and reverence given for dissent, the presence of real opposition and loyalty to the Constitution. The Philippines, for all its glorious sacrifices just to attain democracy, has been indifferent with contrary views and voices, branding them as mere noises and nuisances, not thinking that the liberty we are all enjoying now is rooted primarily in the struggle of our national heroes for our voices to be heard. The Philippines, for all its greatest men and women who resisted and fought for our liberty and freedom, has viewed opposition as those who hamper success to happen. The Philippines, for all its brilliant statesmen, has underappreciated the importance of our Constitution.
The Constitution, be it America’s or ours, is crafted with the noblest ideas in mind for the common interest of all people. It’s not just an antiquated document plainly written to address all issues and concerns but is more of a guiding light that serves as a compass to arrive at a decision that will benefit the majority. The founding fathers of America, despite their profound wisdom, are not gods who can peek into the future to draft an inflexible document and expect the same to provide answers to questions in the future. The founding fathers, for all their brilliance, gifted the Americans a blueprint for a society that is ever-changing, a masterfully crafted plan that is amenable to change, all while maintaining stability and security in the society, to alleviate the fear of anarchy. The U.S Constitution was ratified in 1788 and never has been revised, but if the 27 amendments are any indication, it just proves that as the world progresses, the supreme law needs to keep up. The constitution cannot be interpreted solely on the basis of the events that surrounded its birth, based on the wisdom of the founding fathers. The wisdom of the founding fathers, massive as it was, will never be ascertained with absolute certainty; for while they are evidently way ahead of their time, they are not seers or prophets who know the future. Bits and parts can be gleaned from some of the texts as their prints are embedded in those, but it cannot be applied 200 years after as surely, circumstances and times differ. If there is one thing the U.S Constitution has proven, it is that it can withstand the challenges brought by time. And for America, that’s one thing to be thankful for.
Not to be discounted is the Philippines. Having numerous constitutions is not a manifestation that our foundation is weak or that our greatest men and women do not have the same level of wisdom the founding fathers of America had. I would actually beg to differ to anyone who would posit as such. In fact, I believe ours is, if not superior, are of the same level as their American counterparts. It needs to be highlighted that our first constitution was formulated when the Philippines was in the middle of a war. It was a product of revolutionary minds, fighting to free their country from foreign invaders. Every revision of our constitution was preceded by a momentous uprising, spearheaded by ordinary Filipinos clamoring for change. The circumstances are largely different but the effects are profoundly the same. The 1987 Constitution, the longest in all aspects, has innovative provisions reinforcing the power of the Filipino people. We have the people’s initiative which allows us to directly amend the Constitution or directly enact a legislation without the need for the approval of the Congress or the participation of the President. The 1987 Constitution established the party-list system, although abused, misused, and saturated by those who are purely driven by greed for power, has for its noble intention the representation of marginalized and underrepresented sectors of the society.
America was not at the receiving end of multiple foreign invasions, save when the Native Americans were displaced and disregarded by the founding fathers when they crafted the Constitution, as Obama regretfully admitted. America was never sold to another country, nor was it occupied and indoctrinated by a foreign entity for 300 years. It did not have a president who succumbed to the temptations of power. The Philippines was, had, and did. Yet, despite everything, the greatest people of the past never forget to think about the future. Despite being challenged by times and constrained by exceptional circumstances beyond its control, the Philippines has never surrendered. And I don’t see us surrendering anytime soon. The Constitution is our work, the embodiment of Filipino ideals. It exists because we exist.
If there is one thing that the Filipinos should do better is to tell themselves we are the most powerful, to give more trust and respect to our Constitution, and assert every right given by it, use every power provided by it, and never allow anyone, either a foreigner or a local, to trump and disrespect it.
Remember, We, the Filipino people, are sovereign. We should not be afraid.