Presidential subversion of democracy | Inquirer Opinion
Business Matters

Presidential subversion of democracy

The behavior of the President has turned bitter and vile. Unrestrained rants have goaded supporters to go after perceived enemies even by means of dubious legal and constitutional correctness. The display of tantrum has led to questions about the President’s mental health. But the mystery is the support he continues to command from his base.

As President, he controls vast financial and organizational state resources to dominate channels of public communications and information. He is a primary source of news, and private mainstream media feel compelled to carry the narrative he chooses to spin. He has unparalleled access to the increasingly influential social media platforms. But he cannot operate the machinery of the state to achieve his purposes all by himself. He needs allies in government to extend and enhance his power.


Approval from appointees at the highest level, who act as his alter ego, is almost a given. They are beholden to the President for their positions. Like the rest of the bureaucracy, however, they have the duty to the offices they hold. Their ultimate loyalty should be to the institutions they represent, not to the person who gave them their jobs.

The presidential enablers also include elected officials in the House of Representatives and the Senate. They carry their own mandate from the electorate. But they also recognize the endorsement power of the President, which in many cases helped them win their seats and which they may need in future elections. While they share in the duty to run the government and should support the President’s programs, especially if they belong to his party, they are also accountable for upholding the law and promoting national interests. In a representative democracy with clear separation of powers, they have the essential obligation to keep a check on the executive branch.


Because of the fortuitous opportunity to fill vacancies in the Supreme Court, a president may find himself with the chance to pack the Court with justices whose ideological inclinations reflect his own. This raises the odds, even without recourse to other forms of threats or incentives, that he can count on the Court for favorable decisions.

Legislators and justices represent branches of government coequal with the executive. A governance structure of divided powers was designed to ensure that no single institution or person can control the government. But a popular president can undermine the structures constructed to control tendencies to authoritarian rule. Institutions meant to ensure a balance of power may end up indulging, excusing, and enabling the excesses of a president.

The public has begun focusing on the intentions and actions of these enablers. As Barack Obama once commented, power does not necessarily corrupt individuals. But expanding their power to an excessive level exposes them to the danger of succumbing to self-interest and corruption latent in fallible human beings.

Periodic free and fair elections provide the last recourse to the peaceful transition of political power in a democracy. But the electoral system is not invulnerable to the political ambitions of an incumbent president to maintain his hold on power. Election rules and processes can be massaged and manipulated to produce predetermined results that undermine the will of the electorate. And whether the benefit accrues to the incumbent, his relatives, or his party, the damage to democracy is the same.

Elections impose a stress test on democratic systems. But who would have imagined that the United States would suffer what Susan Rice, its former ambassador to the United Nations, described as a “near-death experience”? More bureaucrats and Republican politicians, including Attorney General William Barr, are breaking away from presidential conspiracy theories about rigged elections, acknowledging the national embarrassment and the danger to the health and security of the country they present. But so many appear still shackled to Donald Trump.

More Americans now recognize the threats to democracy, even where its institutions have deep roots, that can come from within the ruling government itself. It is a cautionary lesson for younger, more fragile democracies.



Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.


Business Matters is a project of the Makati Business Club ([email protected]).

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TAGS: democracy, politics, rants, Rodrigo Duterte
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