A FEW nights ago, my friend Milo Anzo excitedly told me that he had come across a great movie on Netflix that he knew I would like. It was all about this lady publisher and her paper, he said, and there were political issues involved. Plus, he added, the woman was portrayed by none other than the great Meryl Streep.
“Was it about the Washington Post?” I asked, and he said yes. “Ok,” I said and so we watched The Post while I was giving him a running commentary on Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War, and Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
I was already in grade school when the United States Supreme Court decided on the cases filed by the Nixon government against the New York Times and the Washington Post that were at the center of the conflict in this movie, and a little less than two decades later I was studying elements of the decision while a student at the UP College of Law.
Somehow I felt like a student of Constitutional Law all over again.
“The Philippines is a democratic and republican state,” our Constitution intones. A state is republican if the administration of its political affairs is conducted by representatives of we the People. There is a need for the institution of representatives because we the People only rarely exercise our power directly as the sovereign (or highest) entity such as when we vote during national and local elections. In all other instances it is our chosen representatives who carry on the business of government, acting in our name and in our interest.
A democratic state is one that resorts to regular, fair and free elections as a means for the exercise by the People of our sovereign will. This can also be expressed through referenda and plebiscites, two other examples of we the People directly exercising our power to express our will. Elections and referenda are by secret ballot — and I am reminded of a joke about elections in a dictatorship where pre-sealed ballots are given to voters to drop into a ballot box. One voter tried to open the ballot and was stopped by election officials; “It’s a secret ballot,” they chided him.
As you can see, authoritarian leaders or even dictators can emerge in a republican and democratic state. That’s because we the People, exercising our free will, could very well vote into power a man, a woman, or a group that is then able to take the reins of power and mangle the constitutional principles to suit his needs. Or set them aside even.
And a democratic state could very well end up one where the majority imposes a tyranny on the minority – because in a democracy the majority always wins. So the minority can lose its rights and end up being treated as less than equal citizens even in a very democratic republic.
That’s why there’s a third principle that is usually included: Liberal. This is taken to mean that the rule of law prevails over a rule of men, a rule of law that includes guarantees for the rights of the minority and as wide a range of freedoms as possible for the citizenry.
Why are freedoms important? Because when we the People delegate our powers to our representatives, entrusting to them even the legitimate use of force through the police or the Armed Forces, it is critical that we the People in turn are protected from a scenario where our representatives will become so drunk with power that we the People no longer find enslaved and no longer sovereign.
This is why a Constitution is drawn up — to set in terms as clear as possible the very limits of power we bestow on our duly-constituted representatives, limits that are to be respected at all times and enforced by the Courts. And that explains the whole drama in the movie
The Post, and the court battle over media’s right to publish the so-called “Pentagon Papers” that revealed how successive US administrations were lying to the American public about the war in Vietnam.
The media’s right to publish was upheld because ultimately the public — the sovereign People — had a right to know.
Republican. Liberal. Democratic.
Is this us in the year 2020?