Atty. Barry Gutierrez: Navigating the New Normal
By: Barry Gutierrez
The system of checks and balances that lie at the heart of our democracy is anchored on one crucial assumption: that there is a limit to institutional tolerance.
Simply put, we expect that there is a limit to what institutions such as Congress, the courts, the professional bureaucracy, the media, and ultimately, the public at large, will tolerate, and when that limit is breached, they will start to push back. It is this threat of an eventual pushback that acts as a check to the abuse of power, and, at least ideally, keeps our system of government in balance.
Of course, just how far that institutional tolerance can be stretched is what separates advanced democracies from fledgling – perhaps even floundering – ones. In certain European parliamentary democracies, for instance, relatively minor abuses – at least to our more cynical eyes –such as a public official charging a private purchase to a government credit card, have been enough to trigger a fairly strong institutional pushback. In our own recent experience, it has usually taken a bit more – well supported, widely publicized allegations of corruption and/or unexplained wealth, for example, or repeated and apparently uncorrected incidents of government incompetence and/or neglect.
One of the biggest achievements of our incumbent national leadership has been to stretch the tolerance of core public institutions to limits beyond anything we have previously experienced or even imagined. It has lowered the standard for itself, and in doing so, created an environment where the most outrageous behavior, some of which may straddle or even cross the line into illegality, can pass by unopposed, or even, unremarked.
The most obvious, and most colorful, examples come, of course, from the President himself. From the time of his emergence as a Presidential hopeful, we have been treated to nearly two years of the repeated spectacle of his cussing, his crude sexual references, and his unapologetic sexism. And while many of us may continue to insist that his behavior is unacceptable, is offensive, even harmful, we must admit that we have gotten used to it. When he curses his perceived critics during the State of the Nation Address (SONA), it is no longer met with the same disbelieving outrage, but with frustrated resignation. We may flinch in disgust, or seethe with rage, but in the end, we wave it off with a resigned “Eh ganyannamantalagasiya, eh.” It is not even news anymore.
Our President’s language is, unfortunately though, just the tip of this particular iceberg. We have also become accustomed to his frequent departures from verifiable truth, and, perhaps more alarmingly, his repeated public declarations that strongly tend to undermine democratic institutions and the Constitutional order.
His go to figure of “four million drug addicts,” for instance, is yet to be supported by any actual study, whether by the government or any other group, and in fact, is completely contradicted by the 2016 statistics from the Dangerous Drugs Board that peg the number at 1.8 million. “Four million” actually contradicts earlier figures the President himself has cited – 3 million during the campaign, and 3.7 million during his first SONA – and from all accounts seems to be a number pulled from thin air. And yet, despite its glaring lack of basis, it is a number that Congress, public officials, the media, and the public have apparently come to accept, or at least, have ceased to consistently contest.
The same goes for his pronouncement that the Constitution is a “piece of paper,” his repeated dismissal of the importance of human rights, and his public defiance of the authority of the Ombudsman and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to investigate abusive officials. These frequent, open challenges to the Constitutional order, would invite condemnation, or perhaps even more serious consequences, in other times. But again, the President’s consistently outrageous, nearly caricature-ish behavior, in the first year of his term has successfully stretched tolerances and lowered expectations, to an extent where it is anybody’s guess just how low he will be allowed to go.
Another sad consequence of this state of affairs is a seeming desperation, on the part of many of us, to look for the silver lining, to “see the good” in all that is happening. To look for some measure of the familiar, and much missed, sanity amid the bedlam that now prevails.
Hence, the resounding acclaim that greets even the most modest achievements of the President and his administration. The usual landmarks we have come to rely on to judge government have all but vanished, so when the President does something reasonable, and therefore relatable, like sign a free education bill into law, even his critics, eager to hang on to the familiar sliver of normalcy, are quick to heap praises on his head. Whether this is in the hopes of encouraging more of the same behavior (and less of the more outrageous kind), or perhaps, simply to be able to hold on to something more akin to what went before.
The President, of course, is not the only one to benefit from stretched institutional tolerances. These days, there seems to be no shortage of officials in the national government who get to say, and do, the most insane things, yet coast by without any immediate consequence. You have a House Speaker who has publicly assailed the well-established principle of judicial supremacy, and who openly admits to, and in fact revels in, his marital infidelity. You have a Secretary of Justice who has questioned the humanity of those accused of crime. You have a police chief who incites the public to burn down the houses of accused criminals, and who publicly admits to receiving expensive gifts that he should be prohibited from accepting under various laws. You have a number of mid-level executive officials who engage in hyper-partisan political speech online, often involving the deliberate spread of falsehoods and incitements to violence against political opponents.
A somewhat obscure word that has seen popular use in recent times is “kakistocracy,” defined as “government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens.” This is the new normal. And we should be frightened by how fast we have gotten used to it.