Democracy Threatened

Guest author J. Brian Atwood, former National Democratic Institute President and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator, discusses how education is the key to preserving democratic values in an era of conspiracy theories and polarized political combat in the Philippines, the United States, and around the world.

The election of Ferdinand Marcos’s son "BongBong” in the Philippines and the revelations of the January 6 Committee in the United States, were the focus of a recent panel at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington DC.

I was joined by two dynamic union leaders, President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Annie Geron, General Secretary of the Philippines Public Services Labor Independent Confederation, in a discussion of democracy’s challenges and a call to action to preserve democratic institutions in both countries.

Labor unions were in the forefront of the wave of democratic change in the 1980s and 90s; they continue to see their mission as defending human and democratic rights, not only for their own members, but for society as a whole. Unions played a central role in that era in the battle to overthrow communism and autocratic governments.

The National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL) in the Philippines was a coalition of union, business and religious leaders who joined to assure that every vote in the Philippines "snap” election of 1986 was counted. The international delegation organized by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and its Republican counterpart offered testimony to the world to support NAMFREL’s claim that the elder Marcos had tried to steal the election. The "People Power” revolution that resulted expelled Marcos and his kleptocratic cronies. Now a Marcos with equally questionable ethical standards has returned to power.

The 1986 Philippines election observation mission was the first major effort by the National Democratic Institute. As its president at the time, it was satisfying to know that NDI contributed to an historic change in that country. I returned to the Philippines a few years later to represent President Clinton at the 50th anniversary of that nation’s independence from the United States.

Sitting next to President Fidel Ramos, we watched the reenactment of the ceremony that had taken place in the same location five decades before. The President told me that he had been in the crowd as an 18-year-old young man who in the month after would attend the US Military Academy at West Point.

As we watched a pulley system raise the Philippines flag and lower the American, a gust of wind caused the two flags to wrap around one another. I turned to President Ramos and said, "Maybe that is a metaphor for the relationship between our two countries.” He laughed and we shook hands.

President Ramos, a former General, was exactly what the Philippines needed in those years. We traveled together to Mindanao after that ceremony, a region suffering from a long conflict between Muslims and Christians. Ramos had created a commission made up of people from both faiths to study the causes of the conflict. The Christian community strongly opposed the commission and came out in numbers to let Ramos know.

The protest along the route from the airport to General Santos City was a potential security threat and I could feel the tension riding alongside the President. Much to my surprise Ramos told his driver to stop the car. He got out and went over to the boisterous crowd and talked to them. They were as shocked as I was. He listened to their grievances and explained his position as they calmed down.

I will always remember that act of courage. It was a respectful gesture by a democratic president, an acknowledgement of "People Power.”

In the succeeding years a wave of democratic change swept over the world. NDI next took on the Pinochet regime in Chile, supporting the "No” campaign and helping courageous Chilenos to bring democracy back to that country. The union movement was instrumental in bringing Solidarity to power in Poland and country after country in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union throw off the yoke of communism and transitioned to democracy.

Today the democratic tide is regressing, not only in the Philippines, but in the United States as well. Here, the January 6 Committee is systematically revealing how close America came to a coup d'etat. We endured four years of a president who flaunted the law and the ethical standards we had come to expect of that high office. President Trump was impeached twice and he continues to promote the lie that the last election was stolen.

Our panel discussed the obstacles we face in preserving democratic values in an era of conspiracy theories and polarized political combat. Education is a key.

In the Philippines, 56 percent of the voters in the last election were too young to have been a part of the People Power revolution, too young to have known the corruption that characterized the earlier Marcos regime, and too susceptible to a social media campaign that painted that era as a golden age.

In the United States we face similar challenges as many believe the "Big Lie” and participate in debilitating "Stop the Steal” activities. We agreed that a functioning democracy requires a strong civil society, citizens who appreciate their role in holding government accountable and who respect the rule of law.

In the 50 years the United States ruled the Philippines, we learned that colonialism contradicted our national ethos. Yet, the American education system, a system that emphasized critical thinking and evidence-based decision-making, was a worthy legacy, and Annie Geron agreed wholeheartedly.

That system is being challenged in both countries today. In the U.S., populist school boards are denying students critical information about American history, apparently out of fear that students will feel responsible for slavery, or the denial of women’s rights, or the horrible treatment of native Americans. A head-in-the-sand approach to education will deny students an appreciation for how far we have come as a nation in “bending the arc of history toward justice.”

Randi Weingarten and Annie Geron have been in the forefront of efforts to revitalize civics education, to make it more than rote learning; bringing it to life for the modern student. They see the need to make young people aware of the threats to democracy and the need to create a sense of community around democratic values. They fight for their members, but they also fight to create a civil society and a political system that is capable of achieving the common good—not only in their own countries but around the globe. It was an honor to join them in an exciting call to action.

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