[OUTLOOK]Stabilizing role of the middle classThe voting season has arrived, and professional politicians as well as ordinary people are talking about politics. Everyone is an expert or seems to be, as they talk about candidates, election strategy and possible election outcomes. Analysis after analysis makes the rounds.
For ordinary citizens to have an interest in the election is certainly a good thing. If people were not interested, that would be a danger sign of something wrong with our democracy. The election process serves to represent the opinion of the people, since a direct democracy is impracticable. Hence, if the participation is too low or if the voting process is not as free as it should be, the democracy is in danger.
In such senses, Korea should itself consider lucky. Although our history of democracy is still young, the conditions and atmosphere in which elections take place are free, and voters have a keen interest in politics. Every move by the politicians is followed with genuine interest. It seems that there is little danger that the election process might go wrong.
Nevertheless, as a coin has a flip side, elections are also a problem even when they go well, because they can be a tool to divide society. As one can easily see from the current presidential primaries, elections in our country drive deep wedges among the people and create opposing camps. Especially this year, the presidential election seems to divide our society more than ever before. It seems that the whole country will be divided into liberal and conservative camps or caught up in the opposition of young generation against old guard.
Nevertheless, trying to change the election process will not help much. Regionalism will continue to exist even if a cabinet system were to replace the president-centered system. On the contrary, maybe even more regionalism might occur in the legislature, driving an even deeper rift.
Then how are we to solve social discord? First we have to take a closer look at what social discord is. In a complex society such as Korea's, discord is unavoidable, and it may be an absolute necessity for democracy. Those who dream of purity and perfection might find ideal a society in which only consensus exists and integration is achieved at the highest level.
But as Karl Marx's failed theory has proved, these are dangerous thoughts that could lead to disastrous ends. The force that seeks to integrate society in one direction might feel an impulse to remove any opposing party or individual offering different viewpoints. This is why idealism with a flavor of romanticism is dangerous.
Totalitarianism is not the work of realists. It results from the illusions of purists who refuse to give up their ideal absolutes.
But there is another hidden danger that we should be aware of. In guarding against idealism, realism might itself be taken to an absolute. If that were to happen, it would mean that there was little room to accept any social change. As a result society would become a dull place and right-wing ideology might become as extreme as left-wing.
It seems that the problem with elections is not so much with the creation of social discord as that this social discord develops into a fundamental base for extremism; this is what we should be aware of.
In order to prevent society from going to extremes, there must be a large middle class. In a complex society there is always discord between right and left, but it is the responsibility of the middle class to reject slogans with a hint of romanticism and select the appropriate course that brings the right change and stability to the society.
The middle class is the main force that keeps the proper balance between discord and harmony, and it is this delicate balance that is the driving force behind a society's development and change for the better.
In such a sense, the importance of the middle class in this year's election cannot be minimized. It is the middle class that holds the key to a stable but constantly improving society.
The writer is the president of the Institute of Social Sciences.
by Kim Kyung-won