[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Roh misinterprets U.S. politicsIn an online discussion with civil servants on Aug. 25, President Roh Moo-hyun said that he would adopt an American-style presidential system in dealing with state affairs. This, he argued, would create a distance between the president and party politics, thus giving the president independence from petty partisan strife. President Roh mentioned that the French system of dividing power between the president and prime minister is closer to the intent of the Korean Constitution, but that the people are not yet ready to support such a system.
As with much of what Mr. Roh says, the statement stirred up controversy. It shows, again, that the president desperately wants to be taken seriously as the prime mover of public policy. In this world view, the media and party politicians are distracting competitors that must be sidelined. As competitors, they are driven to undermine the president’s initiatives through criticism and partisan politics. The image of the all-powerful American president who dominates the news and sweeps into Congress to give dramatic speeches thus has great appeal. The problem with this world view, of course, is that it is wrong. A successful democracy needs a balance between centralized and decentralized power. Power must be centralized enough so that people know who is responsible for policy, but it must be decentralized enough so that those responsible for policy do not become dictators. For the same reason, power must also be balanced between national and local governments.
These are the central questions that the framers of the U.S. Constitution debated in the late 18th century. They wanted a leader who could unite the country, but they feared that the leader might become a despot. They wanted a central government that could advance the national interest, but feared that the central government might become a launching pad for despotism. The Constitution is a series of checks and balances that are designed to prevent the rise of despotism while allowing for a strong central government when need be.
President Roh’s interpretation of the American presidency does not reflect the intent of the U.S. Constitution or political reality. The Constitution was designed to prevent the president from becoming a despot, not to give the president hegemony over Congress or other branches and levels of government. At the same time, the framers of the Constitution worried about the possible chaos of direct democracy and developed checks on the will of the people. The indirect election of the president and the unelected Senate (direct election of senators began only in 1914) are examples of that caution. A corrupt or despotic president could be impeached and removed by the Congress, and a problematic presidential candidate could be rejected by the electoral college and the Congress. Though rarely used, both of these checks give the Congress great leverage over the president, as the forced resignation of Richard Nixon and the impeachment of Bill Clinton show.
Party politics developed soon after the Constitution went into effect and have evolved with the times. To win the presidency, a candidate must receive a majority of the electoral votes, thus forcing various political interests to create alliances that in turn become political parties. At times such as the present, the political parties are nearly balanced in power, which heightens political tension. At other times, such as the mid-20th century, one party has a clear majority of support while the other party lags, and must try to win the presidency to exert influence. In either case, the president must deal in politics to advance his agenda. If the president is from the majority party in Congress, he must rally the party, particularly if the majority is narrow, to get enough votes to pass his initiatives into law. If the president is from the minority party, he must divide and conquer by reaching out to sympathetic factions in the majority party.
Where does all of this leave President Roh? He came into office with more support than any other elected president in Korean history. That gave him a chance to advance his agenda regardless of which party was in control of the National Assembly. Instead, he squandered the chance by failing to rally his political base and starting meaningless squabbles with the media. As the economy weakened, key groups in his support base, most noticeably educated white-collar men in their 30s and 40s, began to question the president’s leadership. Once weakened, the president lost the influence that he now seeks in the mystique of the American presidency.
In the end, no leader of a democracy can be above party politics as long as parties exist and elections take place. Successful leaders balance the idealism of their vision with the reality of politics because they know that, in the real world, visions cannot become reality on faith alone. This, if anything, is what is President Roh can learn from successful American presidents.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
by Robert J. Fouser