[VIEWPOINT]Dirty politics subverts democracy

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[VIEWPOINT]Dirty politics subverts democracy

A year ago, presidential candidate Roh Moo-hyun pledged that he would open the era of clean politics, and the people believed him. At that time, he appeared to be a fresh outsider, far from the corrupt political community.
To reform the political system, which was tainted by the machine politics and plutocracy, Woodrow Wilson conducted a “$1 campaign” in the presidential election of 1912, claiming that he would achieve clean and innovative politics with the $1 donations from individuals. He ended up winning. But Mr. Wilson, who had been an outsider, also collected a large amount of money from businesses and wealthy people quietly behind the scenes.
This is not to say that we can seek comfort in comparing our situation with that of the United States about a century ago. This is also not to say that President Roh can’t be a great president like President Wilson. This is just to say that clean politics is not something that can be achieved in the short term by electing a president or two.
In fact, we are, more or less, all accomplices in raising illegal campaign funds. Until the overtly-known illegal campaign funding was uncovered, the prosecution had looked on as a handmaiden of politicians, and the Election Commission had managed the election procedures superficially.
Although businesses appear to be the victims of circumstances who had to hand over illegal funds or face consequences, they are also political accomplices who bought a kind of insurance from politicians.
In this process, the biggest victim is the public. Politicians who received dirty money are bound to represent the interest of businesses and the wealthy few. This is not a democracy but a plutocracy.
Nevertheless, even after having witnessed the rampant spread of a tremendous amount of illegal political funds, the “gracious” people “forgave” corrupt politicians and sent them again to the local congress and the National Assembly, and that was, ironically, in the name of clean politics.
Dirty political funds will lead to more shameless and foul political behavior. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon’s minions attempted to break into the Democratic Party’s National Committee offices located at the Watergate Hotel. This infamous scandal, which uncovered the existence of political slush funds, led to Mr. Nixon’s resignation. Likewise, politicians who received dirty money will be engaged in political maneuvers and plots for themselves and for their donors.
Although no one dares to speak out, the present situation can be described as a crisis of democracy, which is our national polity. Elections are not carried out by the people, but by money, and the will of the people is being ignored. The situation is more serious because no one seems exempt from corruption, not even the leading activists who have been an important driving force for democracy in our society.
When the United States gained its independence, the political problem that concerned its founding fathers the most was how to control corruption in the republic. Humans are too vulnerable to be trusted entirely. What the founding fathers finally relied on was the political system of mutual checks and balances, where each part of the political system keeps the other parts in line.
But even democracy sometimes does not work properly, like ours today, and in those times, it’s imperative that people speak out. Thomas Jefferson pointed out that a small revolt of the people has always been good in the past and in his time, he thought it was necessary.
A small revolt demonstrates a sensitive response to the transparency and soundness of the political system and resolutely displays the anger of the people. With such a revolt, the people will protest against corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Right now, we can expect “a small revolt” that may drive a new system through next year’s legislative elections.

* The writer, a professor of American history at Ewha Womans University, is currently at the School of Law at University of Missouri as a visiting professor. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Cho Ji-hyung
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