[OUTLOOK]The dilemmas of democracy

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[OUTLOOK]The dilemmas of democracy

The development of democracy in South Korea is a miraculous achievement. The repressive military dictatorships of the past are quickly becoming memories of bygone days. There is no more reliable sign that one lives in a democracy than the sight of people electing their own president and freely criticizing the government without concern for their personal safety. We have made tremendous political achievements over the last 60 years. And those achievements enable us to reflect on the fundamental merits and demerits of the democratic system.
Probably no one would deny that democracy is the best political system ever invented by mankind. But to Plato, the great philosopher of ancient Athens, where democracy first bloomed, it was one of the worst. He felt this way because the people of Athens had handed down a death sentence to his teacher, Socrates, for absurd reasons, and because the public, swayed by agitating usurpers, was destroying the political community under the pretext of democracy.
Plato, who contemplated the building of an ideal nation, focused most of his energy on the problem of political leaders. In his “Republic,” he offers a blueprint for selecting talented children and nurturing them as national leaders through a strict, all-encompassing course of education that would last more than 10 years. These future leaders, who would live together in a group, separated from their families, were not to be permitted to get married or own property even after reaching adulthood, and would be strictly required to make sacrifices for the community.
Despite his reputation, Plato’s thinking included many anti-democratic and authoritarian elements. His idea of using militaristic Spartan discipline to revive Athens, a society that had been ruined by mob rule, could lead one to the conclusion that Karl Popper came to: that Plato was an enemy of open society. It is clear that he was not a democrat.
But Plato’s theory of an ideal republic exposes the fundamental dilemmas of a democratic society. In the direct democracy of Athens, rhetorically gifted political agitators and the mob that blindly followed them ultimately destroyed Athens, in the name of democracy. A democracy can blossom and draw strength from the dynamics of public participation, but it can also fall for the same reason. It is a dilemma inherent in democracy itself. In our modern democracy, it still exists, though in a slightly different sense.
The politics of images, produced and circulated by mass media, overwhelm Korean democracy. It can easily give the spotlight to shallow tacticians or politicians who are lacking in substance but who possess superficial grandeur.
Agitators praised as heroes, and a public swayed by them, can degrade politics to the level of games and emotional catharsis, while neglecting long-term national goals. The paradox, in other words, is that the collapse of democracy can be hastened by the very public participation that is one of democracy’s core ideas.
Plato’s agonizing over the qualification of a real leader, one who can change the fate of a political community, is valid and significant even today. It is all the more so for us in Korea, where we have seen politicians fail because of problems involving money or family. The desire for a perfect king, with both wisdom and capability, is an unrealistic one in this modern age.
But it is essential that citizens in a democracy be able to spot those politicians who are packaged well but have little of substance to offer. Nurturing and electing able political leaders is definitely an important task, even in the modern democratic politics of today.
There have also been disastrous cases in which democratically elected leaders have abused their power, by making arbitrary decisions about state affairs or otherwise leading the people to catastrophe, under the excuse that they have been elected to a specific term of office and must serve it in full.
Public officials’ terms of office are set by law to guarantee the continuity of the operation of state affairs, and the stability of the representative system. But here we have another paradox: That fixed term of office weakens the public-opinion-based politics that is essential for democracy. To solve such problems, there are systems that give the people the right to dismiss public officials. But it is rare that such systems are activated, in South Korea or elsewhere.
How free is our society from this dilemma, which is also inherent to democracy? It was the power of the citizens that launched Korea into the democratic era. But where does our democracy stand when the nation is shaken, and the people find it harder and harder to earn a living, because of the repeated mistakes of a democratically elected administration?
Though they have inherited the tradition and brilliant achievements of Korean democracy, the incompetent and self-righteous behavior of President Roh Moo-hyun and his “participatory government” show the dilemma of democracy very clearly.

* The writer is a professor of social philosophy at Hanshin University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoon Pyung-joong
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