[TODAY]Pursue a policy with a visionMax Weber had this to say about political speech styles: Speech styles have changed from the age of Cobden, who appealed to reason, through that of Gladstone, who mastered the skills of letting common facts speak for themselves, to the modern times of the Salvation Army, which only moves the public emotionally. He added, “The present state can be rightly called the dictatorship that capitalizes on public sentiment.” Richard Cobden and William Gladstone were British statesmen in the 19th century.
To borrow Weber’s expression, President Roh Moo-hyun has “Julius Caesarian” and “plebiscitarian” tendencies. Mr. Roh was the first presidential candidate in Korean political history to be elected through a public contest and he was elected president largely thanks to the new generation’s emotional candlelight demonstrations. It was recently revealed that labor unions, in a secret document, promised to support him in the 2002 presidential election.
It is no wonder in itself that Mr. Roh joined the ranks of those who put increasing pressure on Samsung under the banner of national sentiment. But the repercussions will appear in various forms of abnormal symptoms in every sector of Korean society for a long, long time.
While criticizing Samsung Group’s argument against the retroactive application of the revised laws governing the financial industry structure, Mr. Roh said that the company’s reaction did not agree with public sentiment even if it did not have legal problems. As a consequence, his remarks added fuel to the flames of attacking Samsung that has been persistently carried out by the governing party and civic groups. If the president makes remarks that place insubstantial public opinion above the law, where will the rule of law go in this country?
Public sentiment presupposes the power of the majority. We have witnessed many unfortunate events in which the government’s rational decision collapsed helplessly under the power of the majority, armed with national or regional sentiment. To seek popularity even after they had seen such cases, the political community and government just keep silent and try to read the minds of the people.
By extension, law and order are seriously disintegrating in Korean society now. I am thrilled at the exactness of the warning given by U.S. columnist Walter Lippman half a century ago. He said, “If a majority opinion controls the government, morbid confusion will take place in the functioning of power. The majority opinion acts like a veto in changing the policy line the government has pursued.” Mr. Lippman said that only vision could organize and contain public sentiment in a system.
President Roh is skilled at the politics of using a majority opinion, which is distinguishable from sound public opinion. He is like a magician of words who makes the people vent their pent-up discontent at an opportune moment with his command of a sensational vocabulary.
If the president spits out words that hurt the sound ethos of society, the destructive force of the words will not become greatly weaker even if the Blue House staff explains later that the true intention of his remarks was different. The president should have the wisdom to spare even good words. Even more, he should spare remarks that could shake the rule of law, promote populism and affect the legislature, investigation and judgment of the interests of the so-called well-faring Seoul National University, Samsung and the Gangnam area are at stake. The approach to help the loser by suppressing the winner of the market would ruin the country by bringing defeat to both the winner and loser.
What is the problem with President Roh? He seems to have a narrow vista of politics. He remains a politician who serves the interest of his party and class and support forces. He overly sticks with the recreation of political power. The answer to the question why Winston Churchill was a great statesman can be that he had a mind of great capacity. Mr. Lippman said that even if Mr. Churchill had fierce anger against his political enemy, his anger did not contain the malice of a small-minded man but the chivalry of a great warrior.
South Korea is not Britain nor is Roh Moo-hyun Winston Churchill. There is a difference in the times and political cultures of the two countries and leaders. To be a good president in South Korea, Mr. Roh does not need to become a Churchill. But as long as the president of Korea is the president, he should meet the minimum standards of a statesman, going beyond the frame of a politician. Unlike a politician, a statesman pursues a policy with a long-term vision at the level of the state, not a regime.
The president is not a civil rights activist. Nor is the president an assemblyman who clings to the interest of a small region. He is the president of Korea who embraces the winner and the loser of the market together. For the president, public sentiment does not exist for him to jump on the bandwagon but rather to filter it in a reasonable system.
* The writer is an adviser and senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie