[Observer]Talking to the grassroots

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[Observer]Talking to the grassroots

Every so often in democratic countries, an election is described as a “watershed” - that is, it divides a political era into “before” and “after.” The American voters’ choice of Barack Obama is being described as such an event.

So, too, in its time, was the Korean presidential election of 2002. Roh Moo-hyun’s triumph was hailed as a victory of tomorrow over yesterday. Roh was seen to have broken the mold of Korean politics and cleared the way for a freer, more democratic future.

When the brash, unpolished Roh won, I wrote on this page that the shock and horror in genteel Korean society evoked the palpitations of genteel America on the electoral victory of the backwoods darling Andrew Jackson in 1828. At Jackson’s inauguration, muddy boots trampled flowerbeds and defiled elegant carpets. Scandalized ladies confided to their diaries the copious flow of corn whiskey and profane oaths.

Roh’s supporters were better behaved, at least around flowerbeds, but in one respect they were like Jackson’s. They saw themselves as champions of the common people, cleansing democracy of the stains and corruptions of entrenched interests.

Obama is considerably more urbane than Roh (or than Andrew Jackson), but he too has presented himself as a mold-breaker.

Beyond installing a different set of policies, he wants to change the way political business is done in Washington.

Both men started out as extreme longshots to win their elections; both had to take on powerful political machines within their parties.

And both made revolutionary use of new Internet technologies.

Roh was the first politician in any democracy to recognize the power of the new electronic technology to organize a support base.

With then-new Ohmynews distributing favorable reports about him into a well-wired Korean netizen mass, and supporters mobilizing voters on election day by Internet and cell phone, Roh Moo-hyun rolled over, first, the power brokers in his own party, and then those of the opposition.

Internet fund raising came to American politics in 2004, but Obama took social networking to unimagined heights in mobilizing his supporters to raise money, organize locally, fight smears and get out the vote.

Now he plans to update Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio “fireside chats” with postings on YouTube.

And he has a huge database, millions of names who can be engaged almost instantly. Hardly a day passes without another e-mail in my in-box, addressing me familiarly as “Hal,” soliciting my ideas to pass on to “Barack,” who purportedly has been impressed by my thoughtfulness and commitment.

And at the bottom of each message is a discreet button: “Donate now.” (For what? Obama’s re-election?)

But if Obama’s and Roh’s motives and methods show similarities, there are important differences between the two men.

Obama seeks to reach across rancorous partisan divisions to find common ground. Roh was a purposefully polarizing figure in a society that he thought was too tightly controlled by privileged institutions - the press, the top universities, the intersecting knots of political and economic power centered on Seoul.

In another important difference, though both men claimed to be focused on the future of their countries, Roh did so by exhuming the past. He spent much of his five years in office identifying historical injustices and attempting to rectify them. He drew up lists of collaborators with Japanese colonialism and favorites of the military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. Too often, he said, they were the same corrupt entities.

Some of his campaigns were quixotic - or perverse. He wanted to reach back 50 or 75 or 100 years and strip (he would say reclaim) assets from the third- or fourth-generation descendants whose families had prospered long ago - unjustly, he would say.

Even though much punditry interprets Obama’s victory as a rectification of the Unites States’ history of slavery and racism, Obama never campaigned on past injustices. In his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he turned to the past only to identify the sources of current problems - political gridlock, economic inequalities, social and cultural clashes - so as to find ways toward a new consensus.

Perhaps, then, the differences between the two men outweigh their similarities. Still, both campaigned to change their countries. Both were seen as “watershed” elections. Roh’s term is now in the history books. Did he succeed?

Even Roh’s supporters for the most part now regard his presidency as a squandered opportunity.

His ideas were noble, they say, but either Korea was not ready for them, or the reactionary forces that he challenged were too strong. I am not so sure.

It is never a good idea to compare reality to Utopia.

Roh was an abject failure, compared to the extravagant expectations of some of his acolytes - and thankfully a failure, compared to the haunting nightmares of his adversaries.

Yet I think that Korea, if not yet perfection on Earth, is a freer, more democratic country than it was in 2002.

One of those who may have underestimated the effect of Roh’s presidency, perhaps, is his successor, President Lee Myung-bak, “the Bulldozer.” He has spent much of his first year learning that Koreans no longer will be bulldozed, whether into a free-trade agreement or a trans-peninsular canal.

President Lee would do well to learn about communicating with the grassroots.

As for Obama, Utopian expectations are - well, either higher or lower, I am not quite sure how to reckon it. A huge number of Americans, including 44 percent of Republicans, think he will cure the current economic crisis. That’s the good news: He starts off with a lot of goodwill.

The bad news is that in the Internet era the blogosphere is merciless and can turn on you instantaneously.

And it’s not just the opposition that is out to get you. As I write, Democratic bloggers are spewing venom about the prospect of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state: Perhaps she “is scheming to manipulate Barack . . .” and so forth and so on. Live by the Internet, die by the Internet.

Well, Mr. Obama, you asked for these problems. If you get weary some days, you could do worse than talk to Roh Moo-hyun about the cursed blessings of the presidency.

*The writer is a former editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by Harold Piper
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