[Viewpoint] Lee and the concept of ‘centrism’

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[Viewpoint] Lee and the concept of ‘centrism’

‘Centrism” is a term with multiple layers of meaning in Korean society. Generally, it denotes the middle, between the conservative and the progressive. In an active sense, it includes both the conservative and the progressive. When interpreted passively, it is a limited ideology, belonging to neither conservatism nor progressivism. In other words, centrism means “productive integration” and “ambiguous compromise” at the same time.

On an ideological spectrum, the scope of centrism is wide. It ranges from conservative-centrists, who promote the idea of a “social market economy” to progressive-centrists, who advocate “the third way.” Indeed, various ideologies lay claim to centrism.

In the case of the third way, the British Labour Party promoted the “radical middle” while the German Social Democratic Party promoted “Neue Mitte” and saw political successes in the mid and late 1990s. Sociologist Ulrich Beck had called the third way the “neoliberal left.”

The most typical example of centrism of today is the grand coalition in Germany. In 2005, that coalition between the right and the left came into being, following the example of the 1960s. The coalition government, led by Prime Minister Angela Merkel, has pushed forward pragmatic reforms to vitalize the market, heighten competitiveness and create more jobs to protect the unfortunate.

On the eve of the September elections, the alliance between the Social Democratic Party and the coalition of the Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union is expected to end. However, the grand coalition has shown that the influence of ideology is gradually dwindling in the era of globalization.

The history of Korean society’s centrism is interesting. After Japanese colonial rule ended, the centrist line existed to seek cooperation between the left and the right. But it was not until after the 1987 democratization movement that it took deep roots. What’s important is the peculiar nature of Korea’s centrism. With the national separation, progressivism was generally not politically acceptable, so a significant number of progressive figures promoted their ideology as “centrist reform.”

While the ideological spectrum of the West often shows the two-way structure between conservatism and progressivism, in Korea, a three-way structure of conservatism, centrism and progressivism has long been established due to the country’s unique historical and social background.

Based on this model, I believe the classic example of Korea’s centrist government was seen in the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. The two governments promoted conservative market policies and progressive welfare reform. Because of such characteristics, the two administrations were criticized by the conservatives as “leftist governments” and by the progressives as “neoliberal governments.” In a nutshell, while the two administrations’ political values were progressive, they can fairly be recalled as “progressive-centrist” governments.

Many governments from around the world are turning to centrism in the aftermath of globalization and the shock it sometimes causes. Globalization triggers competition between nations and companies and such competition can naturally breed extreme polarization that needs to be countered. In order to heighten competitiveness, a market’s energy should be improved. In order to slow down polarization, policies protecting society’s vulnerability should be implemented. In other words, a centrist policy needs to chase two rabbits at the same time in order to achieve success. Since the financial crisis spawned from the United States of last fall, neoliberalism has seen some changes. Taking that situation into account, a transition to centrism was unavoidable for many governments.

The Lee Myung-bak administration recently announced that it will promote “centrist pragmatism” and improve people-friendly policies. Its new agenda has been received with split reactions. Some say that the policy was only sugarcoated centrism, while others said the Lee administration is returning to the ways of the Roh administration. Of course, some others say the administration has simply reasserted its initial slogan of centrist pragmatism, which had been promoted during the presidential transition and the early days of the term.

From the view of an observer, the Lee administration probably understands now the agony and struggles of the Roh administration.

Let me say two things about centrist pragmatism. First, there is no gap in history. In order to achieve active integration, not passive compromise, the Lee administration must learn lessons from past administrations, rather than erase them. Second, in order to achieve centrism successfully, not only a people-friendly economic policy is necessary, but political and social changes must also come together. Without respecting a democratic governance focused on solid communication, the actual effects of centrism will be smaller than expected.

Strategically, the implementation of a policy is more important than announcing a slogan. Most of the people want “politics of substance” that will actually change their lives. They do not want “politics of rhetoric.” I wish the best for the Lee administration in trying to achieve centrist pragmatism.


*The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University.


by Kim Ho-ki
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